In the Ace Hotel lobby, there’s one long table with about twenty seats. Two other laptop users had set up so I decided that would be the best place for me to sit down and get to work. I chose one of the corner seats. The nearest person to me sat across a few seats away towards the center.
I inspected the menu and a few other papers around the table looking for the wifi password to no avail. I would have to ask the waitress (I quickly slipped in the request after ordering an americano and yogurt). She returned with a little piece of paper the size of a raffle ticket that had the day’s password printed on it.
Halfway through my meal, a man sits down on my side of the table, one seat away. He pulls out his laptop and powers it on. My first thought, people still power down their laptops? It’s a PC so it takes a long time to load. In the mean time, I watch him mimic (or at least I assume) the same search I did when I arrived – looking at the menu, picking up all other “Ace Hotel” printed materials. I silently slide the wifi ticket in his direction. He says, “Oh, thanks.” I nod. “Does this work?” I nod again and say, “at least it did for me,” before returning to my screen.
He then turns in my direction and asks, “What do you do?” I thought that’s a funny way to start a conversation. I told him I’m a student at NYU, giving a short explanation of program. He’s a PhD student in Sociology from Harvard. He’s visiting a friend here in NYC for the weekend and had been told that the Ace Hotel is a good place to get work done. I, of course, shared my unsolicited opinions about the lobby (it’s dimly lit and a little depressing) but follow it up by extolling the values of Stumptown coffee. I make a joke about how each coffee bean is coddled from picking to roasting. It’s a cush life. He manages after three attempts to finally get the waitress’ attention and order his coffee (a latte). I think that’s the end of the conversation and I try to re-engage with my screen.
He pushes the conversation forward and I’m not sure how we arrive on the topic of data visualization. I order a second americano. He wants to teach a summer session course at Harvard on the subject. I share with him the website for my data representation course, show him some of my own data visualization exercises and even call up an article on my screen about Tarde and his idea of quantification. This got super geeky, real fast. In the back of my mind though I’m hyper conscious of time. It’s getting closer and closer to 10 and my appointment is about a 5 minute brisk walk away. I still have to pay and pack up my things. I don’t know how to end the conversation. I have no exit strategy. I attempt a few times to interject as he shows me some of the posts on his blog that are related to data visualization. And finally, finally when I catch the waitress he asks me, “do you have to go?” Yes, I reply. I have a meeting around the corner. He asks me, “What for?” I don’t really want to divulge that I’m going to my analyst so I reply, “Just a doctor’s appointment.” He appears a little embarrassed, “Oh, I thought it would have been more exciting. Sorry.” I stand up and we introduce ourselves. Ethan. Heather. I wish him a good weekend and I’m off.
The weather was absolutely gorgeous my last day in London and I decided to head over to East London for one more round of galleries and to have lunch at a restaurant called Rochelle’s Canteen. I had read about it the week prior in the New York Times Style Magazine. Everything about it sounded magical: the restaurant was built in a converted bike shed that sat inside of an old school, the owners embraced the nose to tail ethos, they used only seasonal produce, etc.
Another point made clear in the New York Times was that the restaurant was hard to find. No precise address given, only the name of the school—“Rochelle School”–and that it was off of Arnold’s Circus. A “circus” of course didn’t make any sense to me as an American but as I deciphered from my map, it was a circular road with a park in the middle and about seven different streets transecting. I started out towards there from the north.
I saw a middle-aged woman, smartly dressed, walking alone with a book in her hand about 20 steps in front of me. She turned onto Calvert Street. So did I. She continued down Calvert until the road forked and turned left. So did I. Were we headed to the same place? She doubled back. I decided to follow. I thought about approaching her but hesitated. I didn’t want to assume that we were both looking for the same thing. We finally reached the “circus.” She slowly made her way around the circle, me about ten steps behind. Then she stopped to consult her book. I asked her, “Are you looking for Rochelle’s Canteen?” She was. We both consulted the entry in her guidebook but it didn’t reveal any more than we already knew about how to find the restaurant.
We continued walking, looking for clues in each building we passed. A school sign, a bike shed. Nothing. She asked how did I hear about it? I told her I read about it in the New York Times. She guffawed, “Well it’s all over now. The secret is out. There might as well be a marquee.” I laughed hesitantly. I changed the subject to art. I told her that I had spent the morning visiting galleries. She had just been to see the Gilbert & George exhibition at White Cube. She suggested that I check out David Hockney at the Royal Academy. There were so many good shows on at the moment. She appeared to revel in that fact.
