Memories of Tall Buildings
Don't look down.
I have an old black-and-white photo of my family, such as it was then. We are standing atop the RCA building in midtown Manhattan, but they don't call it that anymore; it's 30 Rock now, but you'd know this one if you've ever been to my hometown. It's the tall one, directly behind the golden Prometheus in Rockefeller Center. They hoist the big Christmas tree up in front of this one each year and millions of people come to see and to look up and up.
In the photo, I'm about five years old. My father is holding my hand and my mother has my big brother's hand. We're standing with our backs to the railing and beyond us is a city that is no longer the same. New York moves like a river.
The railing at the edge of the roof in the photo stops at about the top of my little-boy head. There is no suicide fence – just a stone-and-steel railing that comes up to my father's waist. Imagine that.
I'm wearing a winter jacket and a cap with a short brim. We're all smiling. My father is wearing a long topcoat. He looks like a tough guy in a gangster movie. My mother looks like someone who stays home with the kids, which is what she did because no wife of his would ever have to work, no matter what happened.
America was innocent then. They'd let you up on top of such a building where there were no fences to keep you from jumping. But there weren't many people jumping back then. We were innocent and I remember the man who took the photo. He wore a fedora and he handed my father a cardboard receipt. The photo arrived in the mail and I remember that day too. We were standing on top of the world and I thought that that made us very special.
My father picked me up in his arms the day the man took the photo. He held me tight to his beer keg of a chest and then he leaned slightly toward the edge a few times. He said, "WHOA! WHOA!" and I screamed and laughed at the same time and I can still smell the Chesterfields on his breath as he laughed and tried to make his boy tough. My father was just ten years back from his war and he wasn't afraid of anything. He had stared down death on those Pacific beaches, and everything was going to be fine from now on. He scared the crap out of my brother and me more than once – in the water, on a roof, in the car, swaying from one side of the road to the other and yelling like a champ – and always, it was to make us tough. Today, they'd probably throw him in jail for doing these things, but we were all so innocent then, and this was just the way a New York guy raised his boys. He'd lean toward the edge and laugh. We'd scream and laugh and my mother would say, "Don't look down!" and she, too, would laugh.
I was working for a rep years ago and we needed to see an engineer from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey about some plans for a building that was going up. These people were in the World Trade Center, way up near the top. We rode an elevator that made your ears pop because it moved that fast and then we waited in the outer office until they called us. I was a kid in the business back then and the other guy was going to do all the talking. I was there to listen and to learn.
The engineer's drafting table was near a tall, narrow window. I looked down and got that queasy feeling that I always get when I look down from places this high. You'd think I'd be used to this by now, but I'm not. "We sway a bit in the wind," the engineer said.
"Not much, but you can certainly feel it."
"What's that like?" I said.
"Not bad," he laughed. "It's not like we're going to topple over. It's all engineered into the place. If it doesn't sway a bit in the wind it'll break."
I looked down and got queasy again. But I couldn't help but look down. It was too compelling.
One day, a little Frenchman named Phillipe Pettit got up on the roof and somehow managed to get a tightrope strung between the towers. I watched on the TV as he spent a good part of his day dancing back and forth in the sky. I got sick to my stomach just watching him on the TV but he seemed as natural up there as the wind.
Another day, George Willig climbed up the side of one of the towers as I watched on the TV. "Don't look down," I mumbled. They arrested him when he got to the top, and then they all posed for photos and laughed, and that's the way it is in my city.
I took Marianne to the Windows on the World restaurant for dinner one night. We had gotten a babysitter and this was a special time for us. The tables were set up like stadium seats so that you could see forever, no matter where you sat. We looked out onto our city to the places where we were born – Yorkville for me, Greenpoint in Brooklyn for her. And we looked out toward Long Island through a blizzard of lights. "I can see our house," she said and she smiled.
"Where?" I asked, leaning closer to her.
"There," she said, pointing into the blizzard, and she turned to me and smiled and there was an innocence in the night and it was so very good to be in New York, and to be a New Yorker.
We would cross these little bridges on our way home from Jones Beach during the summer. Robert Moses built these bridges when America was younger, and building great roads and bridges was noble, and nothing would ever stand in the way of such work. If it wasn't too hazy, you could see the Empire State Building and the twin towers of the World Trade Center from these bridges. They were forever there on the horizon and Kelly, and Meghan, and Colleen, and Erin, our little girls, would sit in the back seats of the big Ford Club Wagon and one would be the first to spot "New York!" and she would squeal with delight as she beat her sisters to the punch that day. And Marianne and I would glance over toward the towers and then back at each other, and we would smile. Common memory is the true treasure of a long marriage.
She was reading the newspapers days after it happened, and she said to me, "No one can really understand any of this unless they live here."
"It's happening to all of America," I said.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "They don't know it like we do. They can't possibly understand any of this." And the look on her face closed that conversation for good.
We were flying from Chicago to New York City on a Sunday evening in late September, 2001. LaGuardia was ahead of us and there was hardly anyone on the plane. She sat next to the window and I sat next to her. "Where are we?" she asked. "New Jersey," I said, watching the refineries come into view. And then we were over the harbor, and then we saw the Lady, and then there was the fire.
And there was not a camera in this world that could capture what we saw down there, and tears welled in my eyes.
"Don't look down," she whispered, but it was too compelling not to look down. You had to look down, and you had to remember the days of our innocence.