There are many perks to my day job at one of New York’s hundreds of hedge funds: my own Herman Miller cubicle, cute computer-systems guys to flirt with, flexible hours, free juice and seltzer in the office refrigerators. But the most excellent bonus of the job is the view from the 39th floor of our building, at 46th Street and Sixth Avenue.
From this vantage, I am privy to a whole world that street pedestrians never see, a variation on Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street.” From where I work, I have my eyes on the upper floors of Manhattan’s midtown office buildings. It’s a sublime vista, one that can fill the viewer with the dizzy, expansive feeling for the glory of humankind or introduce darker thoughts of how city dwellers live and work in an elaborate system of cages. Depending on how you look at it, that charming jumble of buildings is really a charming collection of holding pens.
I am regularly startled anew to think that I work in this corporate environment, for what the poet John Berryman called the “funny moneyman.” Still, for the past two years I’ve shown up-when I am not at home writing an article in my nightgown or at an artists’ colony working on poems-to dip my toes in the waters of “the world” and bring home an honest paycheck. Soon after I started work at the hedge fund, I began sitting for spells at the window seat in the company elevator bank, moving the large leaves of the rubber plant aside to better my view. Situated thusly, I would gaze out at the Verizon Building and beyond, down the avenues toward Wall Street and the harbor, all the way clear to the Statue of Liberty-looking at the tugboats, the sturdy water towers, the darting yellow cabs in the streets. I would occasionally spot a bit of architectural whimsy created solely for the eyes of sky-dwelling office workers: a funny parfait-wafer-like fin on the top of one midtown roof, for example. Far above the Jumbotron in Times Square, companies advertise in the clouds. To the right, I could see the Reuters sign, a Discover sign and the TDK Corporation’s pulsating, spinning neon bull’s-eye. Occasionally, a plastic bag would come lofting up 30 stories in the air; sometimes a crazy, careening pigeon would zip by looking for a place to land.
It took a few months of this sublime rhapsody before I realized that I was gazing out almost directly at 4 Times Square: the Condé Nast building, the Tiffany’s of the magazine world. After months of enjoying the vast urban landscape, suddenly I had eyes for nothing else but that giant green 4.
“Nice view,” said a co-worker on the day of my revelation, seeing me transfixed at the glass.
“Wha?” I asked, having lost interest in the waterways below and the slants of light and shadow in midtown’s canyons.
“One of the best views in the city,” he said. “You really get a sense of how the city is an island from up here. How New York is a port city. And look at all the styles of architecture! Just think of the complexity of the forms, how they work together to create this eclectic integument called midtown!”
Blah, blah, blah, I thought, what is this, a PBS special? “Yeah, right … midtown,” I mumbled impolitely, totally and completely uninterested.
Suddenly, I couldn’t look out the window without wondering what the hell was going on in that building. Whose pitch just got taken by which magazine, and why? Who was working on whose copy? Who had a piece in fact-checking? What poet had The New Yorker’s Alice Quinn decided deserved the coveted poetic space that week? Some days, the view felt like reading The Times Book Review or the Arts and Anxiety section (as a friend calls Arts and Leisure). Other times, I’d just wonder what was for lunch in the Gehry cafeteria. Did Kim France’s fashion closet need weeding? I’d get that panicky feeling that life was passing me by and that everyone else in the tristate area and beyond was happily, lucratively and successfully selling perfect pitches to editors whose language they knew better than I ever could.
Some weeks later, I was standing in 4 Times Square’s actual lobby, waiting for a friend who works there as an editor to give the guards the O.K. for me to come up.
Next to me, a man was standing with a peregrine falcon balanced on his arm. (It was there, apparently, to meet the editors at Condé Nast Traveler.) The animal was wearing a spooky leather helmet, a sort of mini-executioner’s hood, to cover its eyes and keep it calm.
Poor bird, I thought, what are you doing in midtown?
Despite the hood, the bird could sense that I was looking at it intently. It swiveled its head toward me in a way that made my blood run cold. The feathery leather embellishments of the top of the hood jiggled as it turned. I sensed the bird seething under its hood, as figures from the magazine milieu (women in smart pumps, art-department guys with ponytails) flowed through the mezzanine. The bird adjusted himself on his keeper’s arm, briefly opening his wings to their full extension of five feet.
Babe, when I was free, I felt he was telling me, I could see for miles, and this building was just a tiny little splinter below my talons. The world is bigger than the perishable pulp of these magazines. Write your poems. Write your book. Fly, be free.
Just then the guards motioned, and I reluctantly put on my little guest-pass sticker and moved through the turnstile toward the elevators.
These days, from the 39th floor, I look past the 4 Times Square building to the harbor beyond. I am no longer fixated on the green tower behind the glass. The new construction site on 42nd for the Bank of America Building is fascinating-a veritable ant farm of excavation, an ephemeral system of roads and dump sites that will vanish when the bank’s foundations are poured. I’m concerned that the building going up will ruin the view of the skinny Gothic sandstone Bush Tower (at 29 stories, one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan when it was built in 1917). The famous debt clock had to be moved to accommodate the bank building, though the national debt is still intact ($7,723,698,350,306.38 and counting; your portion: $26,118.49). I am optimistic that my days here at the hedge fund are also numbered.
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