Lost in translation

This month's Tales From the Front submission to CONTROL, by frequent contributor Loren Jones, advises us to spell directions out exactly as the boss gives them to us, so that we don't get lost along the way, too!

 By By Loren Jones


ne of the most frustrating parts of my brief stint as a field service tech had to do with my difficulty with travel directions. I was living in the Greater Los Angeles Basin at the time, so I had a lot of driving to do. Map books are great tools, but sometimes nothing comes out right.

My primary assignment was variable frequency and DC drives service, though I did a full range of troubleshooting tasks as well. An amazing number of drive problems can be traced back to a mechanical issue. I got called late one night to go out on a service call to a location that was in another tech’s area. No biggie. We traded off on a regular basis and covered for one another when needed. Besides, it was Sunday night. Double time-and-a-half makes up for lost sleep quite nicely. I wrote down the directions exactly as they were dictated to me and headed out.

I don’t remember what town it was in, or the name of the company. For those who’ve never been to Los Angeles, the distinction between one town and the next is often just a sign on the street. So I took off to a location I’d never been to before with full confidence in my ability to find it and fix the problem.

"It seems that I had misunderstood the directions, though I had written them down exactly as the dispatcher had said them."

An old song claims that LA is a great big freeway, but at that time of night it’s a great big racetrack. I followed the directions and got off I-10 at the correct off-ramp and turned left. That’s where the trouble began. Roadwork dead ahead, and the street was closed.

Okay, I’m a native Californian, but this was deep, dark LA at three o’clock in the morning. I didn’t want to get off the main streets, but I figured I’d be safe going over a block and getting around the closed area.

I found my way around the deconstruction area and found myself essentially back to where I had started. The directions said to go to 57th Street and turn left, then turn right on North Boulevard and go to the third building on the right. No problem there. My previous cross street had been 41st Street. 57th was right where it was supposed to be and I turned left and started looking for North Boulevard .

Half an hour later I was thoroughly lost. I’d driven slowly, watching the street signs, but had never spotted one called North. I retraced my route and went the other way just in case I’d messed up on the directions. No North Boulevard that way either. Since this was not my normal area, I didn’t have the map books to cover it. So at that point, I made a fateful decision: I’d stop and ask for directions.

Stop laughing. I spotted a convenience store and I could see the guy behind the counter. There were no loiterers out front, which made me feel much better about getting out of my van. The door was locked, so the attendent waved me over to his window and met me by one of those Lazy-Susan pass-through windows that only let you talk to each other through a speaker.

“May I be of service, sir?” the man asked.

“I’m looking for North,” I replied.

“North is that direction, sir,” he said patiently, pointing toward the back of his store.

I laughed. “No, North Boulevard, or street or maybe avenue.”

“There is no North street or avenue in this area, sir.”

I took a deep breath. “Are you sure?” I implored.

“Indeed I am,” he said. “I live in this area as well as own this store, and there is no street bearing the name North anywhere near here.”

“Is there a pay phone near here?” I asked. He pointed toward the road. I’d driven right past them. I thanked him and smiled as I left.

I called the guy who normally serviced that area and asked him where the street was. He asked where I was, and when I told him, he said it was four lights east, then hung up.

All right, it’s now four in the morning and I’m frustrated to the point of giving up. I’d been up and down that street and there was no North anywhere. I took a deep breath, got back in the van, and counted stoplights. First light, second light, third light, fourth. Then I started to curse. The sign said N. Boulevard!

It seems that I had misunderstood the directions, though I had written them down exactly as the dispatcher had said them. The street’s name wasn’t “North,” it was “Boulevard” (North.) Boulevard crosses I-10, with North Boulevard north of the freeway and South Boulevard south of it. I found the third building on the right and pulled in. A very impatient supervisor was waiting for me and took me to the offending drive. Five minutes and a bolt-in 50-A BUSS fuse later, I was being escorted out of the building.

The next day my supervisor called me and said the client had complained about how long it had taken me to get there. I apologized and said I’d had trouble with the van. Hot coals wouldn’t have made me admit I’d driven around for an hour because I messed up when I wrote down the directions. After that, I started asking to have things spelled out. I may have sounded like an idiot, but I didn’t get lost as much.

Tales From the Front are selected from reader submissions. Do you have a story about plants or process control to share with the readers of CONTROL? We'll make it worth your while if your column is published. For details, contact Editor in Chief Walt Boyes.
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