If you have a poetic streak at all, you can wear out your brain comparing the New York skyline to things that are not the New York skyline. Henry James, the 19th-century novelist who viewed it years before the building boom of the 1920s and ’30s, which added the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings and began defining its modern contours, compared it to a pin-cushion whose pins had been inserted in the dark. Roland Barthes, the lofty French critic and philosopher who came along many decades later, called the cityscape—all in the same sentence—“a petrified desert of grids and lattices,” “an inferno of greenish abstractions under a flat sky,” and “a real metropolis from which man is absent by his very accumulation.” (You can exhale now.) And then there’s Ayn Rand, whose novel The Fountainhead is about a stubborn architect so steely, glassy, and hard-edged that he may as well be a skyscraper himself. For her it is “the will of man made visible.”
And for me? I’m rushing straight toward it in a cab, after landing at JFK airport well after midnight, meaning the highway ahead is largely empty and the luminous vista unobstructed. What metaphor shall I choose for what I’m seeing? I’m thinking I should contemplate this more. I won’t be here long, but I do have a park-facing room at the Ritz-Carlton on 59th Street, and I am signed up for a helicopter tour that will swing me high over the canyons of... Scratch that sentence. Not only is canyons abysmally unoriginal, it’s inaccurate. As a resident of Montana and Nevada, I live around canyons, real ones carved by rivers. None of them are lit from within, sheathed in reflective materials, or topped with antennae, transmitters, and masts. The New York skyline is not a natural object, though it does have the scale and unity of one. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut called it Skyscraper National Park. Except no bears.
And no campgrounds, blessedly. At great hotels, one can never arrive too late or too bedraggled: When I stumble in at 2 a.m., the gentleman at the check-in desk looks neither sleepy nor annoyed, but as though I’m right on time. Moments later I’m in my room, lodged snugly in the skyscape that I was only moments ago admiring. In the window is all one can ask for in a window—namely, Central Park, laid out the long way, a rectangular dark cutout in the city. Despite the grit of exhaustion in my eyes, I feel like the master of something as I gaze out, though a master of what I can’t exactly say. New York views will do that to you, particularly angular views from middle heights, where you still feel human and a part of things instead of like a passing dirigible or a lonesome bird of prey.
Though I guess I’ll soon find out what that’s like too, on my special helicopter tour designed to accommodate aerial photographers, professional and amateur alike. Me, I’m not even an amateur, really; I can barely operate my iPhone. I’m not sure what to expect from the excursion, though it might turn me into Rand or one of her heroes—a fearless, haughty individualist with snickering contempt for the weaklings of the world.
I have the next day to myself because the president is staying at his very own tall building, shutting down the airspace above Manhattan. Airspace, of which there is less and less each year, thanks to the thrusting new residential supertowers centered in this very neighborhood, particularly along 57th Street. I notice this phenomenon when I venture out for lunch. The structure I most want to gawk at from the street is 432 Park Avenue, right nearby and the second-tallest building in New York City, exceeded only by One World Trade Center. To see the matchstick-shaped tower from my room, I’d have to be able to stick my neck way out the window and crane it to the right—an impossible contortion. But I glimpsed it from my cab last night, and I can sense it is there, somehow. The power of truly monumental buildings does not require that they be visible, only that they exist somewhere in the consciousness. I learned this when I was 12, on my first trip to New York. My parents considered the city dangerous, so they locked my brother and me in a room high in an aging Times Square hotel, instructing us to stay put till dinner. All I could see were the walls across the street and yellow Checker cabs below, but I sensed that behind me somewhere, just blocks away, was the Empire State Building, King Kong’s jungle gym. I knew it only from the movies, but that was knowledge enough to make it real.
On my walk to the base of 432 Park, which I make while staring upward, in the most annoying tourist fashion (“New York is the only city in the world where you can get deliberately run down on the sidewalk by a pedestrian,” wrote New York Times columnist Russell Baker), I indulge in a series of deep thoughts. They remind me of the pretentious profundities uttered by Woody Allen at the very beginning of his movie Manhattan, when he tries and fails and tries and fails to sum up his wild attraction to the city. My first thought is that the skyline is rather new in strictly historical terms but that it feels old and established nonetheless, and even like an ancient wonder sometimes. Why is that? I credit photography, both the still kind and the kind that moves. Consider: The Great Pyramid of Giza, though around for many millennia, provokes far fewer images than 20th-century Manhattan does on any given day. It grew up in the age of the image, the cityscape, and its density of depiction is unrivaled. What makes it feel old in a peculiar new way is not just familiarity, however, but the quality of the attention paid by those who have taken its film portraits, from Alfred Stieglitz to Allen himself.
