It was a typical day at Ann Street Studio, we were in the middle of a shoot when a friend walked in… she said nothing, just stood there dangling a pocket watch with a mischievous look on her face. Kevin took the watch in bewilderment as she slipped back out the door. We opened the watch to discover a set of instructions:
“You may only attend the Night Heron once. Entrance strictly by presentation of this token. No shoes with open toes or tall heels. Be prepared for stairs and ladders. Experience runs two hours. No restrooms.”
It tells us to text a number. We were given a date and street corner in Chelsea to wait for further instructions. Call this number at 9pm, don’t be late or the experience will leave without you. We paced nervously on the corner not knowing what was going on, checking our iPhones waiting for it to click over to 9pm. We call. A woman answers. She tells us to walk east and stop at a certain door and knock twice. She asks, “Do you understand?” We say yes and the line goes dead.
We find the door and knock, a man who looks like a real-life Mad Hatter opens the door and asks for our pocket watch, the token. Two more couples knock and walk in with wide eyes and total confusion. He says, “Follow me”, and up a flight of stairs we go, paint peeling and florescent lights buzzing. He stops and says, “What you are about to do is illegal, do you understand?” Everyone whispers, “Yes.” “If the police come you must do exactly what we tell you, you must stay together, you must follow us. Do not scatter.” He says to power off all cell phones. No pictures, no service, nothing is allowed: “This is how we keep it secret, safe”. He passes out flashlights. “Stay as close to the person in front of you as possible. Is anyone afraid of heights?”
We proceed out onto a fire escape where we must then climb over to the building next door over a gap with an eleven foot drop. He then says, “We are going to go up eleven flights of stairs, the building will become progressively worse. Be careful, there are broken steps and missing walls.” We climb in the darkness, our flashlights the only source of safety. We find ourselves on top of building in Chelsea, a group of 3 couples trusting a stranger in the shadow of the Empire State Building. He turns and points to the water tower and says, “Your experience awaits….”
One at a time we climb up and crawl through a small manmade hatch in the bottom of one of New York’s historic water towers. We stand up and a man with a curly mustache and coat tails greets us, “Welcome to the Night Heron”. A smile sweeps across our faces as our eyes turn around the honey colored wooden circular room…. a feeling of magic overcomes us. The kind of pure feeling we last felt when we were children and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were still real. Is that a piano as a bar? How did they make all those curved shelves that go all the way up holding bottles of whiskey and St. Germain? Candles and vases of flowers fill the room with a homey glow. A wooden ladder scales the wall to a platform built where a jazz band plays ole standards. Our host graciously offers us the house special, a whiskey drink called the “Mill Rock” named after a small unpopulated island between Manhattan & Queens.
I’m sensing the creator of this experience has an affection for abandoned places as I overhear him tell another guest that he “likes herons, they go to places unreachable which are the places I like.” Our drinks are delivered, the most beautiful mix of Bourbon and bitters, orange peel and mixers. We each took turns up the interior ladder poking our head out of the top of the water tower, just us from our secret hiding place looking at Manhattan like we’ve never seen it before. We feel the city smile at us, proud of our sense of adventure, the kind of sense that built skyscrapers, wrote important books, invented a new form of photography and thought of some of the world’s best ideas. I tell the host he is a visionary, he created “experience art” in which he replied, “I like to create a place everywhere I go.”
I wish I could go back every weekend. The thrill of being somewhere you shouldn’t, the danger of an abandoned building, the uneasiness of the possibility of being arrested, the way everyone inside socialized and lived in the moment because our phones were OFF. What was created was by far the most magical experience I’ve ever had in New York City. What 99.9% of what most people would think impossible, if they could even be free enough to dream something like this in the first place, we saw a small handful of humans do and it inspired us more than anything ever has. It was beautiful.
When we left I turned to look back at the water tower, taking it in one last time, this famous silhouette in the black night’s sky with cracks of fiery orange light bursting at its seams and the faint sound of a bass kissing you goodbye and sweet dreams…