I’m writing this post on the second floor of the CUNY Graduate Center (to be more precise, in the library). My desk is by a window, and looking out from it, I can see the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. That confluence of streets, of course, marks the location too, of the Empire State Building, its imposing lower sections visible to me from my vantage point. And today, like on many other past occasions, I’m struck by this reminder of one of my life’s central journeys.
I grew up in India, brought up by parents who furnished my life with many reading materials. Among them were two sets of encyclopedias: one titled The World Around Us and the other, Lands and Peoples. Each contained six or seven volumes, one for each continent or so (depending on their clustering schemes).
The World Around Us series was a personal favorite of mine; in it, a pair of youngsters, a brother and sister pair, were taken on a flight around the world by their father–I wonder what their mother did in the meantime–and talked through their travels by him. Their erudite, cosmopolitan, and humorous parent would introduce them to geography and culture and all of the rest, effortlessly traveling through time and space as he did so. Early in their travels, our intrepid youngsters landed in New York City; the central illustration in that chapter was an illustration of the Empire State Building, which was, at the time of the encyclopedia’s printing, the tallest building in the world.
I read through the multiple volumes of The World Around Us on seemingly innumerable occasions; no matter how many times I did so, I was always transfixed by that image of the Empire State Building. It seemed impossibly huge, soaring up and away from the streets and people who lay at its feet. It captured everything that seemed dramatic and dreamy and inaccessible about America: that land where the gigantic, the dramatic, the amazing and the stupendous seemed so commonplace. I was staggered to read of its height, the number of its floors, the speed of its completion. So otherworldly did it seem that I was surprised to learn that there were offices and possibly apartments inside it; surely such a structure could not be made mundane by the presence of mere humans inside it?
When I arrived in New York in 1987, I was stunned to see the Empire State Building was not visible when you were in Manhattan; I had emerged from the Long Island Railroad Station at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, and as I walked around, had suddenly found myself standing next to it. Manhattan’s other buildings all too easily obscured its frame. The building was more easily visible from elsewhere; perhaps from New Jersey, for instance, where I would spend the next six years gazing at it across the Hudson.
I’ve now lived in New York City for twenty years; many of its attractions have become commonplace to me. But not the Empire State Building; it stands there, reminding me of the passage of time, of my movement here from a land far away, of a journey in several dimensions. I had never dreamed that picture in that encyclopedia would someday become a weekday vision.