Written by Kim van Alkemade
By the time I realize that I’ve described the Empire State Building all wrong, it’s too late to change anything. If I’d gone up to the 86th floor while my novel, Counting Lost Stars, was still a draft, I could have rewritten the scenes where my characters, Rita Klein and Jacob Nassy, meet. If I’d purchased a ticket for the 102nd floor earlier, I’d have known the secret staircase up to the parapet, where Jacob first kisses Rita, is not secret at all, but in full view behind mesh fencing. If I’d walked around the Observation Deck before I finished writing the novel, I’d have realized the outdoor space is too narrow for Jacob to lead group tours in foreign languages. Had I used the ticket I’d purchased in March 2020 to visit the setting of some of the most crucial scenes in my novel, I would have revised those pages to make the story conform to reality.
But I didn’t use that ticket. The first Covid cases were being reported in the city. I worried about people from all around the world being packed together in long lines and small elevators at the Empire State Building. A week after I decided not to risk it, Manhattan started shutting down. By the end of the month, the city had fallen silent, save for the sirens of first responders racing down empty streets.
So instead of seeing the Empire State Building for myself, I read articles, looked at pictures online, ordered vintage tourist brochures, watched Tom Hanks meet Meg Ryan and Cary Grant search for Deborah Kerr. These gave me lots of details, but it wasn’t the primary research I prefer to do when I’m writing historical fiction. Without recent personal experience, I was left to conjure the space and proportions of the Observation Deck from the fragments of childhood memories.
When I was around seven years old, my mom took me and my brother to visit our dad at his office on the 57th floor of the Empire State Building. This was the same office where my parents first met, in 1960, when he was a new account manager and she was a secretary fresh out of high school. Maybe we visited him there often. Maybe it was just this once. What I do remember is pressing my forehead to the glass of his office window to look down at the miniature people on the sidewalk and the toys cars in the street. The windows used to open back then, but Mom insisted Dad shut and lock his before she let us look. Years later, she told me about the time she’d glanced up from her typewriter to see the falling body of a person who’d jumped from a higher floor.
After visiting Dad’s office, our parents took us up to the Observation Deck. In my memory, it was a wide-open space, like a plaza, where I ran freely from one side to the other. I remember stepping up to peer through one of the huge binoculars, aware of the value of the quarter my dad spent to make it work. I don’t think we ever went up to the 102nd floor, so my sense of that space was extrapolated from my memory of the Observation Deck. Since I’d never known, before my online research, that there was a parapet one flight higher than the 102nd floor observation area, I imagined the stairway to it must be secreted away behind a wall. In Counting Lost Stars, I set scenes in these places with the sure hand of lived experience, but it turns out the Empire State Building in my novel is a place of memory and imagination that never existed exactly the way I wrote it.
I realize this when I return to New York City in March 2023. I’m here to meet with my editor and my agent, my first time seeing either of them in person since the start of the pandemic. I’ve planned ahead and purchased a ticket for the Empire State Building, paying extra for an express pass so I won’t miss the sunset. It turns out to be a rainy evening with no visibility at all. There are no long lines, no packed elevators, only a few misguided international tourists wandering aimlessly through slick exhibits I don’t bother to look at. The Observation Deck is windy and deserted. No one wastes money to look through a binocular. There isn’t anything to see. Beyond the suicide fencing is a wall of gray. I can’t see the building across the street, let alone the traffic below. On the 102nd floor, which is much smaller than I expected, the rain-streaked windows are curtained in cloud. I spot the door to the parapet, which isn’t so secret after all. Peering through the metal cage that keeps it secure, I see the glass door that opens onto the parapet. It, too, is fogged in.
When I take the elevator down, I have the car all to myself. Exiting the building, I shake my head and smile. It’s just as well I couldn’t see a thing through the mist blanketing the famous Observation Deck. In my novel, I described the Empire State Building of my memory and imagination. I’m glad I can’t change it now. I want it to stay that way.