The writing prompt featured in episode 29 of the Sparks to Life Podcast comes from the New York City MTA’s Art Card Program, and was created by James Yang. He was asked to create a piece inspired by his experience riding the subways, and he really ran with it. I would see this quite often on the subways during my morning and evening commute, and it really struck a chord with me with its uniqueness and brilliant use of color in front of a unique interpretation of the Manhattan skyline. It ultimately conjured up an idea in my head, which prompted me to pass it along to the rest of the group to see if inspiration would strike them in a similar way. We now present the fruits of the creative spark that was set off by this art piece:
When I moved to this city, I was looking for a fresh start. I needed to get away from my old life, people with whom I’ve grown apart, just a complete change of pace in general. I read up about this town online and I was able to connect with a number of residents there that really sold me on why I should consider moving there. It’s a pretty large town but with a small-town feel, the apartments are very affordable, solid job market where I would be guaranteed to find a good job, and subway system experience that is “unrivaled by any other city.” After talking to residents that live there, I knew that this was where I needed to be and where I could go to make that new start.
I threw all belongings and everything from my old life that I wanted to keep with me in a moving truck and made the journey into my new life. From the moment I moved into my new place I felt like everything began to fall into place. New job happened within two weeks of moving, explored the town and met wonderful people and neighbors I connected with, and settled into life pretty quickly. Things were great! There was just one small hitch though. The residents told me about the town subway system and how it was “unrivaled by any other city.” I really should’ve inquired further about what they meant by that.
I figured that they meant the system was reliable, on time more often than not, and people were generally satisfied with how it ran. Well, to be fair, it is on time more often than not. In fact, it is very on time, and people are quite satisfied with it, but reliability…let’s just say that’s a relative term.
The subway system has 18 different lines that traverse the town and surrounding cities. Unlike other subway systems that connect multiple cars together to form one train, this system only uses one car per train. Not the worst thing in the world since trains run about every three minutes. When I set off on my first trip, the first thing I noticed was that each car has what looks like a metal basket with a handle anchored on top of it that looks like a catching net. Inside that net is a large colored ball with the subway line’s letter/number and color labeled on it. I was intrigued by this aesthetic and initially thought it was just unique design attribute. What I didn’t realize was that this net and ball setup served a unique purpose until I got on the train and it started on its way.
Two things I noticed as the train moved. One, the trains, even though at the stations they travel on tracks (like you would expect most trains to do), as they travel to concurrent stations, they float. As in, floating in the air. The train begins to move forward, then lifts off the track and glides through the air effortlessly to the next destination. Obviously, I was quite jarred when I realized the train was moving in more than the standard two dimensions. The person sitting next to me on the train quietly chuckled at my befuddlement and said to me, “That’s pretty much how I reacted my first time taking the train! You’ll get used to it soon enough.” I’m in a state of both fear and curiosity as the train dances through the air and to the next station. This phenomenon did explain why all of the subway stations were a minimum of 15 stories above ground and why I also saw no tracks between the stations.
As I adjusted to the reality that the train I was in was flying, I realized the second thing: the ball in the net above was not properly anchored down. You can feel the ball moving around as the train moves. Looking out the train window, watching buildings whizz past on the sides of and below the train, I spot above a flurry of colored balls with letters or numbers printed on them. That’s when I notice the ball in my train’s net begin to float off into the sky with the rest of the free floating colorful spheres. I’m absolutely mesmerized by the sight, but that feeling soon switched to further confusion as I’m snapped back to reality by an uncomfortably loud beam of energy that quickly flows from the ceiling to the ground, with the train’s color changing as the beam flowed downward. Before I knew it, my train had turned from green to orange, the sign that initially read “2” now read “C”. Baffled, I look over to the person that shared their initial reaction with me, and he explained what I just saw.
“The train just switched lines.”
“What do you mean, ‘switched lines’?”
“Every now and again, the train will lose its line designation sphere and receive a new one. So now this train that was following the ‘2’ line is now going to follow the ‘C’ line. This train will now go to all the stations along the ‘C’ line for the moment.
“Why did this happen, and what the hell do you mean, ‘for the moment’? How often does this happen?!”
“It happens fairly regularly, at least twice from beginning to end. It’s rare for a train to end on the line on which it started. As for why, you probably noticed that the spheres are not anchored down. Because they are not anchored down, when a train approaches one of the sphere fields above the town, the sphere above the train may or may not release and join that sphere field. If a sphere leaves the train, the train will attract another random sphere in the field. When the sphere enters the train’s net, the train will take on the line designation of the new sphere. The ‘2’ sphere released into the sphere field and was replaced by a ‘C’ sphere. There is a possibility that this may happen again as this train approaches more sphere fields along the way. There’s a chance this sphere may stay in the net the rest of the way, there’s a chance the sphere may swap with another random sphere. There are some instances where the train will grab the line designation it started with. It’s all chance!”
“What the hell sense does that make?!”
“Who said it’s supposed to make sense? It’s all about the journey! Just be glad you moved here after the town fixed the system so that the line designation no longer causes the trains to reverse course. Now that didn’t make any sense! Phew!!”
