Mile High

Sean Gullette
Published in 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11 (NYU Press)

A wintry Boston afternoon in the late seventies, and I'm lying on the living room floor, ten years old, digging through a Cutty Sark box of coffeetable books. Inside one called "A Testament" I find an inscription--"love from Parmella. Graduation 1958"-- and a gatefold which opens four pages wide...

Whoa. The drawing, in detailed charcoal pencil, looks like slab of slate fell out of the sky and shattered to form a jagged spike. First I realize that it's a skyscraper. Then the scale hits me: it is 528 stories tall.

As an American boy I am primed to fall in love with this building instantly. I read with satisfaction as Frank Lloyd Wright explains that his "Mile-High Illinois" is a tensile tripod and houses forty-five thousand people, fifteen thousand cars, a hundred helicopters, a system of glass-walled, atomic-powered elevators, and a tap-root foundation drilled into the bedrock. The Mile-High is a vertical city: offices, stores, restaurants, apartments, a hospital.

He begins to calculate usable square footage and my imagination takes off. I envision black tile swimming pools with underwater windows; ledges where migrating hawks flap to rest, tricking the eyes of an elderly millionaire in his grand lonely apartment staring out at the sky, hoping to see an angel. And there had to be a small bedroom up near the tip, where you see clouds moving safely behind tan drapes and silent inch-thick glass, as you drift gently away into sleep...

You wake up from a deep thin-air nap and it is very clear outside, the big sky over thousands of acres of Illinois farmland and prairie, patchworked corn, winter wheat, oats and sorghum crosshatched by the fast highways leading out of Chicago. Each distant farmer can see the sharp peak of this building and this window. The tip raking across the sky at over 1000 miles an hour as the earth spins, slicing the high winds over the city in half. The people of the earth and the people of the sky, looking at each other.

"A rapier, with a handle the breadth of the hand, set firmly into the ground, blade upright," 90-year-old Wright preached to a dubious architecture community, in his cranky-egoist style. "No one can afford to build it now," he assured, "but in the future no one can afford not to build it."

Ten years later the Port Authority broke ground for Minoru Yamasaki's World Trade Center. Centralization was the grand theme. By the 80's people looked at the twin towers and saw either the free market's efficient corporate mainframe or the slablike dominance of Big Brother. There wasn't much talk of the towers' transcendental meaning.

But for me, there they were, too good to be true. Again and again through a decade living downtown, I would turn a corner walking on Spring street, or on my bike down East Broadway or the West Side, and bump into the jolly giant twins, pinstriped and proud, their beveled edges flinging off the western light. I'd stop and feel that kidlike joy return: they were awesome, incredible, dreamlike.

Being in the streets close to the base, or in the windy plaza beneath them, was a little daunting. The exterior columns racing upwards were designed by Yamasaki to be just as wide as your shoulders -- so that standing near the windows wouldn't be too scary -- and the temptation to stand right between two of them and look straight up was considerable. I loved riding the big fast elevator up to get loaded at Windows on the World, the haute-Holiday Inn decor quivering subliminally in the air streams of the Atlantic and the Hudson. One time clouds surrounded the bar, and it was pretty empty, but I liked facing the blank grey windows. Altitude is mostly in your head, anyway.

One clear evening, I scribbled on a Windows bar napkin an idea for a short movie, set in the bright canyon between the towers. The characters would be window-washers and angels; sitting on the rooftops, dangling their feet over the edge, flirting, a couple of them falling in love. The towers' very existence married New York City to that sky, elevated us above the earth and our mortality.

It was pretty to think so. On the bright clear day the towers fell, all of that became an indulgence for little children. Among giant twisted steel vertebrae and the evil smell and smoke, thousands of people worked ceaselessly, quietly, with a harmony of purpose that can only be called love. When they paused in exhaustion you could see their minds beginning to engage with the bad reality of it. That drove them back to work.

By the third night, civilian workers were being replaced by the professionals, and I caught a ride out from our improvised supply operation on Vesey Street, on the back of a Parks Department golf cart. As we got to the West Side Highway a torrential soaking rain began to fall. It would be a terrible night for the workers on the heaps, but I wouldn't be there. For me the rain was a balm. Looking back at the columns of light and smoke rising into the black emptiness above, I knew that by disappearing, and then passing into imagination and memory, the towers had become as real as a thing can be. I knew moreover that the people whose bodies had vanished into the dust and smoke had moved on, leaving the city with a hard-to-unwrap spiritual gift. Above in those dark clouds, a host of angels circled the airspace, broadcasting with a steady signal the necessity of both simple and grand human dreams and the burning urgency of love.