My second deep thought forms when I reach my goal and look up at the singular sliver of superluxury from a spot on the sidewalk that’s not ideal for viewing it. It is this: The Paul Simon song “Slip Slidin’ Away” (“The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away”) is an unnervingly precise description of what it is like to look up at a great skyscraper from the curb directly in front of the great skyscraper. In some vital way, it disappears on you, even if you can see right to its top. The foreshortening of perspective is one culprit, but the real problem is the lack of context. And 432 Park lacks context anyway, because it’s a quantum leap taller than its neighbors. To some critics, this disparity is troubling; they find the building, like others of its kind whose residences cost tens of millions of dollars and exist at Olympian elevations, domineering, snotty, and disruptive. Other observers adore such towers’ moxie, their go-it-alone self-possession and confidence. Rand would have agreed with them, I’m certain, but I’m not sure what I think yet. I’m in too close, with too much to take in.
I hope the president leaves town on schedule, and I hope the weather is clear tomorrow. I need to go for a helicopter ride.
As I leave my room the next morning, I take one long, last gander at Central Park and am struck by the paradoxical notion that, compared with the edifices framing it, the rectangle of trees and lawns and ponds looks like the built thing, the artificial thing, while the buildings appear natural. That they are private and it, the park, is public also seems a little odd. But New York is a place of magnificent inversions, where night, for example, can be as busy as day.
The tour company, FlyNYON, picks me up in one helicopter so it can deliver me to another. The second craft is in New Jersey, parked at the company’s new terminal. Crackerjack staffers prepare me for what’s next: a flight of around 20 minutes in a craft without doors, my legs hanging in space and only a chest harness with a cable in back attaching me to something that isn’t air. The idea is to open up my range of vision for freestyle picture taking. I’m given a clamp on a stick to hold my smartphone and ushered toward the pad, where the pilot is already seated, checking instruments. I sit on the edge of the open cabin, hayride-style, and someone buckles my cable.
Up, up we go, but it doesn’t feel like up. It feels like away. Away from all that’s solid and into the turbulent heart of all that’s not. I hold up my phone stick, buffeted by rotor wind, and try to shoot in the direction of the Empire State Building. We’re already quite a distance above it, and its power to orient my gaze is precious, because from up here, from away, there is no skyline. There is no line. No silhouette. I’m looking down into something that reminds me of the inner crystals of a vast geode. From away, the buildings also look farther apart, with plenty of space between their bases and even more between their peaks. Is geo-mytho-tectural a word? Well, I’m making it one, because no others I know come close to describing what’s under my tingling legs and feet.
It’s hard to remember from this vantage point that the city is inhabited. By human beings, I mean. From here, I would have to conclude that Manhattan’s true citizens are its tall buildings. The place is theirs, all theirs, and if they allow us among them, little us, it’s because we’re unnoticeable and nearly harmless. (Nearly, I say, because two towers are missing, thanks to our ungovernable souls.) To sum it all up, I don’t want to go back down again, now that I know it’s a land for giants, not people. This ride, which is already ending, has been the opposite of an ego trip.
And then it’s over, and it’s time. Time to formulate my master metaphor. I fear it won’t make sense to other people, but here it is, plucked from the heavens above Wall Street, with the Statue of Liberty way down to my left. I once had an elderly psychiatrist who asked me one day toward the end of a long session: “Ever wonder why they call us shrinks? It’s because we put life and your problems in perspective. We make them smaller. We shrink things down.” That’s what New York did once I topped its skyline and gazed down into its shining, stony essence. But that is merely its superficial aspect, its visual self. Its deep self is something else. In its depths, which are identical to its heights, New York is a wise old psychoanalyst whose patients are everyone who’s ever beheld it, from any angle, any distance. And this is the doctor’s prescription: Get over it. Get over yourself. Life is short.
And so are you.