When I think of cities, I think of light. I think of light as a being to be reckoned with, a force as strong as the pavement. It competes with the heat from the sidewalk for my attention as my feet beat their way toward my destination. It dazzles my eyes off windows, other people’s sunglasses. It isn’t the height of the buildings that blinds me, when I stare into the sky their fingers obscure. It’s the sun on their faces that throws my gaze back at me.
“How dare you stare?” It accuses me. “How dare you?”
In places encased in glass and steel, everyone walks with their eyes cast down, forced modesty from the glares the city launches back at them, a million times stronger than any human stare. We know who’s boss, when steel clashes with bone.
Every city’s light is different, I’ve noticed. In Manhattan, the lights are brazen and bold, flashing and moving, always moving, streaming around and away and back again faster than you can catch them. It dizzies a body that turns slowly, too slowly to catch them. A cab blares its horn and it’s a red sound, a scarlet letter that reads “tourist.” Blinded by the hubbub, outsiders are immediately branded. The light is too much for those who don’t live there, and those that do, know enough to close their eyes against it. Jaded to the vivacity we’re not built to withstand.
Chicago’s light is slower, but no dimmer. It twinkles like the jazz drifting from clubs that forbid it. Light can’t pay cover there, not except the candles, whose admission is cheaper. It bounces rather than blazing, skimming corners at speeds that cheetas know, that trains know. Chicago’s light is too cool for you, but that’s ok, it says. It will let you tag along anyway, and you might learn a thing or too.
Paris’s light is blue, except when yellow takes over after midnight. It dazzles, high artistry, all flash and no bang. It asks for nothing in return, because it knows you have nothing to give as its equal. It has none, and soars above the places that would care.
London is orange, genteel, a little dingy at the edges. The lights of London pool beneath the street lamps and gather in the winding alleys, called streets. Between streets. London’s light doesn’t touch the furthest corners, out of respect for what happens there. London’s light would rather ignore it. It would rather you didn’t know.
I like my light from a little distance. Driving away from the city down a raised highway, I float above a wilderness of street lights, the winding grid of Buffalo’s neighborhoods reduced to tungsten balls like trees that blink, not wave. My headlights barrel past, their own pathways through tunnels of mostly darkness. I picture the houses beneath them, lesser glimmers from windows, television screens, eyes. I imagine the people underneath me, underneath the peppered stars.
Gentle lights, eons away. Their glares softened by ozone, they charge off no one.
“Fall into me,” they say. “The sun will be back tomorrow.”