The conversation returned to the restaurant and she commented, “I love how egalitarian this country is.” I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by this, and I didn’t ask for clarification. Maybe people from all walks of life can find themselves together at a place like this restaurant and that’s an equalizing factor? She also said that British people are exceptionally polite. She said it should be marketed really – the politeness, especially with the upcoming Olympics. I nodded.
Finally, we spied a “BOYS” entrance sign. This must be it. We approached and found the buzzer for Rochelle’s Canteen. The gray wooden door opened to reveal a secret garden of sorts. It really felt like Eden. The sun shining. People sitting outside on small tables and benches. All smiles. We were both beaming ourselves as we approached the bike shed to see about tables. The waitress went to check.
As she returned, a man (maybe another waiter or the maitre’d) followed swiftly behind. In a snarky tone, he said it was not possible, there were are no more tables that day. Dream crusher. The woman turned to me and said, “That’s a bit of disappointment now, isn’t it?” I concurred.
I started to walk away and then stopped. I thought about being a pushy New Yorker and getting myself a seat. That wouldn’t be polite, though, would it?
I headed towards the entrance, looking wistfully behind me. Next time, I’ll make a booking. The woman lingered a bit behind me. I saw her from across the street. I should have asked her to lunch. I knew of another restaurant nearby (where I was headed). It’s too bad I didn’t… next time?
I thought that when I exited the tube in Bermondsey that I had a fair understanding of how to get to the Design Museum. It’s situated just next to the river. So I’ll just head in that general direction; I knew my cardinal directions. How difficult could it be? Unfortunately as I’ve found in London, nothing is as straightforward (literally) as it seems. The circuitous route I followed led me into a construction site and to an unfamiliar street. I saw two women walking up ahead. They were having an animated conversation and smoking cigarettes. We were the only ones on the street. I felt a little nervous as I passed them up on the left. The first thought that popped into my head was, Would they rob me? I don’t know why my mind immediately went there- perhaps it has to do with growing up in New York, or rather that being in a foreign place is unsettling in itself.
I made it to the main road and pulled out my map. I really didn’t have any clue where I was. The map didn’t help so I put it away. That’s when I heard, “Would you like a haircut?” I turned around to face the two women I had just passed on the road. A little shocked by the proposition (do I have a penchant for attracting hair stylists? is my haircut really that bad?) I quickly replied, “No, no thanks.” Though she continued, “Would you be interested? My salon is just down the road.” I noticed the woman’s nose ring, her hair. It wasn’t styled at all. She had it pulled back in a ponytail. It was not the best endorsement for her skills with scissors, I thought. The other woman’s hair was much more funky. She had purple streaks and an asymmetrical cut that reminded me of my old hairstyle as an undergrad. I declined the offer again, it seemed like a risky proposition. I explained though that I was just in town visiting and on my way to the Design Museum.
However, I was still lost. They offered to walk me part of the way, it was in the same direction as they were headed. We chatted about how much easier it is to navigate New York, since it’s on a grid system. The woman with a nose ring said she’s lived in London all her life and she knows plenty of other Londoners that haven’t a clue where they’re going most of the time. They led me right up to the bridge and directed me down a flight of stairs. The purple-haired woman then gave me specific directions to reach the museum. I was greatly indebted. I would not have been able to find this on my own. I said thanks and they wished me well for the rest of my trip. Part of me was still a bit intrigued by the possibility of getting a haircut, but I continued down the stairs without turning back. This interaction also prompted me to question the assumptions that I make about strangers. In this case, I had completely misread these two women. They had transformed in a matter of minutes from threats into aides. Lesson learned.
After a visit to the Design Museum, I decided to walk over to Spitalfields Market in East London. It was a substantial distance but I didn’t mind. As I passed the Aldgate East station a boy asked me, “Do you know where Fashion Street is?” I told him that I had no idea but that I did have a map! I proceeded to pull it out and find Fashion Street. The only problem was that neither of us knew what road we were on. I told him that we were both headed in the same general direction and that we should just start walking. He asked if I was headed towards some university (I didn’t catch the name) and I told him no, I wasn’t.
