How I learned to give as good as I got

As a production assistant for a low-budget film, I was in charge of making maps to locations all over L.A. - where I'd been for a month.

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I have a knack for finding my way around. Paradoxically, I've enjoyed less success at giving directions. Sent on a wild goose chase by my flaky guidance, people have shown up an hour late to meet me - wreathed in grimaces, fingers wagging.

So when I found myself with a job as a de facto cartographer, I had to dig deep and recall Eleanor Roosevelt's exhortation, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do."

I'd been hired as a production assistant for a low-budget film to be shot in and around Los Angeles. One of my responsibilities was to make location maps for the cast and crew. Having moved to the city only a month earlier, I had my work cut out for me.

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Upon my arrival, I had purchased a copy of the hulking Thomas Guide street atlas, which provides excruciating detail about every boulevard, twisting mountain road, and alley in the greater L.A. metropolitan area. I was overwhelmed by the prospect of using it for this task, though, and resorted to an Internet mapping service. I simply took the addresses the producer had given me, typed them into the search field, and printed out the maps and directions.

The producer laughed in my face. "The crew might be able to follow these," he scoffed, "but we're talking about actors!" The maps were admittedly rather vague, not to mention small. While he allowed that the talent could be depended upon to be late, there was no way he was going to let them blame incoherent maps.

He grabbed a piece of paper and quickly demonstrated what he wanted: a large, simple illustration that showed which freeway led to which surface road and, ultimately, to the location (indicated by a box with an "x" through it). My marching orders were to draw the maps freehand and include the street address of the location, the phone number of the location owner, the producer's cellphone number, and the corresponding Thomas Guide page number (for any well-prepared members of the production) - along with a sheet of unambiguous typewritten directions.

Furthermore, he admonished, I was not to rely on the Internet. I was to call the owner of each location and get directions from the horse's mouth. I was to drive to as many locations as possible to make sure my coordinates were correct - before committing anything to paper.

So I went back to the drawing board. I oriented myself by sketching a crude map with L.A.'s myriad freeways snaking across the page. These legendary asphalt ribbons are the reference points for all matters of navigation in the City of Angels, so it behooved me to learn their numbers, trajectories, and proximity to the various far-flung neighborhoods where the film would be shot. And, inevitably, I had to consult my daunting Thomas Guide.

I duly phoned long-suffering people in places I had never heard of: San Pedro, Boyle Heights, and San Juan Capistrano, to name a few. I grew in my appreciation of how epic a megalopolis is Greater L.A.

As I warmed to my crucial role in the production, I became engrossed in my task. Armed with a battery of black felt-tipped markers (fat tip for freeways, fine nib for streets), I outlined each map punctiliously. How pristine were my federal highway symbols: "the 5" and "the 10" medallions were never so lovingly rendered. I limned a lovely antique-style compass rose, and even drew a little spouting whale in the ocean. How refreshing that I could execute this particular command better than a computer!

If the producer was impressed, he didn't let on. The maps looked good, but the true test would be Day 1 of the shoot. The location was a small town several hours to the north, and the crew was scheduled to begin setting up at 6 a.m. - which meant that the eyes fixating on photocopies of my first masterpiece would be bleary.

I set out long before sunrise on the nerve-racking first morning of filming, determined to be on time. Near the end of my journey, as I cruised down Cajon Pass, my heart sank when I saw fog blanketing the valley. Visibility was so bad I could hardly see the road, much less an exit sign. How was anybody going to find this place?

The producer's van was in the parking lot when I got there. He was pacing around, barking into his cellphone. When he spotted me, his ire surged. I gulped. "The director is lost," he informed me icily, thrusting the phone into my hand. "You tell him how to get here." Here we go, I thought with chagrin. I'd done my very best, but all along had feared I wouldn't get this right.

Trembling, I somehow talked the director back onto the right road. To my amazement, I spoke with the confidence of a local, so precise was my knowledge of the streets in a town that, heretofore, had been known to me only as a cluster of lines platted on a map.

Once our leader had safely arrived, I turned my fretting to the talent. (The rest of the crew, true to reputation, had found the place handily.) One car full of thespians had missed the exit in the fog and needed my cellphone ministrations. Soon, it was lights, camera, action - and the navigational hang-ups were forgotten for the day.

No one got lost ever again, though we shuttled from East L.A. to the Valley to the bottom of Orange County and back. In fact, the night we wrapped, the key grip told me that my location maps were the best he'd ever seen.

I'd had no doubt that I could take direction. It gave me quite a boost to find out that, galvanized by the right challenge, I could give directions, too.

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