Not Just Another Skyscraper

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The Empire State Building has been linked to me, in one way or another, since before I was born. That may sound a bit confusing…but stay with me.

I am an American male, raised to hide emotional reactions.  But, I can say that the building has made me cry on more than one occasion.  When I was young, one of my favorite movies was King Kong.  I could quote lines…once upon a time…yes, I could.  Now I can merely paraphrase.  But as a boy, somehow I “got” the idea of why Kong did what he did to the people of this wonderful town.  He was frightened and he was in love with Faye Wray so he took her to the only place where he could save himself and, he thought, her.

It didn’t work. He died. She lived. And the hero at the end said something like: “It was beauty that killed the beast.”

So, I cried.

I cried again when Deborah Kerr was hit by a taxi on her way to meet Cary Grant in An Affair To Remember.  When he finally found out that she was paralyzed because of him, he cried.  “I didn’t see the taxi,” she said. “I was looking up at you.”

And, yes, I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan finally met (thanks to his little boy) on the observation deck in Sleepless in Seattle.  It didn’t help me when Jimmy Durante sang “As Time Goes By” at the end.  And, the lights of the building became a giant red heart.

[Tonight, the building is bathed in blue in honor of the Alzheimer’s Foundation.]

I kissed more than one girl on the observation deck.  I got a parking ticket once when I left my MG on 34th Street…beneath a NO PARKING sign.  I once had to pick something up for my wife in an office of the building, so I wandered the hallways, not as a tourist!

The legends and lore of the Empire State Building are many.  Amazingly, it was built in only 10 months!  It was opened to the public on May 1, 1931. (May 1 is my wedding anniversary.)

Sixteen years and one month later, I was born.

According to Wikipedia, there were 30 attempted suicides by jumping.  It seems only four were successful.  The first occurred before it was even opened.  A worker was laid off.  He jumped to his death.  One jumper clearly was not on the “List.”  She jumped off the 86th floor deck but the wind blew her back to a ledge on the 85th floor where police brought her inside.

A slightly gentler breeze could have ruined her whole day.

On a foggy day, July 28, 1945, a B-25, flying in zero visibility flew into the side of the building between the 79th and 80th floor.  Fourteen deaths resulted.  Parts of the plane severed the elevator cable and the operator survived a 75 floor free-fall.  Look it up.  She’s in the Guinness Book of World Records.

On a clear day, in late 1930 or early 1931, a young man was walking along the streets of the west Village.  The man worked for Bell Labs on Bethune Street.  He looked up and saw the workers putting the finishing touches on the Empire State Building.

The man had come from a rather poor family who lived in northeastern Pennsylvania.  He had dropped out of school and left home to find work in the Big City.  The man lived in Bergen, NJ with a relative.  His wages were low but he sent what he could back home to help out.  After a year or two, the man returned to complete high school, court a young woman named Mary…and eventually married her in 1936.

I know this story pretty well.  The man was my father, Paul.

He told me all this when I was a little boy watching King Kong.

“No,” he told me more than once.  “I never saw a large ape climbing the building.”

As a little boy, I never could quite believe him about this.  How could he not have seen the ape falling?  How could he have missed it when beauty killed the beast?

The beast?  Well, I guess that’s where I played out my small role in my father’s contact with this great building.  Sixteen years and one month after he walked down Bethune Street, I was born.

Add two years to that…I would be entering the “Terrible Twos.”  So, my father gets the beast after all.

And, about 70 years later, I’m standing on 7th Avenue looking up at a very special building…washed in blue light…honoring those who have lost their memories.

That’s something I’ve haven’t done…lose memories.

 

Dad

On this day, January 24, my father was born.  I don’t know the day of the week or the time of day.  All I know for sure is that it was 100 years ago.  My guess is that it was a home birth.  My grandfather, Michael, would likely have been pacing the floor of their modest home in Pittston, Pennsylvania.  My grandmother, Edna, would have been attended to by mid-wives and perhaps a nurse.  Then again, I don’t really know all these details for certain…maybe he was born in a hospital with doctors attending.  I just don’t know and it’s way too late for me to find out what happened…100 years today.

He lived one month past his 90th birthday.  He died in a nursing home in Sayre, Pennsylvania.  I had waited by his bedside until I felt that I had to leave.  Forty minutes after I got home, I got the call telling me he had passed.  Maybe he was waiting for me to leave before he left.  He was in a drugged sleep, so, again, I’ll never know.

He was a man with Dark Irish blood in his veins; something he was proud of.  He lived through the presidencies of Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.  He was born only a few years after the Wright brothers flew an airplane and he watched Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon.  His life spanned WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam and the Gulf Wars.  He saw the birth of the computer age and he watched with interest when Viking landed on Mars.  He lived through the Great Depression (something he never forgot).

His parents were not well off financially so he dropped out of school and headed to New York City to work for Bell Labs in the west village.  He sent a few dollars home.  With what he had left, he went to the movies.  He watched the Empire State Building being completed.

