City Lights

New York City is certainly not known for its stargazers. Inside all those skyscrapers and along the myriad streets and thoroughfares are nothing but electric lights. I live out in the borough of Brooklyn, in Carroll Gardens, which still retains a lot of its nineteenth century charm, with brick and brownstone houses and slate sidewalks. But the gas lamps are long gone, replaced by modern street lights three stories high: on the corners, in the middle of the blocks, everywhere. I feel safe walking here at night, but it’s a sky watcher’s nightmare!

You have to be persistent and creative to do skywatching in Brooklyn, to avoid the glare of the lamps and the bulk of the new condos that have popped up in recent years. If I stand at a certain angle around the corner, I can occasionally catch Venus after sunset between the Catholic church steeple and the glow from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. When Venus is far in the south, I’ve glimpsed her from my second-story bedroom window, standing on tiptoe on an old steamer trunk. And I’ve even viewed lunar eclipses from the fire escape out back, craning my neck to see the last bit of the Moon as it slides out of view over the roof.

My favorite observatory is the bathroom, facing east; I stand in the tub to watch the moon rise. When I’m really inspired, I’ll get up before dawn to see planets clustered near the sun. I avoid the morning haze of summer, but in winter have better luck, braving the early morning cold in my wooly slippers and big fluffy robe. The cat comes out stretching and yawning and curls up with me, happy for some company.

Despite the obstacles, I even managed to see comet Hale-Bopp a number of years ago, streaking by the water-tanks of the building across the street. Yet there was still one hold-out on my astronomical “to-see” list: Mercury. Mercury the trickster, the elusive messenger of the Roman pantheon. The swiftest of the planets, Mercury falls so close to the Sun that it’s usually hidden behind a building or caught in street-lit glare when most likely to be seen. And many a chilly early-morning bathroom visit had left me disappointed. It had been a long time — would I ever catch sight of this evasive planet?

Mercury was known as Nabu to the Babylonians, and in the first millennium B.C. was revered by one of the most popular cults of its day. Nabu was known as the messenger of the gods; his name literally meant “herald.” This divine scribe was thought to record the destiny of the world. He was also said to bring the floods that ensured a good harvest. Most surprisingly, Mercury represented the Crown Prince — when very bright, it was believed to presage fortune for the prince as well as the king.

Later, the Greeks would call the same planet Hermes, and the Romans, Mercury. Maya priests in the New World seem to have been particularly keen on noting when this quick-moving planet stopped or stationed in its path, appeared to back up or go retrograde and disappeared in the Sun’s glare. It was all so easy for the Maya, observing from their high-rise temples, and Babylonians up in their ziggurats — they didn’t have the electric lights of the modern world to contend with!

I have my work cut out for me in Brooklyn. I was no closer to seeing Mercury than before. But there was one last possibility — the roof. This was an option only to be considered in the most extraordinary of circumstances, due to the difficulties and hazards involved in getting up there in the first place. A precarious old ladder, bolted only a few inches from the wall, leads up to the ceiling door, which has a heavy bolt to keep intruders out. It was also necessary to alert the elderly Sicilian lady on the top floor that I’d be up there, lest she hear and call the police or come out in her nightgown with a broom to chase me away. Yet alerting Antoinette would involve at minimum a half-hour conversation. Was it worth it?

The news was being trumpeted on all the TV stations — the five naked-eye planets would be on view, even including a crescent Moon, on the nights of November third and fourth. The claims sounded outrageous — that Uranus would be a part of the bunch and that we’d not have this opportunity again for many decades. I dismissed them as gross exaggeration — Uranus with binoculars in New York City? Not a chance. I had seen all the rest before, they’d all be back — except Mercury! The idea gnawed at me: perhaps this was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. Could I finally track down the trickster? November third was rainy and overcast, a lost opportunity. And the fourth dawned so unseasonably cold that the idea faded to the back of my mind. But at the office, my dad phoned with the latest from his morning paper, “You’ve got to see this! It’s a lifetime opportunity!” I told him I’d try, but secretly felt it was pointless. The cold; the ladder; Antoinette. There was too much against me.

At home that evening at about a half hour after sunset, I was suddenly seized with the certainty that I would do it! Hastily gathering mittens and earmuffs, I slung binoculars around my neck and dashed upstairs to face the challenge. Antoinette would have to be ignored this time; I quietly tip-toed up the long iron ladder. Then the hard part — the huge slide-bolt locking the small roof door. Adrenalin pumped through my system as I raced against time and pounded — struggling to be forceful without making noise — and finally slid the bolt free. A few moments of panic as I hoisted myself, sans footholds, over the roof’s ledge, and I was there. I paused only a moment to consider the disturbing possibility that Mr. Marchese, the other fourth-floor tenant, might also hear me and come up, locking me out for the night.

Then I was lifted into the ethereal realm. Streetlights far below me, the island of Manhattan glittered peacefully, like a picture postcard in the distance. Looking up, I realized, as ever, why the ancients had identified Heaven as above. To commune with the sky in this way is truly a transcendental experience. All my old friends were there. Venus, very big and bright, near her consort, the smaller orange Mars. A crescent Moon cut a strip of light above them, while further down the line, Jupiter shone with his usual might and brilliance. Along into the distance my old favorite, yellowish Saturn, vainly tried to catch up with its comrades.

But what about Mercury? Would I finally get to meet that sly planet? Oh, yes. There he was, far to the west. Whiter and brighter than I had imagined, shining with such a clarity and lucidity that one could easily understand why the old astrologers had given him rulership over the mind. And then in a twinkling it was gone, blocked out by the twilight haze enveloping the scene. Yet I had finally seen him, if only for a moment, and happily hastened back into the warm house.

© Karen Christino – All rights reserved