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Crossing the Void, Someday

August 17, 2014

They look like the bastard offspring of an alien and a parking meter. Tower viewers. You probably don’t know the name, but you’ve seen then. Coin-operated binoculars that swivel on a stalk, they populate scenic overlooks around the world, giving visitors a chance at a closer view.

As a lay in bed last night contemplating the disappointments of my life, I thought of these things that, at the time, I had no name for. It occurred to me that along with everything else I have missed out on, I have never looked through a tower viewer (that name is another disappointment; an alternative given by Wikipedia, “Pinnacle Scope”, is better but its capitalization indicates a particular brand and it still lacks the precise quiet oddball charm the device deserves). I have had many chances. A scenic view, a viewer, coins in my pocket: the setup was there, ready to go, on quite a few occasions. But every time I let the opportunity slip away from me.

Maybe it was the way I was raised. My family traveled, and we hit quite a few scenic views. I was brought up to appreciate vistas. But not Pinnacle Scopes. I do not know if my parents ever said a word against them. It is possible my father, at one time or another, pointed out that it made no sense to waste money on the thing when we had perfectly good binoculars in the car. I don’t remember. I just know that we never used them, and so for me there was a feeling of ‘not-done’ that I associated with the viewers, you could even say a snobbish disdain. Like they were for suckers, or the vulgar. Maybe even that they were dirty. It might have occurred to me that the optics were probably sub-par, not as good as the binoculars in the car. And certainly I had the high-minded, and cheapskate, thought that just looking ought to be free, even with magnification. I place no blame on my parents for my attitude, it was just my childish mind trying to find its place in the world. To distinguish the for-me and the not-for-me, and — what is not the same thing but we too often often think is the same — the goodness and badness of things. And without ever thinking about it, I carried this prejudice over into adulthood, and even in my independent, coin-heavy life, never stooped to put my eyes to those twin Charons to distant landscapes, never paid their fee. Not ever thinking about it, until now.

Now I can see the wonder of this strange species that clusters at far-flung sites of splendor and elevation. I appreciate their old-school technology and economics. The tower viewer is an instrument with a face, on a human scale, humbly waiting to serve, asking only a modest fee, helping us satisfy the simple desire to see what is out there. That such a thing exists pleases me. And someday, before I die, I want to look through one.

All this reminds me of another thing that, for a while now, I have been longing to do. I want to go up to New York and take the Roosevelt Island aerial tram. To fly through the air, suspended from a cable, from Manhattan, across the river, to the mysterious closed world of Roosevelt Island, a place you never hear anything about. Apparently anyone can do this, you don’t need any special permission or papers. Of all the things you can do in New York, this is the one I want the most. In my previous visits to the city I did not even know about it. I think at one point I saw a tram crossing and wondered about it, but it did not occur to me that I could and should be up there.

Maybe the draw of both things has to do with a need to reconnect with childhood experience. There is a fascination that kids have toward mechanisms that are approachable and understandable while also being odd and rarely seen, their magic not dimmed by dailiness. In youth it is the new, the strange, the rare and the distant that seem to matter, exploration is a passion, but as you get older you feel forced to recognize the familiar and routine as the truly important things, save for the dreaded novelty of unexpected disaster. The machines that matter are the ones you own, when they break. The Guinness Book of World Records is replaced by Consumer Reports. Where once dinosaurs loomed large in your consciousness, now rent does.

And children love to look at the world from a height. And not just with the passive aesthetic appreciation of an adult, but filled with a desire to reach out to that world, to go there. To traverse that huge space, like a bird, or perhaps on a tram suspended from a cable. And if not physically, at least visually, zooming in on those distant features. Space is not just what surrounds us, but what we can move through and see through, seeking out elsewhere, the further adventure.

So maybe it is about reaffirming the youthful spirit of exploration against the spirit of resignation. In any case I want to do these things: to look through one of the alien parking meters, and to cross the East River to Roosevelt Island on a wire in the sky. If I hit the Empire State Building for the viewer I could do both in a short time on the same trip. I just need to get up to New York, someday, before I die. I have hope. It can be done. It is not too late.

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