Pretend I’m a Tourist: I climbed a skyscraper to feel closer to NYC


Everyone said no.

“It doesn’t sing to me.”

“I’m a pass.”

“I would vomit.”

I was looking for a friend to help me conquer City Climb, an “intense aerial adventure” involving helmets, harnesses, and steep stairs, all at the very top of a very tall skyscraper. But all my friends are cowards. I‘m a coward, too, but a coward who wanted company. I’m afraid of heights, which means I’m afraid of falling and dying, or worse, falling and living; but I was trying to fall back in love with New York by becoming a tourist, and tourists do things they wouldn’t normally do. Tourists say “yes” (and “excuse me, do you know the way to…”).

Finally, my friend Mike agreed to join me. “They don’t let you do things where you die,” he said; two days later, he made certain his life would go on by canceling on me for a callback. In his stead, I strongarmed my friend Delia, the video editor at Time Out, to join me.

“HR told me to not fall off the building because there’d be a lot of paperwork.”

I met her at Hudson Yards next to The Vessel, the carbon steel spiral still closed to the public, and took a series of escalators to a fourth-floor souvenir gift shop with more love for the 7 train than is ethically justifiable.

Our reservation was for 5pm, timed to coincide with the sunset. A steady stream of tourists lining up for the elevators confirmed there was something to see. While most were headed to Edge, the open-air triangular outlook on the 100th floor with a glass floor and glass barriers, Delia and I were headed higher and scarier. I used the restroom twice, once out of necessity and once out of fear. 

The first holding room was lit like a nightclub and we were given a breathalyzer to make sure we weren’t behaving like we were at one.

“I’ve never done a breathalyzer before,” I told the employee.

“Then this will be your first time,” she said. “Maybe your last.”

What she meant was that I seemed like an upstanding citizen whose level of drunkenness will likely never be called into question; what I heard is today I might die.

This adventure course is both physically and mentally challenging!” the employee proclaimed in a long speech. Its length didn’t bother me: every minute of the two-hour experience spent inside was a good minute. At a bank of 10 iPads, I signed a very long document that ensured my unfortunate demise would not affect the financial holdings of Hudson Yards, Incorporated.

On the wall behind us, a blown-up promotional image of a woman doing the signature “lean-out” on the top of the building, something Delia and I had decided in advance to say no to, and an inspirational quote: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” The quote was attributed to the first person to climb Mount Everest. I was in a mall.

Pretend I’m a tourist Zach Zimmerman The Climb
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

The elevator ride up was smooth—100 floors in half as many seconds. The walls were screens playing a black-and-white animation of the cityscape, keeping us blissfully unaware that we were now three Statutes of Liberty above the ground.

We arrived at “BaseCamp” and stowed our loose items in lockers. We wouldn’t want a dropped iPhone to kill someone faster than the gradual decline the smartphone normally facilitates. A wall of helmets, harnesses and blue bodysuits supported our costume change. 

“Zach, the zipper is gonna go in front,” our guide Jason corrected me. I had put my bodysuit on like a hospital gown, a clue into my state of mind.

We had two guides: Jason, who sounded something like a therapist, and Matt, who sounded something like a therapist whose morning coffee had been replaced with creatine.

“Should I tuck my hair in my helmet? I don’t want to look bald,” I asked Matt before realizing he was. He was hot bald, though, so I wasn’t sure if it was God’s choice or his.

I confessed to them both that I was afraid of heights. A video I found said I needed two things to overcome my fear: determination and therapy. While I have the latter every other week, I’m not sure who to co-pay for determination. Another video said to take deep breaths, which I told Jason.

“Matt teaches Lamaze classes on the weekends,” he joked.

“Really?” I was very eager to believe everything the safety professionals were telling me. Fear had made me gullible. Instead, Matt went philosophical.

Not to get too spiritual,” he said, “but we all get scared. It’s about what you do when you’re scared.”

What I did when I was scared is politely ask that my harness be re-re-reviewed every time I turned a corner.

Our suits were checked and zip ties were applied to the latches. I didn’t ask why we were getting zip ties, but I knew why.