As we meandered up the street, we exchanged small talk. We were both from New York. He was here in London for the week checking out Fashion programs. He didn’t want to go to Fashion school in New York because that’s where everyone goes. He had studied music at a university in Minnesota as an undergraduate and spent time in LA working as a graphic designer but couldn’t handle LA anymore. He had just recently returned to New York and that’s when he decided to look into Fashion. He’s interested in both men’s and women’s wear but would like to focus specifically on accessories. He seemed pretty young, maybe in his mid 20s. He dressed pretty casually: white shirt, vest, blue jeans and Nike sneakers. He had his sunglasses propped atop his head. I wasn’t that impressed by what he was wearing. I would have dressed a little more for the part if I was headed over to a school to check out their Fashion course but that’s just me. I told him about my program at NYU, chatting on about interactive art and gesture-based technology. He seemed excited about the prospect of using Kinect (like Xbox? he asked) in art / media projects. His brother is also at NYU but he doesn’t know what he does, maybe political science or economics. He hasn’t spoken to his brother in a few months. I was curious as to why but thought that would overstep the bounds of our first conversation.
I kept checking the map to make sure that we were headed the right way. We were on course. There were a few times when the conversation would drop. He seemed a bit hesitant to go on. Then I would check the map and we’d resume walking and talking. It reminded me of Goffman’s notes on leave-taking. Maybe I was not acknowledging his cues? Perhaps I didn’t establish enough “trust” for him? I’m not sure. I was set on getting him to Fashion Street.
Finally, we had arrived. Or at least, this was as far as he would go. I didn’t even bother to look across the street to see if it was really Fashion Street. He made it a clear definitive stop. He extended his hand and said, “Thanks. I’m Zach by the way. Nice to meet you.” I introduced myself in turn and wished him well. As he walked away he said, “Maybe we’ll see each other again, you never know.” I smiled and nodded. I thought I should look up the university when I get back home. I thought of the google search terms “fashion school fashion st london.” I never did.
Fernanda and I went to Union Square on Thursday afternoon. Because it was a bit rainy, we thought it would be the best place to talk to strangers. There’s always people coming and going around Union Square. At first, I was a bit trepidatious about having to approach strangers. But that’s always the case for me and then I very quickly get over it and jump right in. I need that initial anxiety to propel myself into action.
Fernanda set up the camera on a tripod. I donned headphones and held the microphone and recorder. We scanned the square. Many passers-by wore headphones or were talking on their cellphones. The phones and music devices acted like armor against the outside world; the technology providing a safe bubble for them as they went from Point A to Point B. This was going to make our task a little more challenging.
We tried to interview the most diverse crowd, men and women of all ages, colors, and socio-economic backgrounds (that, of course, from what we could superficially read). We deliberately didn’t ask for their names or professions. We didn’t say our names unless asked. We agreed that it set a low barrier for entry – that this wasn’t something formal. We’re just going to ask a question. It’s not a big deal. The only introduction we provided was identifying ourselves as NYU students. After a few interviews though we decided not to say we were NYU students and ask plainly, “Can we ask you a question?” In two of these instances, the strangers (both in pairs) asked us if we were students. We confirmed. One pair ended up being students at Tisch as well.
I never felt uneasy when we were talking to any of the strangers. I think it’s because we only approached people that we felt comfortable interacting with. It’s interesting how you evaluate a person by the way they walk, dress, little idiosyncrasies. There was one woman we both “read” from a mile away, she appeared to have a tic, she kept shaking her head to the right. We didn’t approach her. There was also a boisterous crew of guys hanging out underneath the subway pagoda. I initially thought it would be cool to talk to them but the louder they got the less inclined I was to interact.
Many people seemed perplexed by our question. Their first responses either being “I don’t know” or “spiders.” A few asked for suggestions. I thought to myself, why should I have to suggest to you what you’re afraid of? But maybe it’s not such an weird thing to prompt? It could be that we caught people off guard by the question and they felt put on the spot.
The only odd response we experienced was from two women pushing strollers. I think they thought we were being aggressive. Their response felt a little hostile. The woman responded adamantly, “No, no, it’s not cool.”
