Empire State Building offers highs and lows

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- IF YOU'RE EVER LOOKING TO TAKE IN A tourist attraction where employees bark at you incessantly, herd you through one velvet-rope line after another and try to sell you cheesy, overpriced souvenir photos at the end of your visit, have I got the place for you.

I know, I know. That pretty much applies to any tourist attraction in the country, doesn't it?

But in this case we're talking about the world-famous Empire State Building and its 86th-floor Observatory, which towers nearly a quarter of a mile above Fifth Avenue and offers a spectacular view of Manhattan and beyond, assuming you haven't passed out from hunger during the wait to get up there.

I hadn't been to the Empire State Building in years, so I went back for a visit on a recent trip to the Big Apple.

Your visit begins in the velvet-rope line at the ticket booth, where you fork over 18 bucks if you're an adult, and continues in the velvet-rope line that snakes through several hallways to the velvet-rope line leading to the high-speed elevators that whisk you to the 86th floor in about a minute.

Unfortunately, your visit to the legendary 86th floor doesn't begin on the 86th floor, as you might suspect.

No, it begins on the 80th floor, when the elevator doors swing open and security people bark at you to get into another velvet-rope line that leads to an area where they take your picture against a green back-drop.

High-tech security procedure?

Sophisticated photo ID and retina scan to thwart evil terrorists who attempt to mingle with the innocent, camera-toting crowds?

Uh, no, not quite.

This is for the cheesy photo you get at the end of the tour, which turns out to be so over-the-top, so comic-bookish in quality that -- OK, we'll get into that in a minute.

Anyway, you can also rent headsets on the 80th floor that offer an audio tour of the Observatory hosted by "Tony the Cabbie," who's said to be "a real New Yorker."

Tony, the handy audio tour brochure goes on to say, "will show you the sights, tell you stories about the city and entertain you in the way that only a New Yorker can."

Yep, that's what I was afraid of.

Which is why I didn't sign up for the audio tour, because I figured Tony would be the sort of New York tour guide who barks: "OK, over there is the @#$%&* East River. Hey, what the @#$%&* you lookin' at? I said over there! Whad'aya stupid or somethin'?"

On the 80th floor, you're herded into yet another line for another elevator by security people, who tend to communicate in the same tone of voice prison guards use when they're trying to clear a cellblock after a riot.

One particularly caffeinated security guy apparently thought he was working the Green Zone in Baghdad, because he kept barking at a group of little old ladies to "get against the wall if you're waiting for the elevator!"

Finally we arrived at the 86th floor and the panoramic views from 1,250 feet up were just as I remembered them: breath-taking.

There to the north you saw the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge, to the south the Statue of Liberty, to the east you saw, well -- a guy from Switzerland trying to commit suicide or something.

I say this because the guy -- I overheard him tell someone he was Swiss -- jumped up on a ledge near the railing so his girlfriend or wife or whoever she was could snap his picture with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

As you can imagine, the security people tend to frown on this sort of behavior, as they fear it could lead to, among other things, death.

But this crazy Swiss guy -- I don't know if he was all hopped up on chocolate or what -- he's teetering on this ledge and the wind is blowing and I'm thinking: OK, there's going to be one less person in the elevator on the way down.

Luckily, just then a security guy came around the corner and barked at the Swiss guy to knock it off and get down, which he did, looking sheepish.

In any event, after about a half-hour, I had seen enough, plus the Swiss guy was acting up again.

So I visited the Observatory's gift shop and was treated to the usual gaggle of little kids screaming and throwing themselves on the floor when their parents refused to buy them an Empire State Building T-shirt for $19.95.

Then I got in another velvet-rope line for the elevator ride down.

Naturally, this elevator had to stop again at the 80th floor, where, for some usurious sum, you could pick up your cheesy souvenir photos.

These were nothing more than your picture slapped on a photo of the Empire State Building, making you appear to be about the size of King Kong, which is always a flattering look.

I passed on my photos and took the elevator to the ground floor, where a final security guard barked over and over: "Exit to the right, exit to the right ... !"

You talk about memories.

How do you put a price tag on something like that?


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