Suited up like the Blue Man Group on a bike ride, we stepped into the 100th-floor lobby with a crowd of the more casually dressed and a secret stairwell brought us to the final room. There, industrial sounds—the wheezing of machines and wind let us know we were on top of something—and we attached our harness to a sleek, slick, silver rectangular trolley that slid back and forth on a track to our left. A man who was referred to, mostly by himself, as Mr. Delicious, double-checked the connection. Jason and Matt greeted him like an old friend they hadn’t seen in years when it had likely only been an hour or two. They had the same camaraderie, I imagined, as construction workers on steel beams in the 1920s. It would have been odd if the staff of a high-adrenaline aerial adventure had the stoicism and melancholy of the characters in Severance.

Delia was attached in front of me because she was shorter. I will admit being second was a great relief. Delia was my tasting boy, someone who made sure each step was safe. While I wouldn’t wish death on my friend, I did appreciate that she would be defying it before me.  

“Make me more confident in this connection,” I asked Jason.

“You have two points of contact,” he explained, gesturing to the front and back straps. “Three if you count your feet.”

“And four when I grab onto your arm,” I said.

He smiled. They seemed to tolerate, if not like, me. Dad jokes in the face of fear were probably more welcome than whimpering. Subconsciously, I thought if I could make my guides laugh, they’d see me as more human and be more likely to save my life.

At the final door, we did a call-and-response that we’d done at every threshold.

“Climbers ready?”

“Climb go!’

To be honest, yelling helped. If you ever find yourself feeling out of control of your physical or emotional environment, claim dominion over your auditory one. Next time I’m being dumped or ignored, I might excuse myself to scream.

Our four-person snake—Matt, Delia, Zach, and Jason—began the course. Up a few steel stairs, we reached a final fenced gate with a red “RESTRICTED” sign and opened it.

“Today is October 6, 2022,” Jason said to the GoPro on Matt’s head. “What is time?” he added.

“Getting existential on us,” Matt said.

Their banter lightened the mood. We weren’t scrubbing in for surgery, we were just going to climb some very high stairs.

Delia and I introduced ourselves to the camera, making a home video for our funerals (“He’s terrified by the way. Look at this face,” Jason said about me.)

“Party people,” Matt said, “we are 1,189 feet above sea level. What we are gonna do now is-”

“Is take off our harness,” Delia joked. 

“No. We’re gonna keep them on. But we’re gonna go right there and look over the cliff. 

 Want to know the name of this activity?”

“Scared time?” I said.

“Something I’m not doing?” Delia said.

“The Look Over The Cliff,” Matt said.

Delia went first with Matt, then me with Jason. As we stepped out on the steel grate to look over, there was no longer any denying we were high up: no walls, just sky, and down. When I’m high up, I want nothing more than to be back on the ground as fast as possible; but being back on the ground as fast as possible is what I was most afraid of.

I inched toward the edge with Jason’s encouragement, away from the comfort of walls around me, to look down. Before me was the Hudson and New Jersey. Down below, a pool with the Equinox logo, a train yard, a group of people in seats watching a screening of some kind, the Javits Center, and The Vessel’s innards, which from above looked like a section of the digestive tract or a vertebrate. I turned my head up. My brain decided I did that too quickly and sent a pang of fear through my body. I politely let Jason know I was done with this activity.

We turned to meet Delia and Jason, who were already up a few stairs.

“He’s less scared than me,” she said.

“I think it’s all a charade,” Matt said.

Pretend I’m a tourist Zach Zimmerman The Climb
Photograph: courtesy of Related

We began our climb together, the city’s downtown to our right, a railing to our left. We pulled our trolley with us in staggered bursts, its teeth made sure we couldn’t go back; metal, our own will, and a bit of peer pressure drove us toward the sky. My heart was pumping, and I wasn’t sure which beats to classify as cardiovascular exertion and which to attribute to fear. Our guides celebrated us (“you guys are killing it!” “you made it!” with regular high-fives) and checked in often, asking my favorite refrain on the trip: “How are you doing, Zach?” It seems cliché to fall in love with your guide, but I developed a fast crush on Matt. Maybe my Eat. Pray. Love. would take place at a tall mall in the city I live in.

Halfway up, we took a break. Jason looked so comfortable, a blue-jump-suited Spider-Man, a nerd who knew this weekend was Comic Con, hanging on the side of the building.

“Are you numb to this?” I asked him. “What are you thinking about right now?”

“What’s for dinner,” he answered.

“What is for dinner?” I asked.

“Ramen.”

Neither he nor Matt was numb to the falcon that flew by, though.

“Woah! Did you see that? A falcon!”

I missed it.