“How do people get to work on time when they know their train isn’t going to make it to their stop?!”
“Once you start using the subway more often, you’ll begin to see the patterns and you’ll eventually figure out how to get around.”
“…This is not practical….”
“No, it’s not practical, but it works!”
At this point, all I can do is sit in my seat and fume over my newly acquired knowledge. I’m supposed to rely on this system to get around town, and to and from work. I begin to regret my decision to move here. I didn’t know what else to do other than lament while enjoying the view. It was a beautiful view, after all. Watching the buildings pass by and the sight of the sphere fields floating freely above us is oddly awe-inspiring. There was nothing left for me to do than to let go of my frustration and fear, sit back, and just enjoy the ride.
For the first month and a half, I left my house at least three hours early while I began to navigate and traverse this ridiculous subway system. There were many days where I missed my stop by one station because the line designation switched midway between approaching my stop. Eventually I stopped getting frustrated and started turning my commute into a game that combined timing, strategy, and sometimes just plain luck. This annoying commute actually started becoming fun! Nowadays, I’ve whittled down my commute to an hour, which has impressed a lot of people who have lived here for years and still can’t figure out the pattern completely. It’s not so bad. It still doesn’t make complete sense, but that doesn’t really matter, it’s all about the journey, after all!
I took a more visual approach to this prompt, thinking of the journey I would take when commuting to my previous job. Using Google Maps, I mapped out half of my commute, screen shotted it, and then started playing with the image in Adobe Illustrator.
I decided to aim for a more historical style map, with basic outlines for where paths would be, borders, and my route. While playing around with how to go about this, I finally learned how to manipulate the pen tool in Illustrator, to the point where I could actually use it for a project. Using the pen tool I was able to outline the land masses on one layer, and the green roads on a separate level. The location names are purely fictional, and entertaining. I focused on the concept of multiple roads converging around towns or cities.
Now that I’ve learned how I could conceivably create a fictional map based off of a factual one, I’m tempted to create various maps for stories of mine, based off of real life locations/land masses, but with my own twists and interpretations. It also doesn’t hurt to be able to say on a resume or in an interview that I’m familiar with Illustrator. Just how pivot tables generally comes up when talking about Excel, the pen tool tends to come up a lot when I see conversations about Illustrator.
The next step would be to use pre-created filters the give the maps a more treasure map-y feel, or more of a fantasy map aesthetic. Someday I’ll get to the ability of creating my own filters for such things. One step of education at a time.
“Mom, how much longer?”
“Just a bit longer now, sweetie. Sit tight and be patient.”
The young boy nodded, doing as his mother requested. But the patience of youth is short, and soon he was once again standing on the seat of the train car, eyes glued to the window and the view beyond. They had seen clouds and little else through that old window for what felt like forever to the small child, though in actuality they had only been traveling for about half an hour. Still, his excitement for finally getting to ride one of this strange and wonderful trains could not be dampened.
Quietly the train continued on, rocking steadily as it took the passengers to their destination. And as each second passed, the boy’s patience waned just a bit more. It was his first trip to the city after all; his first ride on one of these mystical, magnificent trains. It was all he had talked about for weeks, bragging to his school yard friends who had yet to have the pleasure, or listening with wonder and envy to those who had and were more than eager to tell their stories of adventure. None of them said anything about traveling through fog and clouds for so long though.
“It won’t be much longer. Just wait and be quiet.”
He screwed his face up in consternation, and was just about to give up on his magical journey, when an announcement over the intercom heralded their arrival. Eyes lighting up once more, he put all his focus into seeing through those darn clouds. Slowly they began to part, sunlight piercing the fog and momentarily blinding his vision. The boy squinted, the gasped at what he finally saw before him. Massive buildings, far taller than any he’d seen before, rose up from the isolated bluff. They seemed to stretch on forever, hundreds of skyscrapers filling every bit of space on the isolated land mass. But the real sight was above the many towers.
Train cars, dozens of train cars all floated above and between the buildings. Much like his own, they drifted into and out of the city, held aloft my large, brightly colored balloons. Each balloon was labelled; red two, yellow R, green L, each one identifying the train car and where it might be heading. The many cars glided past the buildings, filling the air with people as they traveled from one isolated bluff to another, the train cars all there was to connect people across the miles of open space to each other. Having grown up on a small bluff with only a few dozen families, the boy had never seen so many people, buildings, or anything really, all grouped up together so tightly. He watched with pure wonder as his own car drifted passed an office building, the people inside going about their business as though a flying train were nothing special. Yet it was all still magical to him, like some fairy tale come true, and he was right in the middle of it.
“We’ll be landing soon, sweetie.” His mother told him, pulling his attention from the sights. “You’ll have to sit down, or we won’t be able to land.”
The boy, unable to find words, simply nodded before turning to sit. Yet his eyes remained on the windows, and the view beyond. He would never forget that first sight of the city, and all those flying trains, for as long as he lived. And he hoped such trips would always remain just a bit magical.