That view from a high floor
HERE I am studying, not an article or a chart, but an advertisement in my favorite motorcycle magazine. ``There are millions of stories in the city. This one is Yamaha's,'' blares the caption. The caption, however, is superimposed on a photo of several city blocks, taken from, say, the 35th story window of a skyscraper. I scrutinize the photo. The city looks familiar -- also very strange. Do I know it? That granite building off on the right looks like a building on Arlington Street in Boston, but the building next to it looks like the Crown Zellerbach headquarters in San Francisco. But isn't it at the wrong angle to the street?Skip to next paragraph
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As I continue investigating this picture I begin to feel the pleasant giddiness that comes with altitude. In effect I am 35 stories up; but because I'm not aware of any building around me, any floor or ceiling or glass, it's as if I'm floating in space. I suddenly begin to understand more clearly the appeal of Superman, who has never really been one of my heroes. Imagine this -- this perspective, this gravity-defying view -- as part of a daily routine! I feel a little disoriented, but thoroughly content .
Height is one of those rare, reliable perspective-changers. Just getting up a little higher than normal seems to allow the mind to soar, to clear away its earthly cobwebs. At one time, when I was working on a newspaper in Boston, I was required to run copies of the day's page proofs to an office on the 26th floor of a building across the plaza from the news room. Although I made this delivery almost every day, I never lost my amazement at the view from that high floor.
Boston was no longer simply the familiar streets and sidewalks of my neighborhood; it was not the subway, the Green and Red Lines that took me to the Charles River and the docks of Community Boating; it was not simply City Hall or Copley Square or the Prudential Center.
It was much better than this. It was a whole, an elaborate pattern of trees and brick town houses and skyscrapers and railroad tracks, of neighborhoods blending into other neighborhoods and the great city running right out to the water, the sparkling Atlantic. I felt, sometimes, as if I were a kind of astronaut, taking a breather from the heavy air at sea level and going up to where I could see a kind of wholeness, a relatedness of communities and buildings and highways. To be honest, I think as time we nt on I actually prepared myself to be astonished, so great was the pleasure: I never wanted to become jaded when I faced that special view.
The other pleasure of high places is actually that slight sense of disorientation: One is forced to take stock of the fact that this ``same place,'' this city, is really very different from different angles. Perhaps it's a kind of trick, a form of calisthenics to keep the mind open and flexible. In Boston I was constantly surprised by the way Back Bay angled north and east into downtown Boston. It didn't feel right, somehow; it wasn't the way I felt I was going in the subway, certainly. But it was right , and I liked having that regular geography lesson to keep my perspective straight.
Now, as I turn back to my advertisement, I feel the same kind of disorientation and pleasure. I don't yet know where I am, but look -- there are four chairs on the black tar roof of this one skyscraper. Three are grouped together, near a kind of gazebo, while one is off to the side. Were three businessmen, perhaps, working out a deal, while a resident sunned himself a few yards away? Is this what I just missed? The small articles of daily life group themselves into possible stories, which are fasc inating precisely because they are divorced from the more commonplace possibilities of the street.
But now I look more closely, ignoring my giddiness for a moment. This city has a plethora of one-way streets; that sounds like San Francisco. The only two visible thoroughfares meet at about a 40-degree angle -- very unusual in a major city, at least in my experience, but consistent with something like Bush or Sutter Street running into Market. Yes, that makes sense -- because the Crown Zellerbach building sits at the apex of that 40-degree angle, right between Market and Bush. And there's that small sk yscraper with the funny elevator shafts, just south of Market and Zellerbach Plaza, where it should be. So here I am in San Francisco after all, not Boston or Los Angeles or Seattle. I feel at home again. As I've gone over this advertisement, though, I've had the same sudden rush of pleasure I experienced on the top floor of that Boston skyscraper. I've had that delicious release from the ground at the same time I've had to pay close attention to details, to see how the geography of buildings and streets re ally works. I've been lost for a moment -- just long enough to have the useful reassurance of learning, once again, what it's like to find myself.