The Tired Night Sky of the City

I am walking home. I walk, for the first time in a long time, the way I used to walk: alone. I am surrounded by the false light of the city night. This light, this orange and white ocean is a lie; an affront to the glowing tired sky that just wants a moment of darkness. A moment of respite. The sky is not the only thing tonight in need of respite. It’s been days like this, maybe weeks. Getting up in the morning and doing the bare minimum, not even waking up really until the afternoon, catching up eating and going out. Going out to the bars and the restaurants, the places where life, even on a Tuesday, is known to blossom in hidden urban corners bubbling with warm light and light talk. And I’ve been doing it alone, not to avoid anyone, but to leave myself open, open in the way I used to be to the experience.

To be out and alone is different than being out with people. When you are out alone there are no distractions from the life of the bar and there are no excuses for not stepping out of your shell and engaging with that life. It’s a way of forcing my inner extrovert to get some exercise, some fresh air. I like it; I like it too much because the rolling boil of voices and bitter tang of the beer starts to occupy my thoughts. I start thinking I’d be happier in a bar, and that’s true. But it’s not the only place to be happy. I like finding the hidden happy life in the city. I like finding people who find ways to be happy.

The search for happiness is a problem of boundaries, an issue with moderation, it plagues people and it plagues civilization. The false premise: if a little bit is good, more must be better. You couldn’t get farther from the truth, but just look at this city. Look at the gleaming cities of the Western world. See how they shine at night like glass, like polished trophies. This is what we think of when we think of cities. We think of cities as pinnacles, as what happens when you add MORE people and MORE money together, more and more makes better and better so we always strive to add to that skyline, to make the streets busier and the tax base stronger so we can add to the skyline again and so on…

But Western cities, being constructed with an eye to the aesthetics of excess, are not human cities. Go abroad. Go where the culture of more is only now gaining a foothold. These cities have no skylines, only broad low vistas. They have no grand parks, no gleaming districts. But they have people. So many people, and these streets are so much more alive. Human cities cannot be designed; they arise out of our behavior. The streets of New Orleans, though old, are undeniably western: wide, straight, flanked by sidewalks. The buildings are mostly vertical, the roofs mostly straight. Downtown the lights stay on in the skyscrapers like they do in western cities making them seem impressively complex, but the complexity has gone from these buildings, it has fled back to little fortresses in the suburbs for the night.

So it is empty here, orderly and empty, as if recently abandoned. As if the buildings hadn’t yet realized they could relax their façades into a more human geometry. A geometry like the other cities, the ones that are piled atop the ruins of still other cities with centuries of adaptation to humanity behind them. These cities seek only inhabitants, not a tax base, not a skyline (not yet). These cities are centers of humanity, our gathering places, where we meet and trade, and have a little fun. These cities do not feed on themselves; they draw life from humanity. Without people these cities would lose all remarkable characteristics, they would just be materials in the dust. Ah I want to walk those crowded dusty streets not these stark asphalt plains. I can’t. Not yet. But I will. Until then I walk, alone again, with my thoughts spinning in lazy circles. I think about humanity. I think about the city. I think about structure and civilization. I think about the tired night sky.