The View From The Top
By Gloria Bryen
“I thought you said it was open?”
“Yeah, well I’m not going to shove on this door again. It’s locked and I have no idea why.”
We peered into the window, hands cupped around our faces to reduce the competing glare of the September sun.
“Sure looks done,” we agreed.
We could see the escalators moving up and down. Potted plants complemented the red granite tile and dark woodwork. But there weren’t any people and that made no sense. It’s Saturday. Why wouldn't the building be open to the public! Dang!
My roommate and I had traveled to Chicago, my birthplace, on a weekend visit from Ann Arbor, Michigan. I wanted to show Angie the city, especially the famous Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world, 110 stories and 1,454 feet tall. The iron workers installed the last of the 2,500 pound girders on the roof four months earlier on May 3, 1973, and only the lower part of the building was actually completed. But I didn’t know that.
“Can I help you?” We turned to see a tall, good-looking man wearing jeans, a white shirt, and a yellow hard hat.
“We wanted to take a look inside but we can’t get in.”
Mr. Hard Hat paused, then calmly offered, “Would you like to go up to the top? The building is still under construction but I can get you in for a look around.”
Angie and I looked at each other, astonished. Wondering what to do, we looked upward, craning our necks to see the top, but we stood too close to the building to see anything except a vertical mass of endless black wall. My heart was pounding,
“ShSure, that would be great!”
“I’m John.” He looked in his mid 40’s, polite and professional. We were in our mid-20's. I had long blond hair, a short skirt, and a big smile. Angie had short brown hair and a much longer skirt that revealed her more conservative Georgian heritage. Sorting through a large tangle of keys on his belt, he found the one he needed to unlock the front door. I decided that a guy with that many keys certainly must be important.
The large glass door swung open with ease at his push. John locked the door behind us and we followed him inside heading up the glossy new escalators. Each floor we passed was progressively less complete. Rolls of uninstalled carpeting and boxes of un-laid tiles filled the floor. The smell of carpet glue burned my nostrils.
When we got off at the last escalator John turned right and headed toward the center of the building. We trailed behind him, our footsteps echoing on the bare concrete floor, until we arrived at an exposed elevator shaft. John picked up a phone hanging on a wall, said a few words, and hung up. I heard it coming before we saw it. We stared as a large, metal framed wooden box descended from above us, trailing its cables and wires. It looked like an enormous spider descending to devour its prey. The makeshift construction elevator swayed slightly from side to side in the open shaft before clunking to a stop.
I began to wonder about John. A hard hat and a key to the front door did not tell me enough to dispel a growing uneasiness about his offer to show us around.
John pulled aside the metal gate, directing us inside, “This elevator will take us as far as the fiftieth floor.”It creaked with our combined weight, and I wondered if this “adventure” might be a big mistake. Would I ever see my parents and boyfriend again? Angie squeezed my arm, mouthing “not a good idea.” I pulled my yellow sweater tightly around me. Every noise, bump, or shift startled me, and I pinched my lips together to keep any gasps or squeaks from escaping into the otherwise silent box.
After traveling about twenty floors, the box stopped to admit five hard-hatted men. Their boisterous conversation ended the instant they saw two young women in the elevator. After a couple seconds of blatant ogling, they walked in, faced forward, and avoided any further eye contact. We lurched upward again. I couldn't stand it any longer. I turned to John, “Won’t you get in trouble with your boss for doing this?”
In unison, perfect unison, the workers intoned, “He IS the boss!”Then silence draped us all again.
The elevator finally growled to a stop. What a relief! We filed out into a massive area the size of a city block. With few interior walls to break up the space we could see all the way to the windows on the far side. Wires dangled and heating and air conditioning ducts of all sizes hung suspended from the exposed high ceiling. The cavernous solitude enveloped us like the reverence that quiets a cathedral.
When we reached the next elevator shaft, John repeated his phone summons and we watched once again as the second spider box headed down toward us. I had a million questions but so far John seemed too preoccupied to ask him.
