In September last year I was visiting New York, staying with friends in the Bronx, not far from the Fordham Road subway stop. One night I went to visit another friend elsewhere in the city, and we spent a pleasant evening doing the kind of things old friends do when they are briefly on the same continent and not sure when they'll next see each other: we ate at a restaurant with no cutlery, we meandered between bars, we sauntered along boulevards and avenues in search of things that would make me gawp. Life was good. New York is a bright city even in the darkness.
I left my friend at his rooms and descended into the subway, feeling about as confident as anyone can when faced with the NY train labyrinth late at night when armed with a comedy accent, an air of innocent confusion and a genetic lack of any sense of direction. Somehow, a little after midnight, I made it to Fordham Road. This was when that profound absence of geographical prowess started to cause trouble. My walk back wasn't long, but I swiftly learnt that the problem with the grid system is that every direction looks fairly similar, and each pavement can feel just right enough to make you walk along it for half a mile or so the wrong way. After a few false starts, a few unfamiliar sights and a few doubts, I decided I needed help.
One of the first things I learnt about New York was that local love of not just giving directions but discussing them, debating them, drawing in whole crowds of passers-by to analyse the best route across town. In my first few days there I'd ended up in more conversations with strangers than I'd managed in three years of London. Yup, it's a cliché, but from my pretty limited experience it's true: New Yorkers really do like talking to people. I suppose when you've got a train system that complicated and a city that exciting you get used to having bewildered tourists standing around blinking like owls out in the day.
So, having been saved by strangers several times already, I decided it was worth another try. Sadly, it turns out that these things work a bit differently when you're pottering around the Bronx, alone, in the middle of the night. Like I say: innocent confusion.
Now, I wasn't a complete halfwit, and I wasn't about to plead for help from the nearest gang of kids in baseball caps, keychains and rolled-up trousers. Fortunately there didn't seem to be anyone shifty out that night. Or, in fact, anyone at all. It was a quiet evening, with the bricks and tarmac kept company by little but rats, pigeons and the odd lost traveller. Fortunately, someone did eventually come along, and it was someone who looked pleasant and unthreatening enough to be worth talking to: a plump, thirty-something black woman with a shopping bag, sensible shoes and an air of knowing where she was going.
"Excuse me," I said, apparently kicking off a whole string of Hollywood memories of tall, gaunt English villains who emerge from country houses and boarding schools with a complete lack of morals and qualms. She stopped and looked at me. She seemed startled, and a little suspicious, but I thought I might as well carry on. "Do you happen to know the way..."
I could have continued the question, but it wouldn't have made much difference: by that point she was halfway up the street, racing away from me at a fairly respectable middle-distance speed. I started to understand what the sensible shoes had been for.
I was left standing in the street, feeling like I'd just committed a crime, and wondering if I could have made a worse first impression if I'd been brandishing a knife. I looked again at the unfamiliar street signs, and blessed the name of mobile telephones.