Right off the bat, we noticed how a few people changed their course while walking when they saw us approaching with our recorder and camera on a tripod. We found that it was easier to approach men rather than women. This surprised us. Maybe its easier to make eye contact with men because we were women? A number of the women we tried to approach ignored us outright. They avoided eye contact. Some waved us off or offered excuses like “I’m late for a meeting” or “I only have two minutes form my lunch break.” Others apologized. One woman with a Louis Vuitton bag said, “No, thank you.” My favorite response came from a tall, well-dressed man – he smiled slightly and winked. Somehow that made it alright for him to keep on walking.
Once we got someone to stop and listen to us for a few seconds – either by identifying ourselves as students or saying, can we ask you a question – it was much easier to get them to stay. No one that we stopped said no, I don’t want to answer your question or I don’t want to be filmed. But some did ask us before we recorded, what type of question?
We decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm and sunny day and head out to Washington Square Park Friday afternoon – much more preferable than rendering video on the floor.
Unlike yesterday, I felt anxious about having to approach people. Without the props, I felt it would be harder to initiate conversation. How would people react to someone approaching them out of nowhere to ask a random question like, what are you afraid of?
The first person we spoke with was a middle-aged woman. She wore all black. Black sweatpants, sweatshirt, and a long back overcoat. Her hair was bleached blond but parts of it were so bleached it had turned white. She rummaged through a large black plastic bag. Next to her there was a sign “FREE PSYCHIC.” Fernanda initiated the conversation. The psychic responded, “I don’t know. Why are you asking?” We told her we were NYU students. She said, “I feel numb.” That was a curious response. What did that mean? Especially for a psychic? Aren’t they supposed to feel everything? She continued, “I’m not afraid of much. I’m not afraid of anything really. I don’t know.” We chatted for another minute or so but she didn’t share anything else. She asked us if we wanted a free reading. According to her, “you girls have good energy.” We thanked her but declined the offer. She wished us good luck.
Next, we saw a boy and a girl sitting on the ledge of the water fountain. They looked very approachable, easy going. They had been chatting animatedly before we initiated conversation. I asked, “Can we ask you a question?” The girl responded, “Yes.” “What are you afraid of?” Without any hesitation, both responded. I was taken aback by their candidness. I found myself trying to make eye contact with both of them, but the girl had on sunglasses. I’m not sure what prompted me to act this way, I didn’t make the same effort with the psychic. The boy said he was afraid of two things, lies and love. He was afraid to fall in love. He didn’t want his heart broken. The girl said she was afraid of being alone. She didn’t like the idea of not being able to share with a partner your feelings. She didn’t want to hold her feelings inside. This ended up being the most common answer – the fear of being alone. Which is interesting in many regards, first, that it was the prompt <when do you feel most alone> for the rest of the class . Secondly, it’s a curious thing – this fear of being alone, especially with how much more connected we are these days, at least virtually.
While we were waiting to speak with the peanut vendor (he was on his cellphone), a big white woolly dog approached us. She started the conversation for us. We asked the owner what her name was <Maddie> and how old she was <2 and a half>. “Do you bring her to the park every day?” I inquired. The owner answered affirmatively. Then I prompted him with our question. He smiled and asked, “What class are you taking? “ I guess one of the problems with doing the exercise in Washington Square Park is that it’s a safe assumption we’re students. People may be more open or perhaps expect to be approached in this setting? After identifying ourselves as NYU students, he said, “Public speaking.” I noticed that he had a piece of food between his two teeth. I also noted his severe underbite, his unshaven face. I wondered what he did for a living? Was he retired? He said that he was a smart guy. Despite that fact though, he told us when we was younger he passed up many opportunities because he was too afraid to speak. In retrospect, he would have pushed himself. “That’s my lesson… face your fears.” We said thanks, petted Maddie one more time, and they walked away.
We then walked over to the peanut vendor. He seemed very resistant, even to my first question which was “May we ask you a question?” He said, “Sure.” I asked. He had a perplexed or confused expression on his face. It was very hard to read. I kept searching his eyes to see if I could make a connection. I thought he had a nice sweater on. He repeated the question before answering, “Economical crisis.” I asked him if there was anything more personal, something he felt in his life, that he was afraid of. He responded plainly, “Death.” I asked him what he thought happened after death. He said that nothing happens after you die. And then he asked us, “Are you philosophers?” We attempted to continue the conversation for a few more seconds but his answers were short, curt… there wasn’t anything that I could read in his face or body. We ended the conversation there.
