We are waiting in the shadows. Kept in the dark. Blind at the break of day for a few moments as we blink around for a sliver of light that isn’t there. We long for the thin beams that used to signal daybreak. Some ray of promise that won’t arrive this hour.
All of Manhattan rises in the dark. My wife and I pine for the sun remembered dimly from sunnier southern climes. I trundle down into the further darkness of a subway platform to take a crowded subway train uptown or a less populated downtown express train to Brooklyn for work depending on the day. Make a dark descent before the sun creeps past the tall buildings. I live on the west side, and my horizon line to the east is unnaturally high due to cathedrals, towering office buildings and highrise apartments crowding out the sun. So it’s that much harder to soak in some elusive winter light.
This darkness is all made brilliantly clear in a warm, well-lit corner of Fraunces Tavern in the oldest part of Manhattan. It happens after the Hot Spiked Cider arrives and before the largest pot pie you can imagine is produced. I’ve just asked the dinner party why we seem to be on such thin rations of sunlight here in the North, and my wife’s colleague breaks it down with the patience of a sixth grade science teacher explaining elementary planetary alignments to a slightly dim pupil.
The inclination of the earth as it revolves around the sun keeps the North from getting as much direct sunlight as the South in general, she explains. An unfortunate persistent tilt in the earth’s oblong orbit is responsible. She holds up her hands to make a round shape with her fingers to represent the earth. Her husband helpfully holds up a tea candle that is supposed to represent the sun. She doesn’t go through the full motions of revolving and rotating her hands around the candle to demonstrate her concept, but I sense the entire table setting will start spinning in motion soon if I don’t acknowledge some understanding.
“So that’s why the nights are six months long in Alaska,” I say. She giggles. “Not literally six months long,” she amends gently. I nod and change the topic before the Aurora Borealis effect can be demonstrated with her husband’s recently arrived plate of smoked gouda mac-n-cheese.
I’m not a complete neanderthal. As she was explaining the science behind the North’s low quota of sunlight, I had a vague flashback as I remembered a science lesson I was physically present for but only dimly aware of. The lesson likely happened in my accelerated sixth grade elementary class in Salisbury, North Carolina where the brilliant and lovely Ms. Johnson mesmerized us. I probably sat staring into her blue eyes and lost all sense of the other orbs she was talking about.
I’m not the only one who misses the sun and gets a bit disoriented and upset when it doesn’t appear year-round early and late. Back in the Dark Ages, the advent of an eclipse was a scary time. Who stole the sun? A witch must have done it. Build a fire quick and throw the nearest unlicensed midwife into the blaze. The difference between me and the peasants of the Dark Ages is that I’m worried and anxious about the return of the sun, not hysterical and homicidal.
We ache for sunlight. But when the flat, hard unforgiving light of the winter sun penetrates our apartment window, my wife and I suddenly feel like vampires. She covers her eyes as I dart to pull down the window shade. We wanted light. Not this wicked, winter glare that makes the back of our eyeballs burn.
Too little light. Too much light. I recall that photography is all about the light. The way the light hits the subject. A perfect moment in time when the light illuminates it just so. Photographers used to stand motionless waiting for a split second when all the points of light were in perfect alignment. Maybe a few still do stand that way, waiting like gargoyles in disdain of any artificial lighting effects.
I ran out a few months ago to the Brooklyn Bridge in a fit of inspiration to capture an eclipse at sunrise. I’d created a make shift light box from which to view it. Well, I’d repurposed a Bed Bath and Beyond laundry bin by papering over one hole in it and using a Bic pen to poke a small hole in that paper held there by tape, following directions I found on a web site. I was about ten steps from the spot on the bridge I needed to be in when the moment of the eclipse came and went. I reached the small crowd of eclipse enthusiasts who’d been poised and ready at the spot at the right time. “It really wasn’t all that,” one of them said encouragingly. “I got a picture, but it doesn’t look like much.” She showed me. It didn’t look like much. But being ten steps away from getting a picture of the moment reminded me how elusive the right light can be.
I also missed the latest Manhattanhenge event, a moment when the sunlight cuts directly on the horizon through the perfect grid of city streets here to illuminate cross streets north and south to brilliant effect. It’s a midtown phenomenon. The Downtown streets where I live bend will nilly to create a confusing maze that destroys the confidence of tourists and newly arrived residents while giving them charm and character in the eyes of long term residents. Manhattanhenge, of course, gets its name from Stonehenge in England where once a year the sunrise is perfectly aligned with stone columns erected around 2500 B.C. Dazzling astrological events in Manhattan, like a perfect comprehension of planetary alignments and effects, have so far proven elusive for me.
As a teenager, I used to believe there would be a moment in my life when everything that had baffled and beguiled me would just come together mysteriously. I’d be shot through with brilliance, perforated by illuminating knowledge like a thousand pinholes of light.
It doesn’t work that way. Little sun-drenched epiphanies do rain down suddenly like meteors streaking across a darkened sky. Tiny pinpricks of light pierce your being as some concept comes clear. But that’s rare.
Sometimes you stumble back into the dark and find yourself getting a lecture with a tea candle and an imaginary orb created by helpfully cupped hands.
Accustomed to hot spiced cider, I can’t help but ask about the contents of the unfamiliar version the tavern offers. “The Hot Spiked Cider contains Moonshine,” the waitress explains. I nod as if this makes perfect sense and drink up.
A few days later we see an off Broadway production of “iluminate.” Robyn describes the act as Harold and the Purple Crayon meets Power Rangers, but Avery and I dig it. People wearing brilliantly colored light suits that flash in perfect synch gyrate to an urgent techno hip hop beat.
Although I appreciate the show, I hate intentionally misspelled titles meant to be clever. On the cab ride home, we chatter about how dormant epileptics might have seizures activated by the show’s strobe lights and continually flashing costumes. Anyone who had epilepsy would read the show’s warnings about strobe lights effects and steer clear of that show, but people who aren’t born with epilepsy do sometimes develop the condition for unknown reasons, we explain to Avery. “What if you just became epileptic that morning and didn’t know it?” Avery asks. “Then you’d be leaving that show on a stretcher,” I reply.
The wrong kind of light for the right kind of person can be a bad thing, I suppose. I’ve also heard too much moonshine will make you go blind.
Still. Any kind of light is welcome in this dark region.