Most city goers who ride in a taxi usually turn the “taxi TV” off when they get in the cab. The glowing blue screen is usually either a hindrance to conversation or an annoyance after a long day of work. On a chilly Wednesday in early October, I left the television on for a cab ride to a friend’s apartment, and as a result, the trajectory of my night was significantly altered. Sandwiched between the cacophony of an overly hyperbolic Kelly Ripa monologue and an advertisement for Barney’s New York was the image of a young couple running into a grand marble building. That building, I would find out later from the shiny ad, was the Empire State Building, and it was open until 2 AM. I leaned my head to the crack in the plastic divide between the driver and me and told him my new destination: “33rd and 5th Ave, please.”
After living in New York City for the past 3 years, and in close proximity to it for my entire life, I realized it was a little peculiar that I had never actually been to the Empire State Building. I had obviously admired it from afar, many nights gazing at the sky looking for any semblance of a star, and instead focusing on the different colors of the bright lights- green on St. Patrick’s Day, red, white and blue on the Fourth of July, and purple for NYU graduation. I had heard of the observation deck, but never experienced it, always having something better to do or feeling too aloof to assume the role of a tourist.
The cab stopped at the corner of the block, where ushers with headsets were waiting for those who had come to gaze from the observation deck. Once ushered inside, visitors are met with a sumptuous lobby, covered in marble. Three more ushers wearing red outfits are waiting just inside the door, adding to the grand cinematic quality of the building, evoking images of the American movie palaces of the 1920s. The place is crowded, but obviously not at capacity, as there are several lanes guided by red velvet rope, which remain uninhabited. The small crowd winds its way around the vacant lanes to another usher, who offers a genuine welcome to the Empire State Building. After ascending an escalator, expecting to be at the ticketing counter, I am met instead with a sea of even more roped lanes. Either this place is packed during the day, or the Empire State Building is grossly over accommodating. Another usher playfully remarks, “Just follow the yellow brick road to receive your tickets!” I look down at my feet and see a zigzagging honey brown marble motif that snakes across the room in patterns. The walk along the yellow brick road is intercepted by yet another red-capped usher. “Where are you visiting from?” he asks me, smiling. “I’m from here, New York,” I say, a bit defensive as if I expected this man to assume by my dress that I am not a tourist. “Just trying out the tourist thing?” he asks, all the while smiling. I frustratingly begin to explain my assignment, but before I can finish, I am whisked up the line and to the ticketing booth.
It is not cheap to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I pay $20 to go the 86th floor observatory, feeling a bit cheated by the extra 15 dollars that one must shell out to go to the 105th floor. The sense of being a lowly tourist coupled with my now dwindling pocket size makes me start to second guess my evening’s plans. The next part of the line didn’t help my bruised ego either. The winding lanes of rope restart, and this time it is interrupted by a mandatory checkpoint, a photo op in which each group stands in front of a green screen with the rest of the line watching. The photo is then put on a superimposed background of the Empire State Building in all its glory, and displayed on three or four TV screens placed around the large room, so that people on different parts of the line can see. This process is probably not as embarrassing for the majority of the people here who are visiting with families, but, me being the only party of one in sight makes things pretty uncomfortable for me. “Can I just skip this part?” I ask the two usher-cum-photographers. “Come on, give us a smile, everyone gets their picture taken!” I begrudgingly stand in front of the camera and give two half-assed thumbs up, submitting to my fate. “Where are you from?” asks one of the photographers. “I live in Brooklyn,” I say, in a voice that is obviously concealing my frustration. “Well, what are you doing here?” he laughs. Choosing not to address him for fear of losing my shit in public, I walk away from the station with my photo ticket, which I bury deep in my jacket pocket to be forgotten.
It is now finally time to go up the first of two elevator rides to the top. It must be noted that there at least seven or eight more ushers on this floor. I think about telling some of my jobless friends to apply here, because judging by how incredibly overstaffed this place is, they must be hiring on a regular basis. I finally make it into the elevator, where I am with a family from the Midwest, who I later find out are here in New York for the first time. A robot voice bellows from the speakers, welcoming me (yet again) to the Empire State Building. It shuts off and the father of the family from Kansas turns to me. “Where are you from?” he asks me. “New York!” I spit back at him, hardly concealing my anger. At this point, I realize how miserable I must seem to this man. I have probably just proved a few of his notions of city folk to be true. I apologize, and explain that I am just having a stressful day, and remark on the absurdity that was the velvet rope maze. The man and his family seem to have not the slightest complaint about the convoluted process that I am referring to. I offer him a smile. This really wasn’t that bad so far, I say to myself, as I begin to realize that I am making a fuss over nothing. We get out of the elevator, this time met by another troop of ushers whom I smile at. We wait for the next elevator to take us to the great heights of the building. Another usher leans in. I know what’s coming. “Where are you coming from?” she asks. I compose myself. “I’m from out of town, just visiting.” “Well enjoy your stay!” she answers as I walk into the elevator. This experience will be a lot more enjoyable if I submit. I am, in fact, a tourist in this situation, never having been to the building. With my air of New York arrogance behind me, I step out of the elevator, breeze past the movie theatre style concession concourse, and finally get a glimpse of the observation deck.
