(This PhotoView was published in condensed form in PRISM Mag on April 09.)
This is the pilot installation of a new creation of mine, combining on-location photo shoots and interviews of intriguing individuals (or groups!) into a vivid, descriptive photo essay. My first subject was Derek, a poet, Genius Editor, and fellow member of the PRISM Collaborative. As we share a love for many things, including nature, he allowed me to test this concept while at Times Square and exploring Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan, New York. A California native, Derek discussed with me city experiences — some good and bad — nature, and the complexities of life. As someone that has known and conversed often with Derek for nearly 3 years, he always is an interesting and provoking subject. I hope he is the great subject, in a great location, in the genesis of a great creation.
The PhotoView №1: Derek Ashton
· All Photos and Words Transcribed by Juwan the Curator ·
So tell me the favorite thing you’ve done in New York so far.
“I don’t know, I really spent like the first week just going everywhere…the Empire State Building, staying out at Times Square all night, until the next morning…it was all new to me, just the aesthetic.”
So when you first came, you went to the very top of the Empire State Building…when you got there, what did you think?
“Man, this is a big city. I was just watching everybody, looking where everybody’s going and what they’re doing, and what’s their purpose…”
They look like ants up there, right?
“Yeah, it’s crazy. In California, nobody’s out that time of night.”
Let’s do a little compare and contrast. What’s one thing about New York that most people wouldn’t know, that’s similar to California?
“Actually, where we’re walking through right now, that there’s parks and areas like this and places that you can hike through and scenic areas. Most people just think of city lights and buildings, but I didn’t even think there were areas like this out here.”
What’s one thing that most people wouldn’t know, that is completely different about New York and California?
“Food is a perfect example, the restaurants, just the diversity…you can walk on the same block and see an Indian restaurant, a Spanish restaurant, halal food, all in the same area. You wouldn’t get that in California. Also means of transportation, not just the subway but the ferry and things like that.”
What part of California did you live in?
“San Diego County.”
What’s one thing you miss about California, if anything?
“The Beaches. I mean we have beaches here, but…”
It’s not the same.
“Nah. When you grow up in a certain area and you move…you just miss some of the things, some of my old co-workers, and the weather, too, during wintertime. When it’s like 10 degrees here, it’s like 55 degrees there too.”
You know there’s — and I’m not exaggerating — like 500 bridges (and tunnels) in New York? [There’s actually over 2,000]. Not as big as the [George Washington] Bridge, but there’s a lot of them.
“…Back to my favorite moments, just like spending time with my friends after work, going to the bar and I haven’t found a group for doing that again.”
What’s an average day for you?
“On a work day or a day off?”
You know what, actually, describe an ideal day for you. You could wake up tomorrow and do anything you wanted to, assuming you didn’t have money issues or things of that nature…what would your ideal day look like?
“Probably go to a movie with a friend, probably go to lunch, rent a movie and go upstate…go back home, and hang out with friends. Things like that. If I was by myself, I would probably sit and write poetry, or things like that.”
If you had no issues, living in your ideal day, how would your poetry be different? How would it be different then writing on a non-ideal day? ecessarily what I’m feeling, but from the perspective of someone who’s lonely or going through depression. I just enjoy writing a lot of similes and metaphors and things like that.”
So do you think it would be close to the same, or a similar theme?
“Yeah, it would be.”
Let’s say one of your poems blew up right now, and you got a deal to write poetry from a magazine or something, and you can travel the world performing poems. How would you feel about that?
“I’d like to think I’m humble and my ego wouldn’t blow up, I don’t think it would, I’d just think it would help inspire me to write more. I would feel special, knowing that everyone out there gets to share what I’ve written. Knowing any random person read what I wrote means a lot to me.”
Even if it’s one person?
“Even if it’s just one. You never know how one poem might inspire somebody.”
I’m trying to think of questions, y’know on the fly…there’s also a lot of birds. Um, what’s the favorite poem you’ve ever written?
“There’s one I wrote called “Pain for Glory” that was about how people are focused on the wrong things in life, like their appearance and money and material, superficial things and…none of that really matters. When it comes down to it, people are what matter…the relationships in your life…basically, money can’t buy happiness.”