The last person that we spoke to was a young student. We saw her from a distance. A vision in red. She wore red rimmed sunglasses, red scarf, and red wool tights (and her mocassins had tiny red beads). Fernanda asked her the question. She asked if we wanted a silly small phobia or something more serious, “like really afraid of.” We said both. Her silly phobia is ghosts. Her bigger fear? She’s afraid of someone she loves dying. She thinks both are related. She told us that she’s had some sad things happen in her life. And that its difficult to imagine losing someone that you love; it’s important to enjoy the time that you have together.
Afterwards, I realized that it was much easier to approach people without the camera. I thought it was a useful prop but I felt much better and less invasive when we just walked up plainly to people. I’m not sure if they were more receptive to us but it felt that way. Maybe it had something to do with making ourselves more vulnerable. We’re not hiding behind any equipment. We don’t have clipboards. We’re going up to strangers and asking them a question. It’s unexpected I suppose. Our success rate was 100%. No one waved us off or refused to answer the question. As we left the park we noticed the psychic had left. Her sign though remained on the park bench, along with a small black plastic bag.
I parked my car across the street from Starbucks. Thankfully the meters in the village of Bronxville except all coins, not just quarters. I had 58 minutes. I checked my watch as I headed towards the entrance. 10:59am.
There were three people working behind the counter and six people total seated in the cafe. To the left as I entered, four sat alone; to the right, two sat together. I ordered a dirty chai and took a seat near the four. Immediately behind me sits a young Asian woman. She’s wearing a coat and hat but doesn’t show any signs of leaving. She’s engrossed by whatever she’s doing on her cellphone. To the left, there’s an older man. He’s wearing a pair of shorts and a rugby sweatshirt. It looks like he’s been there for a while. He uses one chair to prop up his left leg. He’s reading the New York Post and eating oatmeal.
In front of me sit two men, along the exterior window. I can’t tell what they’re drinking, both have venti size cups. Both are very well-dressed. There’s one reading the Wall Street Journal. He wears an electric blue vest over a checkered shirt, a chartreuse tie, tweed jacket. Very well put together, slightly effeminate. There’s an air of arrogance I read on his face. What does he do? He reads the Wall Street Journal late in the morning at Starbucks – that is what he does. I can imagine that he’s a musician. His lips say something to me but I wouldn’t guess he played a wind instrument. I’m thinking more along the lines of a cello or a violin. He exudes a certain studied air. I couldn’t imagine him doing anything less civil than reading the paper, retiring to his house nearby for lunch and then playing a few pieces to unwind in the evening. He doesn’t wear a wedding band. The only reason I notice this is because the other man does have one. He is dressed in a much more masculine fashion than the first. He wears a plaid shirt tucked into jeans, brown boots. A brown leather jacket rests on the back of the chair. He also looks very settled, like he plans to spend (or has spent) a good portion of the day at the cafe. There’s a pastry bag, bottle of water, a vent cup. He works on a MacBook. I can’t really see his screen very well, but it looks like email.
A middle-aged white man wearing a scarf, no jacket, runs into the cafe. He orders, a touch breathless, a grande mocha. He adds sugar. I wonder why? The drink is so sweet to begin with. But he has a bit of a paunch so maybe he has a bit of a sweet tooth (or obviously? he does). I wonder if he was thinner at a younger age. Even from where I sit, about 30 feet way, his blue eyes are dazzling. I bet he was an attractive man. He chats briefly with a woman standing by the bathroom door and then runs out of the cafe. Perhaps he works nearby in the village.
A steady stream of women start to filter in. They come in alone, sometimes striking up conversations with one another. They know each other. Their kids go to school together or they belong to the same church. It’s at this point that I realize that the only people of color are those working behind the counter.
A small elderly woman walks in alone pushing a shopping cart. She sits with her purse on her lap, eyeglasses folded lenses down on the table. This bothers me. Doesn’t she know this could scratch the lenses? She holds the tall cup of coffee in both hands, close to her mouth. The lid is off. It’s interesting how I don’t notice the absence of something (like a wedding band or a lid) until that lack becomes apparent. She seems to be muttering to herself and keeps turning her head to the left and right. Her body tremors ever so slightly. Does she notice? Is she used to being constantly in this state of motion?