I am ushered out of glass doors to the deck, where there are a lot more people than expected, mostly Europeans speaking in different dialects and taking photos. For a place that is surely comprised of groups of tourists, it seems that the different nationalities and identities of those on the deck are kind of like a little microcosm for New York City (cliché but true). I can finally take in what I came for, and the scene is truly breathtaking. From the deck, there are miles and miles of urban sprawl. Blinking lights, moving cars, floating barges. Everything is alive. The lights on the Empire State Building are white tonight, bathing the view of the city blocks in an ethereal white glow. At first I think of how far up I am, how removed this deck seems from the urban jungle 86 floors below. The pearly white light gives the metropolis a Gotham City feel, a really romantic aspect of the city that I often forget when I take in the sights (and smells) of lower Manhattan every day. However, the ethos of the city is not lost. Even this far above street level, the hustle and bustle of city life can be felt. Taxicabs blowing on the horn can be heard down on Fifth Avenue, as well as whining ambulances. The grid blocks of lower Manhattan are lit up with droves of cars, turning and stopping, pushing and pulling in the strange mosaic. Cars veering down Broadway look like tiny embers being flicked from a cigarette. A Pepsi-Cola sign on the coast of Brooklyn flashes brightly, while the sign of the W Hotel in Hoboken leaves a beautiful red stain on the Hudson. The placid, flat water that surrounds Manhattan offers a nice juxtaposition to the pulsing vigor of life that I am witnessing below me. The 20-dollar entrance fee, although steep, seems to be worth it as I gaze out at this truly awe-inspiring panorama.
I make my way around the observation deck, staying on each of the four sides for about 15 minutes or so, looking at familiar spots, reminiscing on my past three years here. I try to pinpoint my friends’ apartments on Stanton Street, the campus at NYU, a few bars that I frequent and my old place of work. A French couple stands next to me, pointing out into the distance and speaking in a pretty yet indigestible French accent. I realize what they are pointing at when the woman says something that sounds like this to my untrained American ear: “Jeux le ceu veux Staten Island beu ceu.” New Jersey seems stretch on forever, with factories glowing in the distance. A few buildings shield the magnetic lights of Times Square, but their magnitude still pervades the area as they are projected on the windows of the obstructing structures. The view to the north is a little less hectic than downtown but just as awe inspiring- cars racing up the avenues, forming one long train of yellow lights. The bridges to the east that connect Brooklyn to Manhattan are totally illuminated, and equally impressive. The aerial view of these familiar places surely makes one realize what they take for granted. This perspective of the great architecture of the bridges, the imposing office buildings of Wall Street, and the wide streets are enough to reinvigorate one’s love for the city that never sleeps. That’s precisely what it did for me. The visit is done, and I get in line to go back down the elevators. As I exit through the gift shop, feeling pretty great about the whole experience, there are some of the most god awful tee shirts I can remember ever seeing, even for a concourse of a destination that is largely regarded as a tourist trap (which I now know it is not). It is good to know that although the experience was incredibly grounding, it hasn’t stripped me entirely of that elite New York sensibility.
I waddle past the rows of the green screen pictures that have now been printed out and can be redeemed, and make my way down the series of elevators, around the winding lanes, through the Yellow Brick Road, and back to the street. The street is still impressive from down here, as if the new vantage point has reinstilled in them their grandiose nature. I decide to take a walk downtown to hop on the L train, taking in the city that thousands of people forget to notice every day. My trip to the Empire State Building burned a hole in my pocket, but gave me a larger appreciation of the city that I live in, an appreciation that I probably haven’t felt since I first moved here three years ago. Everyone should take a night and spare some money to assume the role of the New Yorker’s most dreaded nemesis: the tourist. Perhaps one must feel a bit removed from the city in order to appreciate it, and up in the sky on the top of the Empire State Building is a pretty spectacular place to do so.