Gotham Blog 3: The Secret to Getting to the Top in New York

New York is so complex that it can embrace and celebrate both the Populist and the Power Elite and unabashedly claim both as its own without feeling the faintest hint of inconsistency.

As you keep pace with the throngs on the street you can within the space of a few steps, literally rub elbows with people who look every bit like power brokers to people who appear to be just broke and yet feel as if you’re all contributing equal shares to the spirit that makes the city great. On the subway someone wearing Brooks Brothers can be sitting next to a brother in full gangsta regalia, who is turn sitting next to someone wearing a kind of psychedelic Little Bo Peep outfit and give each other room and barely a glance.

Yet Privilege also has its place and its uses and is often wielded by those who have devoted their lives to understanding its science and dynamics and appear able to bend their surroundings to suit them as if by magic. And sometimes a powerful talisman falls right into your hands.

Our last morning in Manhattan is sunny with only a little haze and it looks like our best opportunity for getting a good view from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. My wife and I had been up there before, but Patience hadn’t and wanted to go. Two nights before we had tried to take that tour and encountered a sign in the lobby of the building indicating a 90 minute wait. We were hungry and visibility wasn’t that great anyway then, so we opted for getting something to eat instead and ended up at Playwright’s Tavern and Grill on 35th St., around the corner from the ESB.

The food was good and the waitress very friendly and engaging. In talking to her we mentioned the long lines at the ESB and she told us that the restaurant had a few VIP passes for its customers that would allow us to bypass every line and go straight to observation deck. Unfortunately that evening all the passes were in use, but she told us we could come back anytime during our stay and ask for a pass. Now that we had a clear day it seemed like the perfect time to score.

We went back to Playwright’s and swapped a drivers license for one of the laminated, holographic passes, and the bartender told us all we had to do was show the pass to any guard at any line we ran into and we were golden. We then headed over to the ESB and saw the lines were even longer – and at least four people across – outside the building. Feeling a little Minnesota sheepishness at walking past all these people I lead my family up to the main door where the guard turned, ready to banish us back to the end of the line. I tentatively flash the card at him.

Now, in Minnesota, my sense is that if we were in a similar circumstance the guard (who would be dressed like the sheriff in the movie “Fargo”) would look at the card, squint and loudly say something like, “Yah, sure you got that there VIP pass now, doncha? Well I guess that makes you Mr. High and Mighty like you were some kind of three-cheese hot dish, eh? What are you gonna want next – a pass to use the HOV lanes? Well, we’ll just let youse guys on through ahead of all dese other fine folks then, but you might want to be thinking about what Wellstone would do.”

In Manhattan, however, the guard sees the pass, nods his head, steps to one side and opens another door for us. We breeze through feeling a bit guilty and turn a couple of corners and there’s one of those winding lines and another guard. Flash. A nod and a sidestep and a path around the line is revealed. We zoom ahead and there’s another checkpoint. By now we don’t even break stride and the next thing we know we’re in an elevator for the ear-popping ride to the observation deck. Total time from the front door to the deck: 12 minutes. I stifle my maniacal laughter when I look over the railing and down to the street below where the line still stretches.

We had had an express trip to the top in New York and didn’t even have to sell our souls to get there. All we had to do was eat dinner!

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