“He’s not circling his prey,” Jason assured us. 

“When they nosedive, they can travel up to 200mph and they nest right here,” Matt added.

During the break, Matt administered some NYC trivia, a legal requirement for all New York tourist attractions. I knew the height of One World Trade Center (1,776 feet) from another tourist attraction and was able to ID the Statue of Liberty as well, but didn’t predict Matt’s dad joke: “Fun little fact about her. Her arm never gets tired!” Delia knew the three bridges, and Matt added a pneumonic to remember the order: BMW for Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg.

“We are home to the first ever pizzeria ever in the United States: Lombardi’s. Opened in 1905. If you go, tell them I sent you, even though they’re not gonna know who the hell I am.”

Small talk at 1,200 feet is strange. The subtext—“we’re very high in the air right now and no one is talking about it”—is almost audible.

“We were pretending to be people,” Delia told me later. “Like aliens.”

Before we finished climbing the stairs, I realized I had been so concerned with my own experience, I hadn’t checked in with my friend.

“I’m so scared,” she said back to me.

It’s hard to know how seriously to treat someone else’s fear. Years ago, when I told my therapist I was having some ideation, he said I could, but “no more pancakes.” I laughed. By not taking me seriously he made things feel less serious.

My heart was pumping, and I wasn’t sure which beats to classify as cardiovascular exertion and which to attribute to fear.

When we reached the apex, someone was already there to taunt us: the falcon. Sitting casually at the corner of the gray rectangular platform, an animal as curious about us as we were about them.

“I wish I had an Australian accent so I could explain to you guys,” Matt said, telling us the Peregrine falcon is the fastest bird in the world. We observed the bird for a while before Matt stepped forward for our turn. The falcon stayed still, but eventually, casually stepped off the 1,200-foot high platform and plunged down before soaring out over the Hudson. It felt like bragging. The falcon would rather fall off a building than be near Matt. I was the opposite.

Pretend I’m a tourist Zach Zimmerman The Climb
Photograph: courtesy of Related

We took some photos (“Don’t look so scared, Zach. Look confident for two seconds,” Jason said), vogueing for the camera a bit before being reprimanded to keep our feet flat on the ground (two points of contact). I was relieved the experience was nearly over but was also terrified the scariest part was still to come.

Lean-outs are when people press against their harnesses to stick their torsos and heads out over the edge of the building, putting them somewhere around a 45-degree angle depending on how tall and brave they are. You’re wondering, “Why?” and it’s a great question. Why would I tease the gods of gravity and fate? Why would I surrender my well-being to inanimate equipment I can’t charm?

Jason demonstrated. He bent at the hips like giving a curtain call, waddled out to the ledge, and straightened his back to lean out, over the world. He narrated every step, and I’ve never listened to instructions more closely. I toss out IKEA and iPhone instructions with the packaging, but I treated what Jason was saying like I was the sole prophet in a new religion charged with documenting the leader’s words.

He let out a scream of power.

“Never gets old,” he said.

“Never gets old,” Matt echoed.

With the demo done, their sights turned to us.

“How you doing, Delia?” Matt asked.

“Not great. I don’t want to do this at all.”

“We’re gonna attempt it,” he cajoled, managing to get me out to try it out as well.

We all leaned over, bowing like a four-person play was ending, before Delia backed out.

“I don’t want to do this,” she said as she scurried back.

“I understand. It’s scary. It’s scary, but it’s safe.” Matt said.

I stayed out, scared, but because of my height, the angle of my lean was tamer. Delia saw me doing it, and felt a little inspired.

“Let’s lock arms,” Matt offered her.

It was a curious web of influences, navigating our own fear, getting data from our bodies and other bodies that this was safe. Determination and therapy.

Below us, we could see people milling about on Edge.

“I don’t like baby strollers with no babies,” Jason said. “Where is your baby?” he yelled down.

We bent our knees to return our heads above our feet, and our guides applauded our tiny achievement with fist bumps. 

“Don’t discount it. It was something. It wasn’t nothing.” Matt said.

Next, the backward lean out. An employee below had warned me earlier this can be scarier. Would you rather be able to see how high you are or just feel it, know it?

Jason demonstrated again, striking an adorable pose with his hands under his chin to show that he was not terrified. Doing something scary while looking scared is not reassuring.

You’re so brave,” I said.

“Getting married is brave. Sharing roommates is brave.”