Good point. What are some of the superficial things that bother you the most?
“Not even money so much, just designer watches and purses and clothes…I can’t even lie, you know, sometimes I find myself into those stuff and getting trapped in that, but people are so focused into having the best of everything, designer this and designer that…it’s pointless.”
What’s your favorite animal?
“I’ve always liked cheetahs.”
What do you think attracts you to cheetahs?
“Just their speed…it fascinates me. The fact that they can run as fast than a car, like…”
Would you want to be a cheetah over a human?
“Sometimes. If I’m in trouble and I need to run away from something.”
Sorry interview…I’ve never seen nature interact this much in one place…in one tree. [I spend about 3 minutes describing what it’s like growing up thinking sparrows are the same as baby pigeons, and how ugly I find baby pigeons. Derek searched images and confirms this assessment of baby pigeons. To not further offend any pigeon or pigeon lovers, I will not include this part. We then find a restaurant that’s hidden within the park that closes at 4, and label that ‘very disappointing’. We decide to move on from pigeons.]
How many tattoos do you have?
“Between 12, 13, 14.”
Is there any that you like more than the others?
“Yes and no… this one I liked, because it was my first one, so it always has that meaning to me.”
The cross, right?
“Yeah…and then this one I like, just the design of it and the symbolism in has, it’s about Robert Frost and the fork in the road and the path that everyone goes down and this is the one that’s less travelled, and with the railroad path all that are over New York these days, it sort of has that feeling to it.”
I’m a huge Robert Frost fan, so I know that one.
Is there any of (the tattoos) that you don’t like, or you like less than the other?
“The one on my neck.”
Why don’t you?
“I don’t know, just people look at you differently when you have a neck tattoo, and it’s not that I didn’t think I’d have one but just looking down with your head when you walk [to hide it…]”
If nobody would judge it, would you still have gotten it?
“No, I don’t think so. Probably not. You never know. I’d like to say I wouldn’t do it but…I don’t know.”
[This leads to conversation about Derek’s work, but some of it is garbled through passing vehicles and movement.] So if it weren’t for the restraints of life having a job and being in a back of a store everyday…is that also why you like working for delivery services?
“Yeah, the main thing I like about that is working on my own schedule and if I want to stop and get something to eat along the way, I can listen to my music, texting on my phone or whatever, nobody’s going to tell me anything.
What do you hope for out of the future right now? What do you see happening?
“I don’t know specifically…maybe editing or anything to do with writing, lyrics, poems, something that I can use as a creative outlet to write anything.”
[Here I talk about other parks I have explored recently, such as Marine Park and Fort Tilden, in the Gateway National Recreation Area, and how it compares to Fort Tryon] But what’s one place you’ve explored that surprised you? It doesn’t have to be New York, but anywhere.
“Well, in general, restaurants in New York, how they’re three or four stories and they’re everywhere…I just wasn’t used to that. Places aren’t like that in Cali. It’s just one floor.”
In your place of employment, do you know where your emergency exits are?
[I take a photo of a view over a closed off path to stairs covered in trash, leaves, and NYPD barricades, with a rotting smell and flying insects.]
What’s one of your favorite places to go to, even if it’s you’ve gone once or been there a couple times?
“I like taking the ferry going to Staten Island.”
What do you enjoy about it?
“Just going to a new place…being on a boat, on the water.”
[Derek opens his phone back to those baby pigeon pictures. Again, our apologies to baby pigeons and their fans.]
“Just the one ferry.”
“It’s not something reliable, like not suitable transportation if you have to take it?”
Have you been to Statue of Liberty?
“No, I tried to go — that’s when I took the [Staten Island] ferry, I was meaning to go to the Statue of Liberty and ended up on there instead.”
So you thought- that actually makes a lot of sense, you think ‘all these people are here, getting on this boat’…
“Yeah, and then we’re headed in that direction, too, and then we passed it, and I was like ‘Oh’…”
What’s another awkward thing that’s happen to you?
“You mean, that would’ve embarrassed me in front of other people?”
