East Manhattan and Queens before sunset from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building.

The pleasures of New York City

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The big screens of Times Square never… stop… flashing.

It’s quite a pretty spectacle from the condo. Advertisements of beautiful fashion models and sparkly luxury goods bathe entire city blocks in light. I watch these silent loops turn night into day. The ads don’t just show once. They’re copied onto the thousands of windows surrounding Times Square and broadcast in every direction.

The smaller screens flash corporate logos I only recognize out of passive familiarity, and still I watch them. The Square — no matter the time — is forever full of onlookers doing the same… watching whatever this is. This is entertainment, really. It can’t be the kind of marketing that actually pays for itself. How many cans of cola pay for ten seconds in Times Square… when you can’t even buy a can of cola in Times Square?

I realize during this visit that escape from the din of the city is difficult to find. Everything and everyone are always on. The glass only minutely muffles the beeps and bangs and clamor of the street below. Being 300 feet above probably helps with the noise, but the windows here offer little more than a sunshade to temper the flashing lights.

Every hour of the day, someone here wants to spend a dollar, and every hour of the day, someone here wants to be the lucky vendor to pocket it. The eating business runs day and night. The subways and taxis do, too. And if not for laws saying otherwise, pubs would never shut their doors.

Even now — at more than two in the morning — the lights are too bright for my eyelids to shutter. The luxury of the condo isn’t helping. There is no escape when the walls are made of glass and they span from floor to ceiling and corner to corner. My sleeping techniques from Alaska resurface. I cover my head with a pillow, sink into the softest bed ever, and fall fast asleep.

Eric has no such luck. The flashing must have bothered him at some point during the night because I wake this morning to find the blinds closed and his head tunneled deep into the covers.

I squeeze the sleep from my eyes, open the blinds to the day, and remember something the girls said about breakfast… or breakfasts. Both sound good to me.

Not even dreams can disturb this comfortable sleep.

Not even dreams can disturb this comfortable sleep.

Walking the streets of Chinatown.

Walking the streets of Chinatown.

Chinatown is a mix of cultural ornaments from East and West.

Chinatown is a mix of cultural ornaments from East and West.

Our first full day in Manhattan is a clear and cold one. The wind from yesterday has tempered a bit, yet I’m still grateful for the balaclava covering my face. We know what we must do on a beautiful day such as this: climb the Empire State Building. Or, if hiking 102 floors is out of the question, we shall ride a few elevators to the top before beating our chests and roaring for the cameras.

First things first: the gorillas must eat. We start the day late in Chinatown. Eric’s cousins insist on soup dumplings for first breakfast. Second breakfast is more dumplings with a brief walk between. And then we find sweets at a nearby bakery and fruit from a street vendor! Eric and I bug out before the girls head off for a lobster lunch. I’ve never eaten so much food before noon in my life.

Soup dumplings for first breakfast.

Soup dumplings for first breakfast.

Walking the streets of Chinatown.

Walking the streets of Chinatown.

Pigs delivered whole.

Pigs delivered whole.

The walking streets themselves are worn out and threadbare.

The walking streets themselves are worn out and threadbare.

Freedom Tower and the condensation trail of a jet plane.

Freedom Tower and the condensation trail of a jet plane.

Pan-fried pork and crab buns for second breakfast.

Pan-fried pork and crab buns for second breakfast.

Eating more soup dumplings, pork, and buns for second breakfast.

Eating more soup dumplings, pork, and buns for second breakfast.

A beautiful dried seafood market.

A beautiful dried seafood market.

The people of New York are always on the streets pushing something for a buck.

The people of New York are always on the streets pushing something for a buck.

Finding our way from Chinatown to the Empire State Building is the first step. The map says to go north and then west. You might think that finding a thousand-foot-tall Modern Wonder of the World is as simple as being nearby and looking up. It’s not. And good luck knowing uptown from downtown without walking a block to find out. Next time, I will bring a compass.

I am honestly a tad apprehensive about visiting the ESB. Not because it’s tall… or old… or because it’s packed with so many people that given an emergency, the exit would be long, tedious, and anything but successful. I’m uneasy because of the security check.

I skipped the building during my last visit to Manhattan because of the invasive security found at other attractions. Everyone I asked said to expect more of the same. So, I found other things to fill my time.

Today feels much different. I want to go to the top with Eric more than anything else, and the romance of it all has me ready to endure hours of lines full of pushy tourists to do so. We could skip the lines for double our money, but that is substantially out of the question! Romance has a budget.

The ticket hockers selling express passes at the front door look very disappointed when we decline to buy.