“I’m convinced that I’m not brave enough,” Delia said.

“Listen,” Matt interrupted. “Remember what I said about that self-talk. You say you can do it, you can do it.”

“I can do it…after I see Zach do it,” she said.

“You have to go first due to the order,” Matt said.

“I have to go first?” She sounded shocked.

I knew the order thing couldn’t actually be true, but didn’t know if Delia did.

“Matt had faith you could do it,” Jason said.

“I absolutely believe you could do it. It’s up to you to tell yourself you can do it.”

I knew this part was true.

I was so very grateful to not be going first. I didn’t plan to do this at all; if Delia did it, at least 50% of our party did.

She followed each instruction slowly, leaned out backward, and even released her hands from her rope. We cheered, and then Jason nudged her to do it…again. And she did.

I had no excuse to opt out now, so my brave and sweet Matt coached me through it. 

“Straighten out those elbows,” he encouraged as I clung to my rope. I tried to release it, but my brain couldn’t make my hands let go.

“No!” I said to Matt in a way that seemed to startle him. I switched to a different method, squatting first, and then extending out. It worked. I was out there. I even managed to put my arms to my side for the photo. The resulting pictures make me seem braver than I actually was. It was a rush to say yes to a thing I’d sworn I wouldn’t do, to be able to replace “I would never” with “I did.”

Pretend I’m a tourist Zach Zimmerman The Climb
Photograph: courtesy of Related
Pretend I’m a tourist Zach Zimmerman The Climb
Photograph: courtesy of Related

We had time to do one more, so I decided to do a forward one where I could see the city. This second time, I was less afraid, taking in the view rather than being terrified of it. The city looks so clean from high up, metallic, shimmering: you can’t see the trash on the streets or the bodies that populate it: sleek, shimmering, shining, metal. The sun had begun to set, and the red lights that appeared on one block had begun to fill other streets and avenues like blood in veins. As I extended my legs, my torso lifted and the view below me gave way to a view before me: most of the moon, the Empire State Building, a panorama of buildings packed together, a game of Tetris poorly played, and a sense of majesty, of awe, and a view unblocked. There was no separation between me and this place from this perch above things. Two words slipped into my mind, words that a tourist would never receive: “my city.”

Lest I bask in my cringy earnestness and confidence for too long, my body humbled me.

“Your palms are really sweaty, Zach,” Matt told me.

I was shaking the three people’s hands who got me to do something I didn’t think I would.

“Yeah, your palms are really sweaty,” Delia repeated.

Pretend I’m a tourist Zach Zimmerman The Climb
Photograph: courtesy of Related

The staircase on the way down told us to be “HIGHER.” “BOLDER.” “BRAVER.” on different floors. I asked the questions I’d been saving until I was safely on the ground. No one has ever vomited, and no one has ever pooped (“We check for brown spots”), but someone did pee: not because he was scared, but because it was two hours. Someone proposed as well. It was just a question and a “Yes,” because an engagement ring is a loose item and kneeling is not an approved position (which answered another question I had).

“Anything else crazy ever happen?”

“A lady doing a lean-out once said, ‘Look at all my peasants,’” Jason said. “Someone below booed her, and I was like ‘Yes! That’s New York.’”

Delia and I shared a glass of wine on Edge to celebrate our achievement and cement our willful trauma bond. Some tourists there were scared of the glass floor. Their fear felt silly compared to what we’d conquered. I was once like you, little girl, I thought. Silly and afraid. A new fear I have as I’ve grown up is that I’ll start to shut myself off to new experiences. I’ll say no to things because I know myself (allegedly) and end up robbing myself of the high of being surprised. Climbing a very tall building was scary, but it might have been scarier to say no.

I didn’t conquer my cowardice alone. With the help of a friend and two incredible, kind, funny guides (Hi, Matt), I managed to face the terrifying and get filled with a sense of confidence that I am still holding on to. If I get to choose the people by my side when I die, through some strange lottery in the future, I’d choose Jason and Matt, and ask Delia if she’d like to go first.

Zach Zimmerman is a queer comedian, writer, and author of Time Out New York’s “Pretend I’m A Tourist” column. A regular at the Comedy Cellar, Zach has appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden and had a debut album “Clean Comedy” debut on the Billboard Top 10. Zach’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Washington Post; and Zach’s first book Is It Hot in Here? (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth?) (April 2023) is available for pre-order now.



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