I EASED OUT of the elevator door onto the observation deck. The night closed over me and I saw a city perforated with a million lights. My heart leapt. What a glorious sight. New York, the Big Apple, here at last!
Years ago Judy had told me the view would blow me away. She nailed it. The bus trip had been tedious, but I’d made it. I reviewed what I had learned from that wizened old man slumped in the Greyhound’s seat across from me. His clothes were shabby but of good quality and he looked clean. He had a prominent humpback and he sat kind of canted in his seat. Bright guy. I’ll give him that.
I’d been mulling my own problems and I didn’t feel like it, but he’d struck up a conversation and once he made contact, he couldn’t stop talking. It’s the way some people handle loneliness, he told me.
I handle it a bit different, kind of why I sat in the uncrowded bus.
A regular motor mouth, the old guy didn’t seem to get that I wanted privacy to think my own thoughts as the bus from Baltimore drove smoothly into the deepening twilight, yet I couldn’t help but listen.
The man touched on some seriously interesting topics. I hoped he wouldn’t want any input from me, because no way would I participate. I needn’t have worried. Once he began, he emoted all over the place. He had a thin voice, but his diction told me a learned man sat in the aisle seat.
I didn’t want to ask him about his loneliness, so I said nothing. Politely, he told me his name, Justin Goodking. His accent said he came from England, probably London: that’s what us Americans think while we stereotype the strangers in our midst. I pictured a retired professor from perhaps Kings College or even Cambridge. He didn’t tell me and I kept my lip buttoned. He’d have been retired a long time and evidently his pension as an educator hadn’t set him up well.
I told him mine. I didn’t want to be totally rude. Too many people are so self-absorbed they come across that way. On the other hand, I didn’t want to encourage him. He looked my way to hear my last name, but I gave no more and after a few seconds he looked away and I looked out the window at the countryside slipping by.
One word did it. The chatter began. At first I didn’t care and later I did, but he rattled on without a break, so I didn’t feel the need to kick-start any part of the conversation.
For a long time his reedy drone held me. He did something in science, apparently. He said he had designed a new flying apparatus and went to New York tonight to catch the eye of big business. Why he came to America and specifically to New York got past me, but here he was. Apparently he came from an unhappy family situation, but he would make it right when he arrived at his destination. His thoughts jumped around and at one point I thought he appeared fanatical, but he caught himself and calmed and I continued to listen to his one sided conversation.
I’m a former college professor myself, American University, Sociology, but my trip to New York wasn’t for happy reasons and I didn’t want to be drawn into talking about it. Outside of having the bus seat to myself and having no one to deal with, this worked for me.
Justin was a fountainhead of information and I enjoyed the slants he had. Refreshing, I thought, and not at all what we are taught to believe in America. Different countries, different ways. Glad he spoke English. Arriving at the Penn Station Greyhound Terminal, I smiled at Justin and shook his hand.
I said, “Good luck.” Short and sweet. I started to walk away.
“John,” he called, obviously perplexed, “What about your luggage?”
“No luggage,” I said. Since I’d sat with him for three hours, I felt I had to say, “Appointment at the Empire State Building.” Sort of true.
I thought that would be enough, but Goodking stood staring at me. I couldn’t be bothered with more conversation, so I turned, waved over my shoulder, and walked away. I could feel his eyes on my back.
With no moon and the dry night air, at quarter to nine I would have seen a million stars above, if you could see a star anywhere on Manhattan Island, which you can’t and don’t bother to look. I walked toward the tallest building in New York since the tragedy of 9-11. After a few steps, unaccountably, I glanced back. Justin still stood by the bus, but in my glimpse, I saw him turn and heft the fair-sized suitcase that took up the seat next to him on the bus. It made him look small by comparison. None of my business. I continued on.
Now on a wide sidewalk in New York City I picked up my pace. I too wanted attention, but I only wanted to make people in my hometown perk up and take notice.