The decision doesn’t come lightly. Their threats of long lines are not guaranteed but can be very real. I read a bit about the lines yesterday. This whole building is full of lines designed to get you in and hold you in queue. It’s a complex maze of waiting. And when you’re ready to leave, the way down is the same, except there is no express pass to exit unless you go out like King Kong. He had the right idea climbing to the top even if his way down wasn’t so well planned.

First, everyone goes through security. The line moves very quickly for us; the room is full, but in fifteen minutes we’re through. Several people with express passes skip the line and move directly to the front. The docents let one clever person through the express line without a pass after he promises to buy one at the ticket counter on the other side of security.

From what I can see, he just skips the line for free. Smart guy.

Much to my surprise, security is a breeze. The terrorism forecast must be cool and clear today. I cram everything metal into my jacket, push it through the x-ray machine, and walk silently through the metal detector. I pick up my jacket on the other side and move along. No fuss!

But seriously, there is no reason to rush things. After security, there’s another line. It’s the ticket line. We zoom past with prepaid tickets printed at the kiosks ahead of security. Do this. It will save you from another line.

The lines thereafter are for the first elevator and then another. Those able and willing can skip the second elevator and climb the remaining four flights to the Observation Deck on foot. Do this. Waiting in line is tempting given the view. After all, 82 is almost 86. But, we can’t see a thing. The windows are frosted! No peaking!

We climb the stairs. This saves us from waiting and gives us an opportunity to imagine the Empire State Building without elevators — a terrible fright.

The grand entrance of the Empire State Building.

The grand entrance of the Empire State Building.

Looking down the shaft of an Empire State Building lift.

Looking down the shaft of an Empire State Building lift.

As fate would have it, Eric and I arrive to the Observation Deck thirty minutes before sunset. We first look south and west. Lower Manhattan is fuzzy against the brilliance of the setting sun. In the distance there is Liberty Island and New Jersey.

The view is absolutely stunning, but the real beauty is to the north. Every south-facing building from here to the horizon takes a shade of pink and orange. Just below, Times Square and Rockefeller Center resist the change to night as fierce beacons of light in a darkening city. To the east, the forever grid of streets in Queens and Brooklyn twinkle.

This is 360 degrees of pleasure. The deck is full of people kissing and posing, posing and kissing. Picture-perfect cameras are left to antiquity. Everyone here holds giant tablets and mobile phones to the sky. They take pictures in every direction without discrimination! From here, at this moment, everything is beautiful and prize-winning. Facebook must devote an entire server farm to handle the ESB selfies constantly beaming from the top of this building.

The jokes aside, watching the sun set and the city come to night is an experience I won’t soon forget. We catch our final elevator to the uppermost viewing deck as the pinks turn to blues and the blues to black. This is the 102nd floor, and it’s well worth the additional money.

For $17 a piece we get to snuggle at the top of the Empire State Building in a cozy little room.

We’re not alone, though. The room is very cozy. That same $17 buys a snuggle with everyone else. But despite the limited space and high demand, there’s no rushed feeling to leave. The elevator operators let people come and go as they wish. The 102nd floor is polygonal in shape with windows enough for every couple.

We squeeze up to a window of our own and look thoughtfully upon this city of millions.

It’s unreal to imagine a number so large. Visualizing anything that’s on par with eight million is difficult. Eight million is reading every word in the Harry Potter series… eight times. Eight million is counting your heart beat for 80 days and 80 nights… or counting every inch in 126 miles. Eight million is truly an incredible number of people to imagine, and they all live here in New York City.

From atop this building, that number finally seems bearable. The noise of the city is gone. The hustle of the subway is gone. Times Square doesn’t evoke seizures or thoughts of financial suicide. The people and cars below are miniature and distant, moving so slowly that they might not be moving at all.

From here, my closed eyes are enough to put the city on pause.

It’s the kind of feeling one gets atop a mountain where the only noise is your excited breath and pounding heart. With Eric in my arms, I feel his beating heart against my own. It’s not pounding per se, but I feel it enough to count. One, two, three… I count for a minute. Eighty. Eighty days and eighty nights. Eight million isn’t so much after all. I could count those beats here, with him, forever.

Manhattan and New Jersey before sunset from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.

Manhattan and New Jersey before sunset from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.

Sharing a moment with Eric before sunset on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

Sharing a moment with Eric before sunset on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

So few people actually pause to see the view unobstructed by a camera.

So few people actually pause to see the view unobstructed by a camera.

East Manhattan and Queens before sunset from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building.

East Manhattan and Queens before sunset from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building.

Times Square and Rock Center after sunset from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building.

Times Square and Rock Center after sunset from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building.

Manhattan and New Jersey after sunset from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building.

Manhattan and New Jersey after sunset from the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building.

Eric watches as the city comes to life with lights.

Eric watches as the city comes to life with lights.

Brian

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