New York, New York

The Pigeons Are Illuminated

No one in New York sleeps easily on Sunday night, so where better to share the collective isolation than at the top of the Empire State Building?

‘You’re going to do what?!’ my friend asked.

‘Go to the top of the Empire State Building at night and see if I can find anybody from New York.’

‘You’ll get killed.’

She’s from here. But still.

Sometimes the idea that one lives in Manhattan is enough to keep one awake. It’s called the city that never sleeps for a multitude of reasons: in the macro sense because, well, you try to find some silence here in the middle of the night, what with the drunks and garbage trucks and what-not; in the micro sense because if all these people are up and about, there’s a good chance you might be, too. So what’s a person to do? Well, if it’s not too late, you can always try a perspective-gaining gaze into the distance from the top of 350 Fifth Avenue. Unless specifically stated otherwise, the observation deck is open every night until midnight. Last elevator up at 11:15.

I wanted a night to visit that might have a decent balance of tourists and natives—ruling out the weekends, when it’s saturated with the post-theater crowd. Sunday, when every citizen is nervous about the next day and unable to sleep, seemed the perfect night. In my quest to codify the in- and out-of-towners, I was expecting interviews. Lists. Maybe even a map to note people’s points of origin. In reality, the task was somewhat simpler: On the 86th floor of the ESB, it was hard enough to find someone speaking English, much less New-York-ese.

When I got there, it seemed there was a hell of a car-service racket going on out front. Then again, it’s a good gig—reliable, like Penn Station. But the drivers and security guards seemed so interchangeably dressed, so easily familiar—the latter pacing, chatting with the former, who were leaning against the front of the Duane Reade next door or polishing their chrome— it wasn’t hard to start having conspiracy theories. And what better place to have them than the Empire State Building? Built in a mere 16 months at the height of the Depression, it has captured the imagination of filmmakers, suicides, and real-estate moguls, as well as us hoi polloi.

But the building isn’t the whole story. The first time I went up the ESB, in 1995, my favorite part was the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World display in the lobby. Like Louis Comfort Tiffany does Coney Island, the implicit hubristic exuberance of these lit-from-behind pieces can’t be beat. (The second time I saw them, of course, they made me almost unbearably sad, like something you thought was great when you were a kid, then didn’t anymore.) In some ways the brushed aluminum building and state relief at the apex of the entryway is more majestic (and definitely prettier) than the edifice itself. Still, all the red-veined marble notwithstanding, it’s the most Metropolis-y structure New York has. (The Chrysler Building is far too pretty. And appears in the lyrics to Annie. I mean really.)

The last time I was up the Empire State Building was, coincidentally, the first night the lights stopped being red, white, and blue after September 11. It was the week after Thanksgiving, when the lights turned briefly to red and green, then to blue and white for the first night of Chanukah, then back to red, white, and blue, which, with few exceptions, they’ve stayed ever since. The building has been topped by colored lights since 1976. Ironically enough, the first colors displayed were also red, white, and blue, in honor of the U.S. bicentennial. (Through most of this November, the lights are scheduled for ‘Autumn colors’ of red and yellow. The semi-arcane and fascinating schedule for the lights—which range from purple, teal, and white for the National Osteoporosis Society, to no lights at all for AIDS awareness—can be viewed here. Weirdly enough, this time, like a homing bird I unconsciously stopped on the south face. Then someone pointed out the Empty Space and I realized why I’d paused.)

But halt—who goes here? The line between locals and non-locals seems to start in the basement. I mean, if one were to actually deign to go to the Empire State Building—to entertain out-of-town guests, of course—one would certainly buy tickets in advance, to play the good host(ess), or the relative would have some package deal ahead of time, so you could follow with kindly head-shaking solicitude. More to the point, the ticket-line basement is yellow and stinky, like an airport in a perpetually damp city. Luckily, on a coldish Sunday night in early November the lines are short and full of couples and small families with their shopping bags and nervous giggles. Passing a sign for the SkyRide—a separately owned-and-operated, virtual-reality-type attraction that takes you ‘on a ride around, above, and even below all that the City has to offer’—I wondered if anyone not prone to succumbing to the whims of petulant children would go in. In any case, when I was there, no one, local or not, seemed to be taking advantage of it. Who, after all—in these difficult days for Planet Hollywoods and Ripley’s Believe It or Nots alike—would want to ‘feel the sights from the comfort of a specially equipped, motion-simulated, big-screen theater seat!?’ Exactly.

