Five questions not to ask New Yorkers when you’re building a travel writing portfolio

If travel writing is all about storytelling, then I’m in big trouble

1_VvkWSWNY1it7LQX5scBmuQ
This guy didn’t want to answer any of my deep questions. Photo: M. Yung

As a Midwesterner and an aspiring travel writer visiting the Big Apple over spring break, I wanted to use a trip to New York City to build my portfolio. Sounds easy enough, right?

However, good travel writing is all about storytelling, or so the big-time travel bloggers tell me. And in order to tell a story, one must fully immerse oneself in a new culture. One must talk with the natives, learn the local customs, and ask the hard questions. Y’know, the questions that reveal fresh cultural perspectives and which way is north.

Watch out world, my travel storytelling is gonna take off any minute based on the slew of revelatory conversations I generated with New Yorkers by asking them these five riveting questions:

Number 1: Where am I?

I asked this question of a 60-something man standing against a concrete column at LaGuardia Airport. I was trying to find the pick-up spot for the Uber I had reserved. “D Terminal. The lower,” he informed me before shifting his feet and looking away.

See what I mean? There’s good fodder for a story.

Number 2: How do we get to the ferry?

The 20-something construction worker rose from the barrel he was leaning against and walked toward us. I think I had interrupted the break he had been taking at the far west end of Huron Street in Greenpoint. He pointed one block down, toward India Street, just south of where we stood. “Go through all the construction, keep to the right, and you’ll get there,” he offered.

Can’t wait to build a ten-minute read off that one, I told myself.

Number 3: Why do you think I need a fork?

Just as I uttered this profound query,  a rice noodle slinked off my chopsticks, splashing a drop of broth onto my glasses. The young waiter at Lao Ma Spicy in Greenwich Village had just walked by our table and offered me an alternative utensil. Apparently, I seemed to be struggling.

I mulled over his offer. My stomach rumbled. “Yes, that would be fine,” I said. I set down my chopsticks, blotted my glasses with the corner of my napkin, and waited for a fork to appear.

A travel tale for the ages, folks.

Number 4: Is this train headed south?

When I asked this head-scratcher, I had just become separated from my daughter as we headed back to our flat one evening. She had boarded the train; I missed it. Man, those doors move fast. So I hopped on another train on the opposite side of the platform. After finding a seat, I wanted to verify that I was indeed on the right bullet to Brooklyn. I asked an Orthodox Jewish man next to me; he looked up from his scriptures and confirmed that yes, the G train would take me south.

A novel will come from that encounter. I just know it.

Number 5: How do we get out of here?

After wandering around the subway maze that exists below Times Square, I posed this question to a man striding by in a navy blue uniform. He looked to the ceiling, waved his finger back and forth as if tracing some imaginary constellation and replied, pointing off in the distance, “Take that train to Court Square.”

Yet another meaningful exchange.

All right, maybe my conversations weren’t the kind to evoke rich and meaningful dialogues upon which to build fascinating tales of travel and intrigue. Oh, well. Maybe next time I’ll be able to focus on the people and places I’m experiencing instead of merely focusing on how to navigate public transit.

So, thank you, New Yorkers, for exploring my existential wanderings on street corners and in subway stations, and for not ducking away too quickly when you realized that I was just another tourist, confused, bewildered, and amazed at the city you know and love so well.


My daughter and I visited NYC for a week in mid-March. We asked questions when we needed to, just not ones that will give my travel writing the shot in the arm that it needs. It was a great trip, nevertheless. Feel free to leave a comment or follow my blog for more. And thanks for reading!

Advertisements

Stop, Gawk, and Drool

The NYC subway’s newest mosaic stunner: Funktional Vibrations

top
The outside wall of Funktional Vibrations above the escalator at the main part of the station. | Photo: M. Yung

You’re a lost cause.

When you push against the turnstile to exit the subway at 34th St.-Hudson Yards in New York, you can’t help it. The brilliant cobalt of Funktional Vibrations snags your attention and stops you in your tracks. That’s okay. In an hour or so, this last stop on the 7 line will be bustling and you’ll have to get out of the way. But for now, go ahead and gawk.

After all, you came all the way over here, one day before parts of the Hudson Yards complex even officially open, to see the latest and one of the largest additions to the public art collection of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Funktional Vibrations is a mammoth mosaic (2,788 square feet, according to artnet news) that fills the ceiling of the station’s mezzanine and then oozes outside onto the wall surfaces above escalators.

Created and designed by fiber artist Xenobia Bailey, Funktional Vibrations riots on a field of cobalt blue within its dome.

mezzanine
Funktional Vibrations in the mezzanine. | Photo: M. Yung

It’s colorful. Abstract. Lava lampy. Kaleidoscopic in color and pattern. And you notice there’s an Atlantic vinyl record, too, tucked into the design. (It’s the black dot on the left side of the photo below.)

detail
A closer shot. | Photo: M. Yung

To your eye, Funktional Vibrations pulsates with life. “Bailey sees the work as speaking to the universal idea of creation and has created artwork that vibrates with energy,” according to an MTA website article. “(Bailey) refers to her accumulation of materials as in the tradition of African-American art—reflected in the music of the 60’s she grew up with—and its material culture and design, where one made do with what was available and made it into something new and wonderful.”

So that explains the Atlantic record, you think… an earlier era’s musical relic retrofitted for contemporary times. It fits perfectly—seamlessly even—into the mandala-like charms and spheres that vibrate all shape-shifty and cloud-like across the glass mosaic cosmos.

Bailey, originally an ethnomusicologist (here’s what that means!), worked in costume design before transitioning to fibers, specifically crochet, as noted by Manhattan’s Museum of Arts and Design. She is known best for her colorful crocheted hats and mandala design. Funktional Vibrations evokes that aesthetic, which observes African, Native American, and 70’s funk motifs.

So how does an artist who specializes in fibers transform her designs onto glass tile? With the assistance of mosaicist Stephen Miotto of Miotto Mosaic Studio in Carmel, NY. In fact, Miotto’s team have helped many artists selected by MTA’s Arts and Design Program craft and install their mosaic interpretations.

tesserae
A detail shot of the outer wall surface. | Photo: M. Yung

You learn later that Funktional Vibrations includes a total of three—not two—mosaic installations by Bailey. You vow to return another time to photograph the third. For now, you revel in the vibrancy, the touch of the human hand, and the simple rush of this subway stunner.

me
Funktional Vibrations was worth the search. | Photo: K. Yung

I went to New York City with my daughter for spring break. I’m still tripping out over the mosaics (and the tile work in general) that adorn the entire subway system. How did I not know about this underground art museum? Follow my blog for more posts on subway artworks.