When I read about Stephen Wiltshire, I wanted to see his work for myself. I can barely remember telephone numbers or locations without jotting them down, let alone entire skylines. This sounded amazing.
Armed with HopStop directions to Pratt, I headed to the subway and did a time check on my phone. 2:20. I should get there around 3:30, I thought.
People usually shun NYC subways, deeming the maps a labyrinth of indecipherable lines. I wasn’t scared. I’m notoriously bad with driving directions, but my traveling exploits have seasoned my subway- and walking-map literacy. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized years of GPS and Googlemapping have also conditioned me to forgo better judgment and blindly follow what’s already been decided.
After the first train, I transferred onto the next without much thought. I didn’t even bother to read the sign.
Eyes: White number, orange circle.
Legs: I will blindly follow whatever you say.
Higher consciousness: ……….
I didn’t realize the train was headed the wrong direction until much later. On the road, this is fine. You usually get off the highway, turn around and get on the right one. On the subway, this equates to panic, confusion and, if you don’t have a map handy or if you do but don’t want to pull it out for fear of being targeted as Silly Tourist Girl, resignation, all the while getting farther and farther from where you need to go with each missed stop.
I got off some desolate stop, using my “I know where I’m going” face, and decided I’d just hop on the next train going the other way. Then, I saw them. Yellow tape across the staircase blocking where I needed to go. I contemplated hopping over them, tapes be damned, when someone nearby uttered an exasperated, “That train isn’t stopping here?!”
A girl, who had been standing in front of me staring at something, nonchalantly turned around and said, “No. You’ve got to get off at 61st and catch the train there.”
Such wisdom! I thought. She had memorized all the stops on this particular line and could predict the train schedule, even all the idiosyncrasies and changes!
It wasn’t until she walked away that I noticed what she had been staring at: Signs about construction, schedule changes and the stops to use. The girl had something more important than impeccable memory and psychic powers. She had common sense.
It took me more than the estimated hour and a half to get to Pratt. It involved another transfer, walking through what I thought was the graffiti-laced ghetto of Queens (which my roommate later informed me is actually an artist’s haven), before I finally got to Pratt around 4 p.m.
I was sweaty, flustered and determined to get the most out of my ordeal. By golly, I was going to stay there until it closed! And then it hit me. Here was a man who could memorize skylines after a few minutes, and there I was, a mere mortal who could not follow simple directions.
I knew I belonged on the other side of the rope, marveling at the artist before me.
He took a 20-minute helicopter ride above NYC and, without
looking at notes or photographs, produced this in six days.
When he draws, he listens to NKOTB, Backstreet Boys, Beyonce, Outkast and ’80s and ’90s music. He’s done panoramic memory drawings of London, Rome, Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
He kept smiling right before he finished (He finished two days early). Afterward I asked him what he was thinking about when he smiled. He said, “I was excited to finish the panorama. My last panorama forever.” His sister, Annette Wiltshire, said, “He’s always smiling. He was born a smiler.”