It’s relatively quiet. Most of the conversation is reserved for the transactions between customer and employee. Maybe it’s not so peculiar that only one table is occupied by more than one person. Is going to a cafe to read the paper or do work – such a singular activity? Perhaps during the week.
The man in the rugby sweatshirt removes his leg from the chair. I guess he wasn’t injured as I initially thought. He just wanted to make himself comfortable.
The Asian girl left. A professionally dressed man takes her seat. He’s balding and wears his sunglasses on the top of his head. He pulls out of his laptop and immediately gets to work. I didn’t see him order a drink.
The masculine man is packing up. I now see a stack of folders on the table – he had been working. He picks up some change. He’s not leaving then – just going to feed the meter.
I’m struck by the next person to walk in. I watched as she made her way in from the street. Her outfit is extraordinary - a short khaki skirt, cropped shearling jacket, pink leg warmers worn past the thigh and a pair of shearling-lined boots. White thin frazzled hair tamed by a knit cap. I wasn’t entirely sure at first whether she was a man or a woman, until I heard her voice (although that could also be deceiving, maybe she’s transgendered). She ordered a hot chocolate. She asked if she could sit at my table. Sure, of course. I nodded. She replied, “…love that smile – this is your good deed of the day.” Not sure what that meant but I smiled. She pulled out the New York Post. She uses a pipette to place some drops into her drink and eats chicken salad out of plastic container.
The masculine man returns with his iPad and sunglasses now propped on top of his head.
A fat, bald man wearing sweats sits down with the effeminate man. They’re talking about Columbia and all of the real estate that the university is buying. Can you believe they’re not getting taxed? And they’re fighting with NYU, too. I can’t hear the effeminate man very well, he speaks at a much lower volume.
The pink lady takes a pill now, she leaves the bottle uncapped on the table. It has a greenish brown residue along the rim. I bet she purchased it from the natural food store down the block.
A large family enters, definitely foreign. There are four men, two women and two young children.
The fat man also drinks from a venti cup. He hasn’t taken a sip yet because he hasn’t stopped talking.
The masculine man eats a donut. That’s slightly disappointing. A donut, really? That doesn’t fit into my conception of him… The elderly woman reads a pamphlet. It lists a calendar of events – maybe it’s from the library. She applies lipstick with a compact mirror. She finishes with a gloss.
When I finally hear the effeminate man speak, he instantly looses that arrogance. Gone is the musician. The effeminacy. Is he just a smart dresser?
The elderly woman scans a pocket calendar. It doesn’t look like anything is written on it. No handwritten notes. This makes me feel a bit sad. She rummages in her purse, pauses to look at her watch, and then goes back to rummaging. She pulls out a receipt and starts writing. It looks like she’s written notes on a number of old receipts. What does she write? Are they fleeting thoughts? To-do lists or reminders?
An elderly man wearing an oversized coat and a baseball cap joins the bald man and the no longer effeminate man. He makes a joke about the tie. I can tell because he jabs the tie with his finger. The bald man says, “I bet he has socks to match.” This is confirmed when the bald man retorts, “Well, excuse me!” They continue their conversation. I hear there’s a great place in Chinatown that specializes in custom-made shoes.
The professional man did order coffee. I see his venti cup in hand as he gets back on line for a refill.
Three middle-aged men, bedecked in spandex, lean their road bikes against the exterior window. Only two enter. A woman enters behind them – she really captures my attention. A MILF. Impeccably dressed in a chartreuse (popular this season) wool skirt, deep purple knit sweater, a gold brooch, tear drop earrings and eyeglasses propped on top of her head. (This is something I could never achieve – balancing glasses atop my head) Her brown shoulder length hair is perfectly coiffed. I’d imagine she’s still good in bed, even after all these years. Does she still sleep with her husband? When she pulls out her wallet chunky gold bangles dance down her arm.
The pink lady pulls out another pill bottle, labeled “Digest More.” One of the cyclists looks familiar. Did I take spinning classes with him on Saturday mornings in Scarsdale? He walks around the cafe cockily. He’s trying to grab someone, everyone’s attention it seems.
The cafe is significantly busier in the hour since I arrived. I leave right before noon.