Not even embarrassing, but something like, you thought you were doing one thing and you weren’t.
“Yeah, when I first moved here, and I lived in Brooklyn, I would take the train and I would end up in the wrong direction, and I would end up in the Bronx before I realize…
Oh, one of those. I know what that’s like.
“I know, I remember being overwhelmed by the subway system when I got here. I know most of everything now, but in the beginning…I was almost in tears, ready to move back to California.”
Believe it or not, I actually have a similar story from when I first went to college, you know, thinking ‘I’m from New York…I’ve lived here all my life…I’m on campus in the city that I love. Nothing can go wrong.
“And what happened?”
There were times when I would get off of work, taking the train from Times Square to Jamaica Center, waiting for a bus that wasn’t coming…or I would try to walk to campus and would be going back the wrong way. I think what sums it up is that there’s this front entrance of the school, and 2–3 months in I learned is that there was another road on the other side of campus with a bus that would run 24 hours…essentially, I was going the long way when there was a much easier way of getting to campus. And when I would end up going the wrong way or not finding a way, I was just like ‘I know Brooklyn, and I’m going to go there… There’s also times I’ll go to different places… Like Fort Tilden, I didn’t know the bridge to go over there had a toll, or there’s nowhere to park…There’s just things about these places that the guidelines and the maps can’t tell you.
“It’s just a trial and error sort of thing. You’re just going to have to wing it.”
Exactly! And it’s not always smooth.
“I’m the type of person that develops understanding by just doing it on my own.”
Especially in New York. I was heading home with somebody I worked with before that was just really pushy, I guess, and this lady came up asking for directions to this one place, and [my friend] told her ‘oh, just take this train…’ and it was in the completely opposite direction. And I tried to say something, but she was just so sure and the lady just followed them — and I know she’s going in the wrong direction.
“That’s happen to me before — I rely on people, y’know, that live here, and I think they know what they’re talking about and I end up in freakin’ Queens!”
Yeah, and it’s like…’You live here, too…you should know!’ but it just goes to show how confusing the system is and how people, they only know how to get to where they need to go and think they know everywhere else, but they don’t.
“I kind of like the fact that I’ve lived in at least 7 different places in New York, including New Jersey, so I kind of know where everything goes. I don’t know a lot about buses, but otherwise I understand where everything goes.”
Where’s your favorite place that you’ve lived, neighborhood wise?
“That would be the place where I first lived when I came here, in Brooklyn…the Flatbush area. I was there for a few days before my plans changed…I like it in New Jersey, too, I just miss being right in the city.
I lived in Jamaica, Queens, too.”
“This was about last April, for a couple of weeks.”
“Yeah, I was by Sutphin, deep on Merrick Boulevard. It would take a long ride on a bus to get to work and stuff.”
What’s one thing, if you could tell or warn everybody about, that you would tell people about being in New York?
“…Don’t trust other people. People will seem like they’re trying to help you, give you advice…I would like to say, don’t assume the worse of people, so when you get a bad vibe, don’t think, “oh, they’re harmless.”
That leads to the question I meant to ask before, what’s your craziest subway experience so far, cause everyone has one?
“A night after the bar, I passed out on the subway…when I lived in Brooklyn, I was on the floor of the train and I had gone back and forth between the Bronx and Brooklyn and had ended up back at 42nd. I was like ‘Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have taken the subway.’”
Wow, Wow. You had fun.
“Lesson learned. Yeah, I had fun until it was 8 or 9 in the morning when I got home, and I had to work the next day. Oh, man.”
Did anybody do or say anything?
“No, I thought at the last stop, they kick everyone off, that’s what I don’t get.”
Yeah, that’s…they don’t. What really happens is if the train is going back the other way, [MTA employees] go on, sweep, and that’ it. It turns around.
“Yeah, I thought they were normally supposed to tell everybody to get off or something…”
Yeaaaaah…no, they don’t. Maybe they used to, or on certain trains they do…
“It was the middle of the night, and they probably thought I was some homeless guy passed out. This is why it’s better to go to the bar with friends.”
Originally published at https://www.patreon.com.