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Not Lost, Just Map-Challenged

By John Kelly
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

In the past we humans knew how to get from Point A to Point B.

We could navigate by the stars. We could read the moss on the side of a tree or the blades of grass bent by a migrating herd of caribou. We instinctively knew where we were going, and if we didn't, well, we'd fall into a glacier and get flash frozen -- which even then was better than having to stop and ask for directions.

Today, though, we dare not release the parking brake on the SUV without a detailed printout from Mapquest on the seat next to us. Or, better yet, with a colorful screen on the dashboard gently counseling us on when to turn right and when to turn left.

The map -- that pathetic relic of the 20th century -- is obsolete.

But a map was all I was armed with when I went in search of a house in Arlington not long ago. I hadn't bothered to punch my coordinates into Mapquest before casting off from home, and my minivan is woefully under equipped: no DVD player, no satellite navigation system, no Bowflex home gym or solar-powered convection oven.

Still, I was confident, cocky even. I had an ADC map of the region, and I had an address, an address on 32nd Street.

Now, I may have been an English major, but I can count to 32, and I know that it comes after 31, which comes after 30. All I had to do, I figured, was get in the general vicinity -- the high 20s, say -- and then let numbers be my friend.

Then I discovered that the person who laid out this part of Arlington had a sense of humor. I wasn't expecting a rectilinear grid, exactly. But I was expecting some sort of order. I wasn't expecting numbered streets to dead-end into petulant little cul-de-sacs or to cup-handle back onto themselves, like a snake swallowing its tail.

I wasn't expecting numbered streets to be shadowed by numbered roads , so that there appeared to be two separate Arlingtons built on top of one another.

I wasn't expecting entire blocks to just disappear so that I'd drive past 31st Street and then 33rd Street, wondering all the while what happened to 32nd Street.

Finally I pulled over to a side street and consulted my map, tracing my finger along the meandering route I'd taken. When I came to the edge of the page, my blood ran cold at what I read: "Here be dragons."

No, just kidding. What it said was: "See ADC's 'NORTHERN VIRGINIA STREET MAP' For Continuation."

I was sunk. I didn't have that map, and there was no way my original plan -- to just stumble across the correct block of 32nd Street -- was going to work. It's not like I was in Washington or Brasilia.

I've made one concession to the 21st century, and it's a portable device that allows me to speak with someone in another location. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed my assistant, Julie .

I looked for the nearest street sign, gave her my location and waited while she entered the data into her computer. She talked me in for a safe landing.

What's in a Name?

Speaking of maps, if you look at one you'll see that there is a county in Northern Virginia called Fairfax. There is a county called Arlington. And there is a city called Alexandria.

Spend any time in Arlington or Fairfax and you will learn that there are parts of those counties that also call themselves Alexandria. Fairfax's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, for example, is in Alexandria, although it isn't part of the city school system.

Blame the Postal Service. It just wants to deliver your mail efficiently. And it does that by organizing its post offices around cities, not counties. That's why people residing in such Fairfax County Zip codes as 22306, 22312 and 22315 write "Alexandria" on their letters.

The Alexandrification of Northern Virginia can sometimes be annoying, especially when something really bad or really good happens in "Alexandria." Who gets to take the credit -- or the blame?

"You get a little proprietary about where you live," said Jacqueline Levy , Alexandria's cable TV and consumer affairs administrator. She thinks it's more correct to refer to the "Alexandria portion of Fairfax County" for addresses not in the city of Alexandria.

Jacqueline says there is no inherent difference between someone who lives in the city of Alexandria vs. the Alexandria portion of Fairfax County. "People are people," she said. "People are the same everywhere."

There is already a neighborhood whose colloquial name reflects the conjoined status of its location: Arlandria.

Couldn't we do the same with those parts of Fairfax County that aren't actually in the city of Alexandria? I kind of like the ring of "Faxandria."

A Pain in the Neck

Given how many commercials and coming attractions there are before movies these days, My Lovely Wife and I thought we could arrive a little late recently to "Walk the Line."

Big mistake. The theater was packed, and the only empty seats were in the front row. We looked at each other, shrugged, then sat down.

Movies sure look interesting when you're sitting in the front row. Everybody looks like a pylon: fat on the bottom, skinny on top.

Whenever Joaquin Phoenix strode across the screen, it looked like he was wearing huge Frankenstein shoes. And Reese Witherspoon's perky little chin looked like the Hoover Dam.

My e-mail:kellyj@washpost.com

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