Last night, in a pique of laziness, and after eating bland food at home so often because we’ve been sick, I rebelled and went out to the local Thai restaurant. We’ve been there often enough, even though its new, that the girl who works behind the counter recognized me on sight and greeted me with a warm smile. We talked for a bit, I paid, left a tip, grabbed my food, and left.
Now the parking for the place in accessed through a alley between the restaurant and a pharmacy next door. So I walked out the door, made a u-turn to the south, and started down the alley. It was a dark out, 8:30 or so, in the winter, and the sky had that curious quality to it I’ve only seen in LA. It looks like it is night, but that everyone had left their night-lights on. That’s the best way I can describe it. If you’ve ever been in a house with lots of night-lights stuck in the outlets all over (something we did when Trevor was a baby) there’s this curious thing about the lighting. It is both night, and yet you can see quite well, especially if you get up in the middle of the night and your eyes are adjusted. Both night, and not night, dark and not dark, if that makes any sense.
The alley I walked down is paved with dark asphalt, but the walls on both sides are either white or a light shade of off-white. Straight ahead of me was a massive sycamore tree, blocking out my view of the 2-story apparent right behind it, and most of the LA skyline. In fact, my entire view of the night sky was proscribed by either wall or tree.
Now you have to understand, around here, in the San Fernando Valley, the horizon line is a dominant feature. It really is a lovely bowl of a valley with mountains all around. Almost no matter where you go you at night see the bright stars of houses twinkling upon the jagged edge of the mountains. After the flatness of the San Joaquin Valley, where I grew up in the subtile shadow of the distant though much larger High Sierras, the more constant and visible relief of the San Gabriels and the Santa Monicas against the sky are a joy.
So when I walked down that alley, it was suddenly like being transported to a different town. Gone was the skyline which the eye longs for with every outside walk. The walls around me practically glowed in that “night-light” effect. The tree ahead was dark, with a few apartment light peaking through its bare branches. And it was at that moment I looked up into the sky.
Have you ever seen the milky way? I mean really seen it? Gone to someplace so remote, and clear that it stands out in the night sky like a river or stars? Its a lovely sight; worth every effort to go and see. Alas one of the flaws of LA is that the milky way is not accessible in a place that looks like everyone has left their night-lights on. Its way too bright down here. But when you cut off all the light around, say by a wall on either side, a curious thing happens, the night sky appears darker. Not quite dark enough to see the milky way, but darker still.
So when I left the restaurant, and looked up into the night sky, I got a real treat. The sky was dark, darker than it normally looks. I don’t know if it was the absence of the bright horizon line, or what. Even thought the walls on either side of me were light colored, and relatively bright, they were still dark enough to not leave my eyes night-blind. There were a few faint clouds in the sky, not enough to brighten it, but just enough to add a slight texture to the dark. Almost like seeing the milky way but faintly. Orion, that constant winter companion, was up and bold, as were a few stars and a planet or two. They twinkled above in their lovely way, made more crisp by the relative darkness of the sky.
And it was at that moment that I stopped, literally in my tracks, and looked around. My ordinary trip to a restaurant, a rather perfectly mundane errand, was transformed by a bit of natural theater, and happy accident of lighting, into a piece of Art Cinéma. As if I had stepped out of my ordinary life and was suddenly standing in a Jean-Luc Godard film.
And it was breath-taking.