After NYC, it was back to the farm.  He finished high school a year early.  He married my mother, Mary, in 1936.  He went to work for IBM in Endicott, N.Y. in the late 1930’s and retired in the mid-’70’s.  He loved golf, Ireland and Irish golf.  It was from him that I got the love of reading.

Sadly, he went through a period of loss that began in 1991.  He lost his granddaughter, his wife and two of his four sons (both were in in their fifties).  A year before he passed away, he learned that his youngest son (me) had survived leukemia…but he never lived to see my first book published.

I could go on.  But, I will only add that he loved cars…but only certain cars.  I don’t know what criteria he used in measuring the character of a certain car over another, but look into his eyes in the photos below.  Maybe you can see something I missed.

One more thing: at around the age of 86, he discovered ABBA.

What’s left to say?  He lived a long and interesting life.  Let’s hope we all do that.

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A Random Meeting On The Famous Steps

I’m in New York City on or about December 6, 2013.  We happen to be staying at the Hotel Pennsylvania, located on Seventh Ave. just across from Madison Square Garden.  Our hotel is booked solid, so we must move to another place in order to extend our stay for two more days.  We go out for breakfast at a small place across from our hotel.  They actually wanted $18.00 for three eggs at the Lindy’s annex that is located off the lobby.

Way too much money for such frugal travelers that we are.

We have two hours to kill before a taxi can take us to the Marriott on the Upper East Side.  I want to visit the New York City Post Office, which is about a block to the west.  We walk along 34th Street and there it is.

Engraved above the Greek columns are the famous words about “neither darkness…rain…sleet…from their appointed rounds”.  I go into the lobby and see if the Post Office still does the Letters to Santa program.  They do, but you have to fill out an information sheet before you can get a letter and then have a present sent to the child.  The child who asked Santa for the doll or the truck or the Gameboy.  I buy a stamp.  It’s a Saturday so there are few people in the lobby.  My wife wanders back into the Santa Claus letter department to look around.

I stand inside the heavy brass doors looking out onto Eight Avenue.  I notice that the steps are empty of people.  A few strollers walk the avenue.  Something catches my eye.  There is a couple standing together on the bottom step.  Someone is taking their photograph with an older camera…it’s not a digital model.  I can see that from behind the door.  The photographer is holding the camera up to their eye and peering through an eyepiece.  Not often done these days.

I’m strangely attracted to this couple.  Perhaps it’s their long coats that don’t seem quite in style.  There’s something.

Slowly, I begin descending the slate steps.  My right leg is hurting so each step down is a task for me.  I nearly lose my balance and reach out for the double railings.

Each step down is painful…and it feels like it’s taking forever to reach the bottom…like each step was worth five or ten years of effort.

When I reach the bottom, the man is taking the camera back from the stranger.  The man says “thank you” and the fellow moves on to cross the street.  That’s when I notice that the cars have somehow changed from multi-colors to black.

Something is drawing me to this couple.  I approach and stand facing them.  The man says “hello” and the woman just smiles through her red lipstick.  Her hair is black.  The man looks dashing in a belted trench coat.  The coat is secured by a rakish loose fold of the belt.

I stare at them.  There is something familiar…terribly familiar about these two people.  I began to feel light-headed.  I’m suddenly aware that there is a trickle of blood running from my nose.  I often get nose bleeds in dry and cold weather.

“Here,” said the man, as he offered me his handkerchief.

Are you from out-of-town?, I ask.

“Yes”, the man said.  “Just seeing the sights of the City”.  The woman is staring at me.  I look deep into her eyes.  There’s something I can see but can not name.  I look into his eyes and have the same sensation.

“Do you have any kids?”, I ask, searching for something to make the moment of contact last longer.

“A boy.  He’s three.  My wife’s sister is watching him right now over in Queens.  We hope to have a larger family someday”, the man added…now it was his turn to find a way to stretch the moment.

I’m getting nervous.  I feel shy about talking to such strangers.  Strangers that looked at me like they knew me from somewhere.

A minute later the man takes his wife’s arm and they head to the street to hail a taxi.

“Wait!” I yell.  But it’s too late.  I hear the door of the cab slam shut.  The man looks out at me and smiles in a very peculiar manner.  He waves.  Not a good-bye wave…rather a we’ll see you later kind of wave.  The sped off on Eight Avenue.

I’m left with a sense of emptiness and yearning.  I wanted to get to know this couple better.  But it was too late.

For them, it looked like a cold day.  For me, I was chilled to the bone.  I walked back up to the top of the steps, and had my wife snap a photo of me. Behind my head…at the bottom of the steps, is the spot where they stood.  Over seventy years ago.

I was going through a box of old, yellow and cracked photos just tonight.  I found the one that has haunted me since I was a little boy.  I examined the photo with a magnifying lens.  I can make out the shape of a man behind the heave glass of the brass door at the top of the stairs.

Were they think about having another son?  One who would be on time seventy years late for an appointment?

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My father, when he worked at the Bell Labs in the early ’30’s.

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