I grew up partly on the Longley Council Estate in Sheffield. When I look at maps of the place these days it seems that the urban planners must have been familiar with very modern and/or very ancient designs for cities. It wasn’t exactly Bauhaus because it was all essentially single family houses, nor was al-Mansur’s circular city, but those geometrical designs didn’t come out of nowhere.
I can’t remember precisely when I first saw a map of my neighborhood, but I know it was after I’d been walking the streets for some years and thought I knew the layout of the place pretty well. At ground level however, I had no sense of those geometrical designs, those semi-circles and spokes. I was surprised but also somehow enlightened. I can’t say this was when or why I first developed a liking for maps, but develop a liking for maps I certainly did.
Longley wasn’t the worst place to live, and you definitely didn’t worry about walking the streets there, but we had bad neighbors in the house next door and that had a lot to do with why my parents eventually moved out.
The father next door was a glowering and occasionally violent presence – a hod carrier by trade. There were two children, a boy and a girl. The boy was a year or two younger than me, and a poor, timid little thing, not very bright, and it occurs to me now that he was very possibly knocked about by his father.
After we’d left Longley my mother still got reports from other (perfectly decent) neighbors. The boy next door left school young, without any qualifications, was unemployed and probably unemployable. The way my mother put it, “All he does is mooch around the streets all day,” presumably drifting around thosee semi-circles and spokes.
“Mooch” is an interesting word, and my mother used it a lot, and always to mean walking aimlessly, loitering, doing nothing much, though the sense of being a scrounger or a good for nothing was probably there too. I’m not sure if she knew the Cab Calloway song “Minnie the Moocher.” I’d guess she probably did, though I imagine she didn’t know that in the song to “mooch” is to be a drug addict. Perhaps our wandering neighbor lad eventually went that way too.
“Minnie the Moocher” was recorded in 1931 and to modern ears it sounds as much of a drug song as, say, the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” Some of the lyrics run
She messed around with a bloke named Smoky
She loved him though he was cokey
He took her down to Chinatown
And he showed her how to kick the gong around
To kick the gong is to take opium. In 1932 Calloway sang a kind of a sequel, titled “Kickin' The Gong Around,” in which Smoky Joe searches for Minnie in an opium den: and finds her. What’s of particular interest to scholars of walking, is that Calloway performs the song in the movie The Big Broadcast and does a kind of dance, maybe more of an exaggerated walk, which is a very early precursor of the Michael Jackson moonwalk, though I gather it was called “backsliding” at the time.
Calloway was also responsible for the “Hepster’s Dictionary” – teaching squares how to be groovy. I’m not sure how seriously anybody took this at the time, not very I think. Today it seems a mixture of language that’s either entirely obvious, as in “the joint is jumping,” or elaborate constructions that would be just too much trouble to use. “Have you got the line in the mouse?" (Do you have the cash in your pocket?). The word “mooch” doesn’t appear in the version I’ve got there were different various “editions.”
But the term “map” does appear in this form:
Sadder than a map (adj.) -- terrible. Ex., "That man is sadder than a map."
I just don’t get that. What does it mean? How sad is a map anyway? Is a map, in fact sad in any way whatsoever? Is there some hipster meaning of “map” that we non-hipsters are missing? Is it possibly the sense that only a real loser would walk the streets consulting a map? (Compare and contrast with the Thomas Wolfe story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”). I really have no idea, and I’d be grateful for any enlightenment anybody cares to throw my way.
I have no idea how Calloway felt personally about maps or about walking, but thanks to this handy map you could (circa 1932) have walked to his club in Harlem: