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Lit up

May 29, 2002

 

Late last year, I had a Spanish class in an office building downtown.

 

One night a week I took the trolley down Market Street around sunset, exiting to rush with the rest of the rush hour crowd and shopping tourists at the buzzing intersection near the cable car turnaround. I walked south down an avenue crossing Market Street, past the doormen of posh boutique hotels who always tipped their hats and said hello as I passed.

 

As Market street fell farther behind me, the avenue grew quieter and dingier; and finally I would slip through the electric sliding doors of the college annex, a dusty, 50's-style plastic-looking grey and beige cube. Three hours later, how I loved emerging from the sodium-lit classroom into the sparkling city night!

 

The City during the day is a simple, geometric procession of mundane devices of transport, trundling along grey crumbled streets lined with stony-faced edifices. In the darkness of evening, however, it is transformed into a magical festival of sights and sounds.

 

The commercial sidestreet I walked along back towards Market Street cut like a dull knife through the throbbing artery of activity. A block from the intersection, it begins to come into focus, entering my senses a bit at a time. Here the darkness and quiet of night were crackled and split with flashing lights, grinding streetcar wheels, and the dissonant melodies and rhythms of psychotic-looking street performers. In the dark, streetlights, headlights, and office lights in the buildings became jewel-like.

 

The five-story grid-like building rising up across the intersection looked like a forlorn checkerboard during the day. At night, though, each lit-up window revealed the glowing sapphire and ruby tones of tempting displays of cosmetics and perfumes, and the checkerboard facade looked more like a box of sparkling treasure.

 

The cool evening air chilled my body as I trod across a steaming manhole cover. The warm, white steam rose up around my legs as my boots clicked on the metal surface; then, the cold air was all around me again, damp and chillier than ever. As I was absorbing all the sensations around me, a bright yellow streetcar, like a giant enameled bullet, squealed its brakes and cruised into the intersection. I gathered myself up and ran for it. Though it would be my ride home, it almost didn't matter whether I caught it. Home, at that moment, was a distant image of solitude; and here I was, bundled with books, tripping over my clunky heels down asphalt glittering with broken glass like diamonds, jumping over the shiny steel trolley tracks, running to the rhythm of the city and its people in a carnival of swirling life. Breathlessly, I swung around the open accordian-folded doors of the streetcar, exchanged a grin with the driver, who chided me gently for running in front of his train, and threw myself down finally, exhausted, into the bouncy vinyl seat.

 

Rolling heavily along its rails, the streetcar took me farther into the night towards home, quiet, and the relative peace of my sleeping neighborhood. But every night, only a few miles away, the City's center will transform from its daily routine of shoppers and tourists, into a riot of color and light, a playground for the senses.

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