The Empire State Building’s nightly flash of gratitude

Of course I get depressed sometimes. Everyone does, or, I’d like to think, the most interesting people do. I have lived in Manhattan for almost all of my adult life.

Whenever I get fed up with the tiny apartments, the neglected infrastructure, the fact many of my most brilliant friends are barely scraping by, or the robotic crush toward trendiness by its misguided and over-moneyed youth, I take a walk. I can roam anywhere in Manhattan, but nearly everywhere I go, I only have to do one thing to feel thankful again.

All I have to do is look up at the Empire State Building at night, and wait a few seconds.

The sight of the Building itself isn’t always enough to lift my spirits. It’s beautiful and miraculous to the eye, to be sure, but it’s become furniture to me. And after 9/11, I can’t look at it without the half-clouded fear that it, too, will be taken away from me, leaving me without another of my guideposts.

No, I stare near the top of the building, especially in twilight. If you look in the vicinity of the observation deck for more than five or ten seconds, you will invariably see a flash go off. Often, you’ll see a few, and they continue until midnight, when the deck usually closes.

The flash comes from a tourist’s camera. The flash is evidence that they are so thrilled, so fired up, so overwhelmed with gratitude for the seemingly infinite cityscape laid out before them. For those trying to preserve the sight of the cityscape far below, the building is too tall, and stands too alone, for the flash to have much effect on a photograph. The flash is an illogical slip in the face of profound overstimulation.

Whoever set off that flash is probably flooded with thankfulness and romance. They might have saved up for years for the chance to come see New York City for themselves. And now they’re up there, surveying my home and trying in vain to take it all in.

They are trying to soak up every second. When I’m feeling gloomy, they are more rooted in this moment than I am. They’re here.

So when I see it, I am reminded of how grateful I myself am. I’m here all the time. That landscape, the one people dream about and fail to fully comprehend, is my home.

And as I watch the twinkle that comes from the breathless observers of my city, I am returned to openness myself.

Flash bulb before and after on the Empire State Building

Suddenly, a flash of gratitude

2 Responses to “The Empire State Building’s nightly flash of gratitude”

  1. Hunter Slaton

    Jason, this is a great post. It reminds me of a short story I read in the Atlantic years ago (and since have tried to find, but as yet to no avail), about a couple living in Manhattan who were having difficulties — but who also had this little ritual wherein the husband, whose uptown office window was in view of the couple’s downtown apartment window, would flick the office lights on and off, as a sort of signal to the wife in the apartment, who would flick the apartment’s lights on and off back. Something about that touched me so much, when I read it.

    And as for valuing where we live — it’s true, we don’t enough and should more. Case in point: A couple of months ago, Kim and I went to see Book of Mormon in Times Square, and then afterward went to some random ramen place in one of those netherworld blocks east of Broadway but west of Sixth Avenue. And I was kind of struck, while sitting there at dinner, that this evening which we both approached so casually (though of course we were justifiably excited to see Book of Mormon) could in all likelihood be the total highlight of some other couple’s trip to New York. And we get to do it any day we want to. So you’re right; we should all be grateful.

  2. Claire Auger

    Great post. I remember last year, July 4th weekend when for the first time, I, myself, tried to capture a piece of the beauty from the Empire State Building.

    To my dismay, no matter how many pictures I took, none of them seemed to hold the essence of your exciting city.

    The saying is that a picture paints a thousand words, but I haven’t seen one yet that comes CLOSE to describing the excitement of NYC. I can’t wait to get back…