I suffer from a compulsion, though I suspect not a rare one. It has annoyed and alarmed my wife on many occasions. It has almost gotten me thrown out of concerts and sporting events I paid good money to see. It has raised the eyebrows of airport security in multiple countries.
The irrepressible urge is this:
Anytime I enter a large structure built by modern humans, I am compelled to reconnoiter areas designated off limits to the general public.
Malls. Hotels. Museums. Hospitals. Courthouses. Aquariums. Decommissioned aircraft carriers.
On days off I dress in neutral colors and take public transportation downtown. I select a skyscraper and enter the lobby with an air of manufactured casualness, as if I routinely have business in skyscrapers. I nod to the security guard. I pretend to cross-reference information on my phone and the directory map. Then I board the elevator.
Somewhere near the top floor, I step off into an empty hallway. I wind my way through the hive geometry of the corridors, and after negotiating a few blind turns, slow down to regard a sudden font of natural light in the hall a few yards ahead.
The illumination issues from a door propped open to ventilate an office lobby under remodel. I creep closer and determine that the painters are on their break.
Suppressing the sound of my footfalls, I cross the threshold. A few more feet to skirt the vacant reception desk, and then I’m indulging in a view only a few of us in this metropolis will ever see. This vantage will cost someone a lot of money. It costs me very little.
If anyone confronts me, I have to improvise.
Receptionist at Architectural Firm: May I help you?
Me: I think I made a wrong turn. I was looking for my insurance agents.
RAF: Mills and Fellini?
RAF: They are on the 40th floor.
Me: What floor is this?
Me: (feigning embarrassed perplexity) Wow. How stupid do you have to be to push the wrong button in an elevator?
RAF: (with visible restraint, refrains from comment)
Me: I’m not going to tell my agent I can’t operate an elevator. My premiums will go up.
RAF: (almost smiles)
Me: Have a nice day.
RAF: You too.
And we never see one another again.
I suppose an interaction like this could be construed as manipulative, but in my view, the means justify the ends. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t steal anything. And I just got a view of the world that, in the eons of human history, was unthinkable until just a few generations ago.
The Egyptians, the Greeks, The Incas. Few of the structures they erected rival the scale and complexity of our office parks. And an airport? How is it possible that such a thing even exists?
There is no telling which feats of our engineering will endure for future archaeologists and tourists to puzzle over. They will wish they could ask us what it was like to live in our times.
I elect not to be like the Mayan whose labor helped raise a pyramid complex, but who was not considered wealthy or holy enough to enjoy a moment to himself inside what we would call a wonder of the world.
And now I have an affable accomplice for my explorations.
Hospital Security Guard: Sir, what are you doing in here?
Me: I think I got turned around. I’m looking for the family bathroom.
HSG: This area is off limits.
Me: I’m sorry.
HSG: Please exit this way. There’s hazardous material in this area.
Me: (holding nose and pointing at child suspended in Baby Björn) There sure is.