When I was a girl, I knew what Mars looked like. Driving down I-76 at night, my father's car would carve an arc of light into the darkness, the headlights of oncoming cars sporadically illuminating whatever book I was reading.
But when my towers appeared on the horizon, I'd dog-ear my page and crane my neck to witness their approach: tall, slender towers of blinking red lights that I was sure also dotted the Martian landscape. They were beautiful, mysterious, magical.
I am grown now. The Mars Exploration Rover has since exposed the true surface of Mars and I know those towers are just the Roxborough radio towers. Nothing alien about them. However, unlike most things in life (see: scrapple), discovering their true nature did nothing to diminish their magic. This is because somebody built them. Someone climbed 700 feet to the top of those impossibly slim needles jutting up from the dirt into space, and looked down.
"I worked on those towers," said Henry Melcher, my guide through 3737 Chestnut, a new residential tower being built by the Radnor Property Group in University City. I was touring the construction site as part of a story I was writing for a real estate blog. From where we stood on the 25th floor, we could see clear over Northwest Philly to the radio towers, perched delicately on their hilly habitat. "I didn't actually go all the way up," he confessed. "But the guys that did . . ." His voice trailed off. We shared a moment of awe for those brave souls.
From my pillow that night, I marinated in the day's novelties: the smell of new drywall, the whoosh of the cantilevered hoist propelling me to the roof. It had been a day so deliciously removed from a normal weekday seated at my desk.
I wanted to go back up.
The next day, I called the PR liaison for 3737 Chestnut, who connected me with Kim McFadden, the project manager. After we set a date for my return, she advised via e-mail: "Please wear sturdy, flat shoes (steel toe boots if you have them) that can get dirty." Steel-toe boots? Mine were reinforced only by faux fur.
Kim started out in the restaurant business. When she was 14, she washed dishes at Jack Quinn's Lamplighter in Havertown and worked her way to professional chef. After her father passed when she was 21, she took stock. "Can I make a life of this?" she asked herself. She decided on college, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1994. Early in her postgraduate career, she served as project manager for the development of a massive office campus for the Vanguard Group. Her responsibilities were wide-ranging: strategic planning, site selection and acquisition, geographic information systems analysis, and construction oversight. "I wanted to do everything," she said succinctly.
Our time together played out less as an interview and more as an animated discussion between two people who were unabashedly passionate about their work. "I have an innate curiosity," she said at one point. I felt as if I were speaking to my twin. After all, I had just put on a hard hat for the second time ever, really just because.
Kim likened herself to an orchestra conductor: "More oboes! More percussion!" She grinned, left hand beckoning, then the right. As manager for this $100 million project, she had to instinctively know its rhythm, and know when she was needed and where: Like the time she traveled to China to inspect the building's windows with her own eyes before they were shipped halfway across the globe. "In the creation process," she continued, "you need to have a lot of intuition and a lot of creativity. You have to manage inputs, and not be afraid."
When the conversation slowed, I put my pen down, and sat back in my chair. I confided: "You know, I initially thought to do a 'walk a mile in another person's shoes' piece, but . . ." We were just so similar. I was caught off-guard, and without an angle. "Well, my day is a tiny bit different than other people's," she offered. "Even though I sit and answer a lot of e-mails, I do get to climb up to the top of this building every day." She smiled. "But when I'm not at work, I wear shoes just like yours."
We donned our hard hats and climbed into the hoist that dispatched us to the top of the building. To the east, the winter sun illuminated the fractals at the top of Liberty Place. What a perspective this view offered me. Far above the streets, I forgot for a moment all the white noise below. All I saw was light, and a whole lot of beautiful city. I thought about what the city must look like from the top of the Roxborough radio towers, and even farther above that: from the International Space Station, where those astronauts happily snap photos of Earth from the thermosphere. How quiet it must all seem from there, I thought. How simple.
I was hardly launched into orbit, but all the same, everything had dramatically shifted at some point during my interview with Kim McFadden. The story I had wanted to tell simply didn't exist anymore. But this shift in perspective yielded new clarity: Kim and I, we both wade through the muck of the every day, she in her shoes, and I in mine. We both build our buildings, as high as we can, and invite others to take in the view from where we stand.
Megan Ritchie Jooste is a Philadelphia writer