Suburban Soliloquy #59

My Astronomy Lessons

I came up out of the ground at West 50th Street and Eighth Avenue every day at about the same time when I worked as a clerk-typist for the buying offices of Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Manhattan. Despite subway maps that show the island of Manhattan erect, the cross streets don't really stretch due east-west. Manhattan is tilted out of kilter with longitude and the cross streets run somewhat northwest to southeast.

Consistently climbing out of that subway at the same time every day, five mornings a week, I noticed the sun was less reliable than me. It was always differently placed in the eastern sky and usually behind a building. Then came consecutive days when I climbed out of the subway and into a blinding sun.

For several mornings in a row, when I arrived to the underground station, I took note of how deep into the stairwell the sunlight descended. After reaching the top of the stairs, I would observe how high between the buildings the sun had ascended at the far southeast end of the street. Then, one morning, while going to work in the time before the seemingly eternal reign of Cats at the Winter Garden Theater, when Beatlemania yet occupied that stage, I gained insight into how easy it was for primitive humans to become acquainted with the patterns of heavenly bodies.

How much easier for those early humans in a time before cities to have noticed the relationship of the sun's cycle with the cycle of plant life and the river's predictable flooding. In New York, time as dictated by the sun and stars is obstructed by a labyrinth of walls on which are posted clocks and calendars to compensate. Although in theory the modern city-dweller might use the oddly shaped tors and pinnacles of skyscrapers to mark the passing of celestial lights, the night sky has been banished by the bright lights of Broadway.

My astronomy lesson wouldn't continue until years later, after I had moved back to suburbia and began working the off tours for AT&T. There are not as many lights and towering obstacle here in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Until the death of Boris, my Newfoundland dog, I used take him for walks late at night. Boris meandered about with his nose tracking along the ground. He was building mental models of trails and territories as designated by scents. I pointed my nose to the transparent night sky. The brighter stars were visible and it was possible to discern constellations.

The street in front of my house runs briefly straight. If I stand in the middle of it and turn right, the street points me directly at Polaris (the North Star). The Big Dipper revolves around it like the hour hand of a clock. I can see the clockwork of the heavens in motion and the North Star the pin at its hub. It is always there in the sky, but of course it cannot be seen during the opaque daylight. It was easy to understand the conclusions reached by Ptolemy.

In the course of walking Boris regularly during every season and for several years, I saw how the great dome of heaven slowly wobbled. It was mostly evident in the trajectories of the sun and moon. In the summer months the sun followed an arc high overhead, while the moon traced a lower arc closer to the southern horizon. In winter the sun and moon had exchanged paths. Seeing that, it was no longer an insurmountable proposition to believe Neolithic Stonehenge was used for astronomical observations. They had the night sky undiluted by streetlights. It would have been easier for them than for me who spends most of his life inside the glow of civilization. Lessons from grade school became blatantly obvious. I could envision our planet's tilt as it orbited the sun. I was suddenly inside the orrery. With the hindsight my education gave me, I could understand more than Ptolemy from just the few visible stars over my head, and Ptolemy had the advantage with his starry desert nights free of pollution.

Without Boris, my priorities have shifted and now my nights are spent at my desk reading or writing. But I had been a stargazer, living at oddball hours and pursuing the secrets of the universe while most of my neighbours slept, or watched television. I learned to tell the time by the moon, if there was a moon to see. I could understand the phases of the moon and why they had to be in a certain part of the sky at a certain time. Ever since I have found mistakes of how the moon was depicted in movies and in paintings. Directors and painters must not have walked their dogs at night, or maybe they owned cats.

And as with the ancient astronomers, I sought my destiny in the stars, imposing my beliefs on them, as did those earlier stargazers. Reckoning by the stars, it doesn't matter where I live, how long I live, or what I shall achieve in my lifetime, except to myself. Walking the dog at night was a humbling lesson. It is only a matter of time and all evidence of my ever having existed will be obliterated. It is only a matter of time and the mountains will melt away. Even the moon will dissolve in some unpredicted cataclysm. The differences that define the moon, the mountains, and me will grow infinitesimal, will cease to exist at all. Our identities will be lost in an homogeneous stew of the indiscernible.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the fifty-ninth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is now available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"