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Maps and Legends

I’m looking out over my hot pastrami sandwich, through the streaky storefront window of Kagan’s, out toward the intersection where Second meets Boolan. From my red-vinyl-and-chrome booth seat, I can see into the coffee-bar area of the more popular Bad Monument Café across the street, bustling there on the northeast corner between Puckett’s Archery Supplies and Dee-Vinyl’s.

No, I’m not. That never happened. Those places don’t exist. It’s fiction.

I’m drinking a $12 Mojito in Bar Marmont—that’s on Sunset, between Sweetzer and Crescent Heights—watching the bald hostess, Constance, fiddle with a riding crop while giving the bum rush to a loudmouth muscle-bound type who’s insisting he’s here with the Cher impersonator.

No I’m not. I’ve never been to Bar Marmont, which does exist, and at that location. Constance is real, too, I’ve heard, and she probably has nights such as this, but none that I’ve ever witnessed.

In fact, I’m having a vague revelation over a croissant and coffee while sitting in Ozzie’s on the corner of 7th Avenue and Lincoln Place, in Brooklyn: a revelation regarding the specificity of the stories that we tell ourselves in creating ourselves. This one sounds real, and as it happens is real.

I was there visiting friends, and took an afternoon to wander Park Slope alone. My friends in New York, I’ve noticed, intone place names and street addresses with almost liturgical solemnity. And though I’ve teased them when, via phone, they’ve given me descriptions of their activities detailed enough for mapping—as if I were cradling the handset in the crook of my neck, pushing monopoly-game-piece reproductions of my pals around a tabletop Manhattan in my situation room—I found myself doing much the same thing. I scribbled in my pocket notebook, just below the date, the address of the coffee shop—because that made this coffee shop different from all others. This was one specific coffee shop, with connotations attached to it for its location and to me for my presence there: I am someone who has coffee in Park Slope, at Ozzie’s on 7th and Lincoln. I realized that I was thinking this, and thinking it must mean something favorable, dramatic or exciting, and it surprised me.

Maybe it’s the product of a childhood spent in towns and cities small enough to be navigated almost exclusively by landmark—the coffee shop, the fire
station, the movie theater, the quarry—or, the utilitarian mindset fostered by that lack of choice, but this geographical glamour is a late-life phenomenon for me. Mobility and the attendant proliferation of options allows for the organization of locales in a hierarchy of status—there’s a market value to places, there are brand identities. And, apparently, I’ve bought into it.

Off the top of my head, I don’t know the brand of the shirt I’m wearing today; I feel no swell of status if I’m asked the make of my car; I got my personal computer as a hand-me-down, and in a fit of pique gave away my PDA to a friend who had more use for it (and a more comfortable relationship with technology). I don’t receive catalogs at home, I don’t have a favorite clothing designer, and I rankle at the thought of waiting in line or paying a cover to enter a bar offering no entertainment. Nonetheless, it turns out, I’m a snob, a partisan. I may have to out myself as a budding place-name fetishist, an addressophile.

And the funny thing is, I’m horrible at it. Seriously, I’ve got a rotten memory for street names and an almost remedial ability for complex spatial relations. I’m about as likely to form a reliable mental map of a city or region as I am to do the Sunday New York Times crossword entirely in my head, to play multiple games of chess simultaneously or to crap monkeys. But more and more, I find, I enjoy rolling those rich phrases off my tongue, like a Century 21 rep on E: the Shoreham on 55th, just past 5th; or Lounge Ax on North Lincoln, just north of the intersection where it meets Fullerton and Halsted; or Man Ray at 34 Rue Marbeuf in the Eighth Arondisemont; or seat 18 on British Airways flight BA0027 bound for Hong Kong International Airport, then south 45 minutes to the new Repulse Bay Hotel to gaze into the South China Sea.

I’ve actually visited some of these places, some repeatedly, or I’ve been in the neighborhoods, or read about them, or just now looked them up on the Internet, and yet the words all have equal thrill. Because in some weird way, they’re all fictional to me. They’re all aspects of a story I’m telling myself about myself, a story in which I have great woozy insights while sucking back double bourbons in the chill modernist confines of the Shoreham, thinking, “This is what the world looks like from the inside of an ice cube”; or in which I sit in Lounge Ax wondering what woozy insights Ryan Adams is having as he yells incoherently, gesticulating and slopping his own bourbon on his jeans; or in which I muse on the neocolonialist aspects of a tourist economy from a terrace overlooking the South China Sea. These are the convincing realist’s details I use to create a persona around me, an interior and ongoing monologue that serves as an—arguably illusory—stable self.

I’m sitting at a Dell desktop, on the fourth floor of the former Mayfair Communication building just west of the intersection of Washington and Lark, typing a version of me into a credible elsewhere.

—John Rodat

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