As I mentioned, the lines were very short—even the lines to the elevator. That didn’t prevent three college-age guys from cutting around the stanchions to the front. ‘They must be from here,’ I thought. But no. Further eavesdropping revealed they were heading out later on the last train back to somewhere else.

The express elevators are exciting because your ears pop by the 20th floor and because they count by 10s—until the 66th floor. Then it’s up one by one to 80, then to another elevator to the observation deck, cozily tucked in between the middle and bottom tiers of lights. Sort of an interactive skyline, if you think about it.

At the top, the first thing you notice is how quiet it is. The sound of, say, the paper sides of individual shopping bags (the prime tourist hallmark) crackling is far louder, relatively speaking, than the traffic—even sirens—below. From that height, the Chrysler Building is unequivocally shorter. The fat lights of airplanes hang in the sky like lanterns. Midtown to the north looks inexplicably beautiful and small, and Times Square looks as bright as day.

There were small knots of Aussies, English, French, Irish, several knots of Germans, even some Belgian marathoners. And no, I am not a fabulous analyst of accents—it was the ‘New York Marathon/[Dutch-sounding town]/Belgium’ jacket on one of the runners that gave them away. Going on marathon day may in fact have stacked the deck against locals, but really—who was I to think marathon finishers would even have the energy to take an elevator up 86 floors (much less run the 1,576 stairs, as is done once a year in the insanely fabulous, invitation-only Empire State Building Run-Up)?

Aside from the collegiate line-jumpers and a rowdy busload of out-of-state high-schoolers, the visitors are—as hoped for—sedate. Notably I heard people, including me, offer to take family photos before being asked. Maybe this happens in Wisconsin, but I’ve never seen it before, here or anywhere.

As if to further stamp out my stereotypes, it took one entire circumnavigation to find a group of Japanese tourists. They, as well as several (but not many) others, held cameras out beyond the heavy wire fencing to photograph the dizzying drop that you can’t quite see with the naked eye. The building causes its own light pollution, mist-ifying the appearance of nearby buildings, so I wonder how much of the toy traffic will be visible, but no matter—it’s the thought that counts: And this incomprehensibly blurry snapshot was taken from the top of the Empire State Building!

The ‘CAUTION/LOW FENCE/DO NOT LIFT CHILDREN’ signs placed at strategic locations must pre-date the minimum-security bars that stretch overhead. It’s hard to imagine that at one point one could, if one wanted, stand one’s toddler on a high bit of masonry. Adults—the non-suicidally inclined, anyway—were likely more wary. I know I wouldn’t make it past the 60th floor without experiencing at least a modicum of regret—much less even get up the nerve to look straight down.

Nowadays, visitors have to make do with reaching beyond the fence to leave their mark. Judging by its survival, white-out makes the most visible and indelible graffiti. On September 25, 2002, Teo, from Verona, ‘was here’—apparently quite enthusiastically, as he felt the need to say so not once, but twice (to the north and west). The following day, Jan, Marie, and Tara promised ‘see you in 10 years!’

And we’ll be glad to see them—me and the four (or possibly six) locals up there that night. Well, that is if you think of ‘local’ as defined by the geography you can survey from the top—there was a family of three who were so terribly New Jersey they could have been Sopranos extras (the 30-something son in a low-rise pompadour and a leather coat I still insist on referring to as the National Jacket of Ireland). Then there was the stocking-capped girl with a bag of art-school supplies from Pearl Paint. And possibly a baseball-cap- and shopping-bag-less kissing couple, but I didn’t see fit to disturb them. Hell, they could’ve been from anywhere. Even, God forbid, Seattle.

As for New York, with all its crowds, it can still be a lonely place on a sleepless Sunday night—especially when you’ve made it to the top.