I found myself standing on the 86th floor of the Empire State building and it became clear that I had overpaid for my elevator ride to the top. I braced myself against the wind and cycled my way around the observation deck weaving through the other people that had decided to come here after 9pm to look out on the city of New York. It was another one of those moments of being completely surrounded, and yet completely alone.
I was in New York for work. After being on a three month leave of absence, I had returned to the Seattle office to prep for a week before being flown out to catch up on the happenings in New York. Some things about the Big Apple office were different. Things like the open office arrangement, or the plethora of snacks that were waiting to be eaten. I bemoaned to one of the women in the kitchen that there were so many snacks, I was having a hard time continuing to neglect the chocolates and chips for other options like the carrots.
“Oh, I know,” she replied. “I have gained fifteen pounds since I’ve been working here. I hired a personal trainer who now tells me not to eat so much. So I can find a husband.”
I scoffed, “Because a husband is really the only thing in life you should be worried about.”
She looked at me very seriously and said, “You obviously aren’t Jewish or don’t have very many Jewish friends.”
I couldn’t disagree but I was taken aback by her seriousness, wondering if I had misread it completely or if I was just have a case of New York culture shock.
The evening after seven found me out of the office with no agenda. I began walking back to the hotel by cutting through Madison Park and taking the opportunity to take pictures. The sculptures, lights, and the group of men standing still in tai chi poses to the stereo piping in Asian music made me feel like I might have stepped into a movie set. When a couple walked by holding hands being followed by a camera crew, I blinked for a moment and then kept on walking.
When I got back to the hotel, it was after eight and I ended up logging back into my computer to do more work. The voice in the back of my head began to poke at me insistently and say, “unacceptable.” Here I was in New York after spending a good three months traveling thousands of miles and I wasn’t even going to play tourist for the evening. I bade farewell to the Californian engineer I was working with and after another warning from him that there was no good Mexican food in New York (try the ramen), I decided I was going to be a real tourist and go up into the Empire State building.
I’ll admit that there was a certain charm in the idea of Seattle meets New York through the movie, Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan show their love at the top of the Empire State building. I thought that it was the perfect homage to my current home. It was also a ten minute walk from my hotel.
So there I was standing at the observation deck on the 86th floor, after avoiding the tourist sharpshooter pictures and the audio tour. I was here to absorb what I thought I saw in the city. People were taking pictures and making poses and I felt unfocused every time I looked out over the shining lights and the moving rivers of cars over concrete. This city felt like its own universe, beating and breathing, and self sufficient.
The last two mornings that I walked to the office, I would go past florists with fragrant flowers and people set on getting to their destination. The flora out on the sidewalks gave me a new meaning to the idea of an urban jungle. They were creating the green here, even if it meant cutting branches of trees to sit as decoration in small New York flats, decomposing and dying as fall turned into winter.
In the evenings the greenery disappeared and the garbage was put out. I would travel with the same pointedness of getting from A to B and feeling like maybe I was the only one looking up. There was a certain armor that you wore living in New York. The one that made you hard. The one that made you feel alone in spite of being surrounded by so many people. This was the armor you wore to protect yourself.
On the second morning a man looked at me and said, “Good morning” in such a genuine way that it reminded me that the people in this city were still people. It reminded me that not only did I need to continue to look up to the buildings, but there were still people here as well.
Gazing out across the city lights from the Empire State building wasn’t this incredibly magical moment that slowed down time and changed my life forever. But it was a moment when I stopped to look at the city lights as stars. When I stopped to listen to the people around me and realize that these were the lights behind the stars. It was the moment I felt the cold of New York and felt the solidarity of aloneness that comes from a city that encourages the driven, direct, and disenchanted people to come as they are. It is a city were they stay awake until the odd hours of the morning to see the sun peek out from behind cement high rises and it still coaxes out a “good morning” at the right time and place.
I made my way down from the observation deck and walked past Madison Square Garden to really absorb the size of the place and then stopped in at the nearby 7 Eleven to grab myself a treat to go back to my hotel room with.
The clerk at the counter appeared to be working with his son. Both of them were speaking in Arabic as I made my way to the back to grab a hard cider from the refrigerated section. As I got to the front to ring out, the older man jumped up and pointed for me to put my item in front of him. The younger man continued to hold his tablet but also smiled up at me.
“How old are you?” asked the older man.
“I’m 21,” was my automatic reply. I colored a little embarrassed, because I was just trying to say that I was older than 21. “I mean, 32,” I told him sheepishly.
“22?” he asked. I had no idea how he could think I look that young.
“Oh, no,” I told him, “Not that young. I meant to say 32.”
The younger man interjected. “I’m 29, and I’m looking for a wife.” He smiled charmingly at me. The older man, who I assumed was his father looked at me hopefully and expectantly.
After my previous conversation with my New York office mate, I said, “I don’t think you’ll have any problem finding a wife in this city. There are plenty of women out there that want to get married.”
“Really?” the eyebrows of both men went up and they looked hopeful.
“Yeah,” I replied, “But they’re all Jewish.” I internally kicked myself for being an un-politically correct as possible but I was also giggling on the inside telling myself how hilarious I was.
“Oh, we’re Christian,” they said almost in unison and very seriously.
I realized I had stumbled into something I hadn’t expected and it was time to leave.
“Well, gentlemen,” I said picking up my cider and making a strategic exit out the door, “I’m from Seattle, so I’m afraid I can’t help.”
We bid our goodbyes and I continued on to the hotel, looking up at the sky searching for the stars obscured by the lights. But each one of those lights were screaming out in the universe, and tomorrow there was another morning… a good morning.