I made my way to the huge entrance-way with its three-story high lobby. Immediately I went to the observation platform elevator and caught the elevator. I marveled that the entire eighty-six-floor ride could be accomplished in under a minute. As worldly as I considered myself to be, I’d made my first trip up this wonderful building tonight. The doors opened and I got out. I went for the amazing view.
A few people wandered the platform. I wandered, too, gathering impressions of the vastness of the life that pulsed around me. The two bored guards kept discreetly back. they moved constantly.
Five minutes later the doors opened again and what do you know, out came Justin, dragging his suitcase. I heard a familiar accent on the breath of a voice still panting from evident exertion.
He surprised me. He must have followed me, lugging that case two handed all the way. He smiled briefly and stood, trying to get his breath.
“Why, hello there, John,” he said between gasps.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. A guard glanced at us, but continued walking.
“I mentioned that I had perfected a flying apparatus, yes?”
“It’s here,” he pointed at the suitcase.
“What do you mean?”
“Remember I told you I came to New York to catch the eye of business?”
His eyes took on the fanatical look I had seen briefly on the bus. “Well, what better way to catch an eye than to try it out from this tall building?”
My God, I thought, he’s crazy. “You can’t do that, Justin.”
“Why not? This is an outside platform, isn’t it?”
“But what about the guards? Look at the fence they put up in 1947 after five people tried to commit suicide in a three-week period. They’re not going to let you climb it, guaranteed.”
“I’ll take care of that.”
What did he mean? Did he have a gun? He was crazy, but dangerous crazy?
Justin saw my expression and said, “Oh, don’t worry; I’m not going to hurt anybody. I have this, see.”
Goodking took a small aerosol container out of his pocket and showed me.
“A mild nerve gas. It will stop anybody for fifteen minutes and that’s all the time I need.”
“But…” I stopped. “You won’t spray me with that thing, will you?”
“No, of course not. I feel I know you a little and I’d like a witness to my feat. Will you promise not to interfere with me?”
I thought hard for a second. It really wasn’t any skin off my nose. He’s going to kill himself. Can if he wants. “Okay, I’ll watch.”
A guard came over and murmured to us. “Last view. We close in ten minutes.”
Justin pulled out his cylinder and quickly squirted the guard. He dropped like a rock. Justin grabbed him and lowered him to the floor. He heard a shout and the other guard, a woman, came running over.
“What happened here?” she asked. Justin bent over and murmured, “Heart attack? Do you know CPR?”
The woman came close and Justin lifted his little cylinder and got her in the face. He lowered her to the floor.
“Just like that.”
The observation deck normally had many people looking at all the views, but not this late. Nobody had looked our way before Justin sprayed the guards, but now they began to crowd around. The Englishman pocketed his vial and stood. He told the people who gathered that he was a doctor and the two people on the floor would be all right and would they all be kind enough to return to street level, that he had it under control, that it wasn’t good to hover over two sick people.
I couldn’t believe how calm and in charge he could be. He spoke with authority and they evidently bought it. Soon the doors closed on the down elevator and the overhead light went out. People…go figure.
Showtime! Goodking bent down and opened his suitcase. From it he pulled a fully intact contraption with wings, which spread out as he pushed a hidden button or catch. He deftly strapped it to his back. Showing surprising agility for an old man, he mounted the fence, hung on in the constant wind that blew at this height, looked at me and said, “Wish me luck, John.”
Amazed, I said, “Luck, Justin. I hope you make it.”
“I will. Goodbye.” He jumped.
The updraft from the sides of the building kept him level for a moment. Then with arm-wings extended he rose rapidly and moved away from the face of the building into less turbulent air. He began to glide toward the street below. Looking through the fence I saw him looking good and I breathed, “What do you know!”
Now the observation deck held one person, me. Well, two paralyzed guards, that’s true. Time for my performance. Judy would miss me after she thought about it. Her anger would disappear in time. Fired from American University for inappropriate contact with a female student. Inappropriate contact doesn’t sound so bad in college parlance, but my fault and shame on me. The insurance will take care of Judy and the kids. Like I said, I handle loneliness a bit different.
I climbed the fence and went over.