Umpire State of Mind

Every time I see the New York City skyline I remember exactly what I thought the first time I saw it. I was on an airplane, approaching the city. Having been to Chicago, I’d seen a massive urban landscape from highway level, but I had never seen one from above.

Looking down from that distance, you don’t see the dirt. There is no sign of people from that height, which is strange, because at ground level, “people” is all New York City is. From inside the plane, you don’t appreciate the brutal mechanical hum of the city. The buildings themselves seem to be silent. Cold. Inert. Noble.

They didn’t gleam that day. Rather, they were like stones, dressed in the colors of the late afternoon sun. They seemed to have always been there, or perhaps to have been carved whole, or cast from enormous molds, and dropped into place by giants.

Some of them were familiar and iconic. Some of them were new to me. Most of them I didn’t even really see, they all being part of the whole. And I thought, those buildings, too, have names, histories. Which ones will I know? Which ones will I think back on one day and think it ridiculous there was a time in my life I did not recognize?

Their highs and lows, their verticals and horizontals, their diagonals and circles, their deliberate geometry, the buildings spelled something out in letters from another language. But they were too perfect to be real. Not like a model. That is too simple. They were rather like an illusion. Rather like an improbability. How could this exist?

I ride into New York City every Tuesday morning for work. I always instinctively seek out the Empire State Building — it’s a compulsion — the way I might look in the mirror to see my face. I know it’s there. I know what it looks like. Still, I have to see it. I have to prove that I recognize it after all, that it’s still there. That I’m still there. Like if I see it, I’ll know where I am. Who I am.

When I was a kid, I called it the “umpire” state building. I didn’t know the difference, and I liked the Detroit Tigers, so it all made sense enough to me. Umpires were kind of like the boss of the baseball game, so why couldn’t that building in New York be like the boss of buildings?

It strikes me now that it’s not as dominant a part of the skyline as I had previously supposed. It is a singular sensation. It is distinguished. But if not for its legend, its love, it might be an anonymous giant among giants. Maybe the city is more familiar to me now. Other buildings have importance to me, too. I lived there for five years, after all. But so much of it is still unknown to me.

Now that I live somewhere else, the city is losing its hold on me. There was a time when she might have caught me. I might have given myself over completely. But I never claimed New York for my own. It turns out I was just passing through, and we are more or less well acquainted, but we are not great friends. Still, I can call her up whenever I’m in the neighborhood, and we can catch up and remember the good times.


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the untallied hours

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