Now a veteran rider of rustic elevators, much of the tension soon drained from my body. Huddled in the back of the elevator, Angie whispered to me, “Have you seen a bathroom?”I shook my head. At its completion the Sears Tower would have 796 bathrooms, but so far we had not even seen one Porta-Potty. I wondered, “What do they do if they have to use the bathroom? What will I do? Oh why did I drink that second cup of coffee this morning!”
A cold blast of air immediately hit me as we stepped out of the second elevator at the hundredth floor. No wonder! The windows hadn’t been installed yet so the wind blew uninterrupted through the building. I squinted from the construction grit that the gusty wind swirled into my eyes. Angie buttoned her jacket and I wished I had something warmer than just my sweater.
John broke the silence, “This is last of the elevators. We’ll have to take the stairs for the last nine flights to reach the roof.”
The ROOF!! Way down on the safe ground he had offered to give us a “look around the top”. I thought he meant the top floor. Who said anything about the roof? The chill I now felt was not only because of the cold air blowing up my skirt. I have always been terrified of heights, but I wasn’t going to turn back now.
We huffed up the concrete stairwell, passing an occasional small opening that provided light and air. I didn’t look out. The stairs ended at the 109thfloor, spilling into a space cluttered with construction debris. John explained, “When the building is finished there won’t be any access to the roof from this area, but for now we can get there through a temporary opening.”He pointed to a ladder leaning on a two-foot insulation-covered pipe near the ceiling.“You’ll need to climb that ladder and then scoot across the pipe to reach the opening to the roof.”By now nothing surprised us.
We managed to traverse the pipe, clutching it with our legs and tugging at our skirts. John, who much to our relief climbed first, gave each of us a hand at the end, pulling us out onto the roof.
We squinted in the glare. We were standing on the roof of the tallest building in the world! It was breathtaking! Not only were there light clouds above us, they were also below us! From every direction as far as we could see, Lake Michigan and the city of Chicago spread out before us! John waved his arm across the scene, “On a really clear day you can see as far as Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. I never get tired of this view!”
I tripped on a steel, fist-sized hexagonal nut. Surreptitiously I slipped it into my purse. “Just a little souvenir,” I muttered under my breath.
I fixed my eyes on the edge of the building only twenty feet away, wondering how close I'd dare get to the knee-high wall. Compulsion to look competed with my fright. Curiosity won out and I inched forward. To reach the edge I had to step between the rails of a track that ran along the perimeter. I looked toward John, “What’s this?”
“It’s the track for moving the window washing machine around the building.”
Creeping as close to the edge as my nerves would allow, I stepped between the two rails of the track, crouched down, tightly gripping the rail, and stretched my neck out as far as I could to see below. Chills and thrills mixed together and my fear gave way to wonder as I peered over the edge of death.
“Would you like to climb up the TV broadcasting tower?”John questioned from behind me. I turned to see him pointing upward with his eyes. The tower had to be at least three hundred feet tall with a narrow ladder running straight up the side.
"Okay, this guy must be toying with me now.” I looked at him with glazed eyes. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
John obviously had work to do, so soon he called one of his crew to escort us back down to the street. We thanked him for giving us this amazing opportunity. Then the new guy took us down from the other side of the building, thankfully avoiding another trip across the pipe. The return trip was anticlimactic and soon we found ourselves back on the sidewalk, truly incredulous at what we’d just experienced.
The next morning I picked up the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. The front page of the “Living Section” displayed a large color photo of John. The article accompanying it described his work installing large radio and TV broadcasting towers all over the world. Then it all became clear. John didn’t work for Sears. He wasn’t part of the construction project at all. His job was installing the TV towers on the roof and he wasn’t concerned about what Sears might think.
In the paper’s “Action Line” column for the day a group of people had written wanting permission to climb all the stairs to the top floor of the Tower. The “Action Line” responded that they checked with Sears who replied that it would be impossible. Bottom line, the company was not willing to risk the liability.
Smugly, Angie and I looked at each other, and then laughed.