I’m sitting on top of the tallest building in Manhattan, a skyscraper 35 storeys high, looking down on the city mapped out below.
Through the strata of time, commerce, romance and imagination I can see as far back as 1979 – and everything there is as crystal clear as the air up here, gently tugging at the sleeves of my shirt. Vehicles move as if in synch along rivers of concrete and tarmac, cutting their way through the unyielding geology of office blocks and flowing inexorably towards the freeway. People are moving in every direction, driven by an insatiable purpose. Walking, talking. Buying, selling. Passing, waving and moving on.
The building I sit atop represents a complex hierarchy of lives and interchange – some still, some moving as if liquid. It appears held together by scaffolding and steel, upon which flocks of restless white birds land occasionally, and around which climb various cables like ivy and creepers on the trunk of a magnificent tree. At different levels (perhaps when someone inside opens a window) sounds escape and cross the canyon between this building and those opposite. Some travel with the angry hiss of relief, others with deep rumblings of gratitude. While some flit anxiously, others stride, purposeful and slow. It makes me laugh aloud and point to the friend who is not here when I see one particular melody delight in sliding across the interconnecting zipwires.
Halfway down, perhaps a little more (the giddiness of height makes distance difficult to judge) there is some kind of vent from which exudes an occasional shimmering wave of heat. I narrow my eyes, and fix upon it. 1991, I reckon. Or thereabouts. For a moment, everything below this expulsion becomes blurred and fractalized, as if seen through a shattered mirror. Pieces seem to fall through the layers of time at varying speeds before either coming to rest on the pavement below and reflecting the sky or dissolving slowly as they descend through the scenarios and circumstances in between.
The heat exchange acts like some kind of filter, changing some sounds, refining others – simultaneously defining and smudging random edges..
As I look down, adjusting my gaze to focus on different points in the scene, I become aware that here and there images and motifs are recurring. Something I picked out no more than two storeys up, perhaps 20 years ago, is just… well, there! Almost touchable. Like yesterday. Like you. Familiar, and yet unfathomable. An adult concern that I perceive as a child would, and so define on my own terms with no partcular frame of reference. It is as if I am collecting things, putting them carefully in drawers and lever-arch files. When I visit later, during the quiet times, I discover that I have accumulated seemingly random objects with common characteristics that I was not aware of at the time.
Like the people on floors 23 and 7, who would appear to share parallel lives. She is looking out of the window, sipping a coffee waiting for a lover to come up in the elevator. Plain dress, Dali brooch. He will be wearing the familiar grey suit that fits him so well, immaculately polished shoes and a hat that his father wore. She loved him for it, at the same time wishing he would not come. He arrives, they kiss and step out of view. Inevitable.
How long have I been here? It feels like years, but I am sure it is no more than a few minutes. My watch stopped at quarter past one. I could gaze forever, and each movement of my eyes would bring something else into consideration. A door that was not there before. The sound of a celebration. Peripheral characters. Invisible women.
It’s starting to rain, so I brush the dust off my trousers and head for the stairway.