Room With A View

by

01/03/2002

E 40th St & Park Ave, New York, NY 10016

Neighborhood: Midtown

Matt worked on the 43rd floor of a building one block from Grand Central. When people came to visit, we took them up to the 46th floor conference room and let them look out the windows at the rooftop gardens and into other office windows and down Park Avenue, stretching away below in orderly blocks. Paint lines on the pavement, clusters of green along the medians, traffic massing and criss-crossing–it all looked neat and clean from that height, and you could see all the bus numbers painted on their roofs, as if everything were part of a system. At night the city was a pattern of light bulbs. The traffic signals would change color and the cars would stop and start for a mile, all champagne yellow headlamps one way, red taillights the other.

The conference room jutted off a corner of the building, half-walled with windows on two sides. We would silently move from one bank to another, raising the blinds and pressing our foreheads to the glass, and then cross the hall to a larger conference room and start again, pointing out to our guests where buildings were, or where they used to be.

The view was proof that Matt’s father had been wrong when he asked Matt what he was going to do when he had to move back to Kansas, broke, because he couldn’t find a job in New York. Proof that Matt had gotten not just a job, but a real job, even if he had dropped out of college. Matt had interviewed for the position in a smaller version of these conference rooms, standing at the windows and looking at the view from the 42nd floor as he answered the questions of a lawyer in Philadelphia whose disembodied voice came out of the speaker phone in the middle of the conference room table. It was a law firm that the conference rooms belonged to, and it hired Matt after that interview to run reports on the world’s largest sex discrimination class action suit. And sometimes, after ten or twelve or sixteen hour days, Matt would slip into a conference room and look out at the view.

The building was entirely covered in black glass panels, with its street address number prominently displayed above the revolving doors of its lobby. The building’s owners had taken the number for the building’s name–it was woven into the carpets in the elevators, and appeared on the security guards’ blazers. The building’s official entrance was off 40th Street, and it sat back, facing the corner of 40th and Park at an angle, with a triangular granite plaza before it, a fountain to the side. When the cow sculptures had come to the city, they had put one in front of Matt’s building–a heifer in pink gingham.

Rumor had it that the makers of The Devil’s Advocate, the movie with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves, had planned to use the building and its conference rooms, but the deal had fallen through. Seinfeld did use the façade to stand in for one of George’s workplaces. And I had recognized its plaza and lobby behind women photographed for a fashion magazine’s on-the-street poll. Indeed, the first thing we had done after Matt found out he’d gotten his job was take pictures of him on that plaza, tilting the camera up to catch as much of the building as possible. We had to cross Park to get a better shot. It was spring, and the planters along the avenue were full of daffodils. We sent a picture of Matt leaning against a planter, the daffodils beside him and the black glass building behind him, back home to his parents. Everything looked neat and clean, and Matt looked happy and successful already–proof that we hadn’t been wrong to get married all of a sudden and move to New York! Proof that it wasn’t all rats in the subway and us cashing in Matt’s 401(k) to pay the rent.

As much as its skyline has been photographed, New York is a city fetishistically shown from above, by both the media and artists. (“Amazing how much we’ve been able to pack onto this island!” seems to be the point.) In November 2001, in a fit of transplanted-New Yorkerism, Matt ordered the entire seven DVD series of Ric Burns’s New York from Channel 13, clutching his credit card as he paced in front of the television on Thanksgiving day. In every segment, the city is shown from above, often repeatedly so, whether by map or by camera. Often these shots are contemporary–the familiar patterns of light bulbs at night–no matter what time period the segment features. This is the way we see New York. This is the way we get a handle on it. It is impossible to see for any distance down on the streets. We need to get on top to get perspective, to lose perspective, to feel in control, to feel awed, to feel free as the documentary camera flies over the tip of the Chrystler Building

Moving to the city, it seemed as if most of New York’s great sights consisted of just that–the ability to see–whether it was the view from the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty’s crown, or the World Trade Center’s observation decks, which my friends from home, visiting in the spring of 2001, decided to skip when they found out it had an admission fee. I never went back to see it myself. After all, we had the view from Matt’s office’s conference rooms for free. And it didn’t matter that his own office had no windows, or that our first floor apartment had no view at all beyond a stone wall and parts of old refrigerators, or that we would never be able to afford the apartments that were expensive precisely because of their views. We had our own New York view–proof that we had made it here.

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