Up High, Feeling Low

Up High, Feeling Low


Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Construction work on the tower at One World Trade Center on Monday.

Is it possible to claim a scoop when you’re the last person on the train or boat—or in this case a construction elevator speeding toward the 71st floor of One World Trade Center?

I’ve always had a thing for tall buildings. In fact, knowing their heights was about the only talent I manifested as a child. I could tell you how tall the Empire State Building was relative to the Chrysler Building, and how much taller the Chrysler Building was than the Eiffel Tower.

I had no facility for math. Nonetheless, I’d stare fascinated at the Pierre Hotel and the Sherry-Netherland from the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, trying to decide whether the Sherry-Netherland’s spire topped out above the Pierre’s flat, copper-roofed summit. And whether the Essex House, on Central Park South, measured up to both.

Of course, the game lost most of its allure when the General Motors GM -2.25%Building went up, dwarfing and bullying all of them. It was deadly boring to boot—a tissue box stood on its side. I know it’s a metaphor for something, though I’m not sure what.

Nonetheless, marveling as One World Trade Center rose over Lower Manhattan came naturally, and I was paying attention for the day when it would surpass the height of the Empire State Building. Indeed, I put in a request to the Port Authority a couple of months ago to go up with a photographer as that milestone approached.

Much to my surprise, the Port Authority media office told me it shouldn’t be a problem. They added that there was no rush because construction slowed at about the 90th floor; it was something I didn’t really understand that has to do with the building’s mechanicals. When I didn’t hear from them for a couple of weeks, I called back and was assured I hadn’t been forgotten. It was just really windy up there, I was told, even on calm days down below. I should be ready for a call on 24 hours’ notice. I certainly understood. As much as I coveted the view, I had no interest in becoming airborne.

So it came as something of a shock when I was heading back to the city on Sunday night and, listening to WCBS on the car radio, I heard the announcement that One World Trade Center would exceed the Empire State Building’s 1,250-foot height the very next day.

When I called the Port Authority early Monday morning to find out what had become of my request, I was told that all my contacts were at “the event.”

“What event?” I asked innocently.

“One World Trade Center” came the answer.

It sounded like a party with cake and balloons, and one to which I hadn’t been invited. I don’t think I’ve felt this left out since first-through-fourth grades, when I found out about the popular kids’ birthday parties only after the fact.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

Construction work on the tower at One World Trade Center on Monday.

But I’m a grown-up now. I have learned to move on. Checking the AP Daybook—something I probably ought to do more often—I even saw the event listed. There it was, at 2 p.m.: “Port Authority of New York and New Jersey holds press conference to mark milestone of One World Trade Center becoming tallest building in New York; One World Trade Center, 71st Floor.”

I had to decide whether I should stay home and sulk or swallow my pride and join the media horde documenting the occasion. I swallowed, and then chose the latter. But as soon as I arrived, introducing myself to one of the media-relations guys I’d been dealing with over the previous couple of months, I couldn’t resist asking what had became of my scoop.

“It’s coming,” he said.

I think it came and went. There were dozens of reporters milling about—print, radio, TV; editorial writers, bloggers, cartoonists—and from seemingly every corner of the planet. I met Paresh Gandhi, a photographer for India Abroad. My assumption was that India didn’t have many tall buildings, not that I’ve ever been. “There are some tall buildings in Bombay,” he stated indifferently.

I could see he didn’t share my passion for the subject, even as One World Trade Center loomed directly overhead.

I also befriended Wendy Montecino, a Mexican correspondent for Televisa.

“Excited?” I asked.

“No,” she shrugged. “For me, it’s not appealing.”

We’d just met, but I asked her whether she thought it was a guy thing.

“I think it’s very symbolic,” she said, her eyebrows rising slightly.

I was almost ready to drop my grudge against the Port Authority and revel in the excitement of the moment when my eye caught a media assignment sheet under a hard hat. One of the names on the sheet jumped out at me: George Stephanopoulos. It read: “5:30 am. George Stephanopoulos, Bob Woodruff, and Ben Sherwood [ABC’s president] arrive and are escorted to the 100th floor.”

The 100th floor? The rest of us were only going to the measly 71st floor. What about the terrifying wind sheer I’d been told had stalled my own ascent? Did Mr. Stephanopoulos et al. have lower centers of gravity, or mountaineering gear or parachutes? Or was this another case of the popular kids getting to be the hall monitors?

I confronted my Port Authority contact. He confirmed, without detectable remorse, that the ABC team had summited earlier that morning. As a matter of fact, when we finally reached the 71st floor, we were treated to a live feed on TV monitors, apparently shot by an ABC crew, now serving as the pool, while construction workers on the 100th hoisted into place the beam that would give One World Trade Center bragging rights over the Empire State Building.

I’m not complaining, mostly. The view was still amazing, even from a lower floor, and subtly different than I remembered it from the Twin Towers. That may have had something to do with the fact that Lower Manhattan had grown up around the site in the meantime, and also because the memory of 9/11 can’t be erased.

Still, it seemed less an occasion for reflection, apprehension or triumph than one to marvel at the passage of time and the city’s resilience. Far below us, I spotted the tidy Winter Garden atrium, remembering all too well its shattered glass in the wake of the terrorist attacks. And from the south side of the building the pools of the 9/11 memorial sparkled in the midday sun, from that height symbols less of mourning than of rejuvenation amid a bustling construction site.

I still haven’t given up on my dream of reaching the pinnacle of One World Trade Center, perhaps before its topping-off ceremony. In fact, it’s coming up in June—right around my birthday.

I brought that lucky coincidence to the attention of my press office contact. “This is useful for me to know,” he said with a straight face.

I can’t say I’ll be staying glued to my phone.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

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