Related to Olympics coverage, NBC featured a story this morning, about “the knowledge,” which is the 50,000 streets and thousands of sites and restaurants, etc., that London cabbies have to learn, so they can quickly take passengers anywhere. Our cabbie in London took us quickly from Heathrow to our hotel in Victoria without a missed street. Another cabbie knew instantly how to get to John Wesley’s Chapel from Victoria (a few miles away), though he said he hadn’t been asked to for a long time. When I noted this on Facebook, a friend who had been to London twice added that the certification for London cabbies is the equivalent to a college degree, and about as expensive!
All this made me think of a different kind of local knowledge. I had lunch with the pastor of the church a while back. He took me to a place in nearby Kirkwood, MO. He mentioned that the building had once been a furniture store, and although the restaurant went by a different name, people still referred to the place as “the furniture store.”
I said that my family and I used to live in a community where a local landmark was “the old Sears store.” The building now contained several different shops and businesses. Nothing identified it as a former Sears place. But folks still said things like “Turn left a block past the old Sears store.” Newbies to the community, as we had been, were very confused by such directions!
The pastor said that he served a rural community and was told to turn at the Old Schoolhouse intersection. He got completely lost and asked for directions. The person chuckled, “That schoolhouse was torn down twenty years ago!”
In the place we previously lived, I asked a church friend the location of a store, and she said, “Just to the left of old Route 21.” I figured out that she meant a certain street which had once been U.S. 21, but that highway had long since been rerouted, and nothing on the street today indicates its earlier designation.
Similarly my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois. On the “Vandalia Memories” Facebook page, some of us chuckle that we still call stores by the names they had thirty or forty years ago, not out of disrespect for the current owners but from habit. A classmate has an excellent music store on the main street, but instead of calling it “The Noise” some of us forget and call it “Merriman’s” or “Bo-K,” businesses there in the 1960s and 1970s.
When you move to a new community, you have to learn aspects of the place: locations of good restaurants, the nearest post office, good places to service your car, and other things. You have to learn local perception of things: which beloved sports teams are rivals, for instance. New to St. Louis, we learned that folks are interested in which high school you attended; it’s a way of connecting with people, in a way. In some communities, unfortunately, you never quite catch what makes folks tick, and you come away regretful that your life there was less positive than it could’ve been. But usually, if a community is friendly, and if you have an interest in people, you can ascertain local interests and make enjoyable connections.
One thing that I love about “local knowledge,” though, is discovering those beloved places which people hold in memory. Folks were accustomed to the furniture store, the schoolhouse, or whatever the place was. Now, the store is something else, or the place is torn down, but the places remain landmarks: landmarks of the hearts, I’m tempted to say.
I found this quote from Katherine Mansfield. “How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you—you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences—like rags and shreds of your very life.”