A certain cliche goes like this: If you’re truly from a city, a proper local, you will not have toured the oddity that distinguishes its skyline. New Yorkers ignore the Statue of Liberty, Parisians the Eiffel Tower. Passively, I’ve acceded. I’ve lived 33 years in various parts of Washington state and never been in the Space Needle. Yes, I’ve seen it in the distance, passed buskers at its feet. But why—when the city’s life is so clearly elsewhere—should I shell out $35 to glide to a touristed perch?
Yet here I am on a rainy Sunday. My girlfriend and I pass through airport levels of security to get in line behind a man wearing a Biketoberfest hoodie with a skull and crossbones. We wait on a walkway above the gift shop, filled with multitudes of smaller Space Needles. They’re made of Legos, blown glass, plush stuffing, rocks, bent wires, foam. They adorn mugs, pocket watches, and tiny bags of coffee beans, the “Rainy Day Blend.”
Signage offers trivial lore: I learn the restaurant on top weighed 125 tons and builders had to align 74,000 bolt holes. Eventually the queue deposits us in front of a screen. A photographer snaps pictures, which get imposed on an array of backgrounds. Several position us floating unnaturally in front of the Needle, as if we were 600 feet in the air. Next stop, a packed elevator.
At the top, more people are taking photos than looking out the windows. The view, I’m loath to admit, is stunning. I’ve never particularly liked the Needle. Seeing the city without it is a nice change, as is taking in Seattle’s full 360-degree spread, the jigsaw of water and land. After a couple laps, dodging selfie-extended arms, we head to the lower level, known as the Loupe. It contains, per the Space Needle’s website, “the world’s first and only rotating glass floor.” (Can this possibly be true?) The light is less compelling down here, and the carpets look like they were taken from a church lobby, so photographers are fewer. It’s easier to take in the views as we stand on a translucent floor and inch through a rotation. A couple nearby struggles: “I’m getting a headache. I don’t know why.”
Soon, I too feel a little motion sick—not only destabilized from the spinning floor, but dislocated. The longer I’m up here, the more abstract the city becomes. This structure, I start to think, has become so iconic that it’s ceased to have much to do with Seattle. It—like all those smaller Needles in the gift shop—refers ultimately to itself. Indeed, when we descend and the elevator doors open, an automated voice chimes, “Thanks for coming, and enjoy your time in Seattle.” It sounds to me as though we, like people in an airport, aren’t quite here yet.