Night: A Conduit to a City’s Worlds

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Photo by Lloyd Williams on Unsplash

A few months ago, in Autumn, when the time changed, pulling the nighttime earlier in the day, I noted down some observations which I later compiled into a short essay about how changes in our routines can spark bigger changes in perspective. Here I share this essay.

he day after the daylight savings time, a Monday, I enthusiastically rushed out of my shift in anticipation of my daily dose of refreshing sunlight after eight hours of screen fixation in the bank’s gloomy basement. But sunlight was there no more. The world of Autumn had arrived, and with it, new realizations.

High above me were the dark sky and the moon, and just below the new darkness of the Fall, the recently constructed luxury apartment towers of Long Island City lay. The chilly wind of the night brushed my face, and my disappointed expression was substituted by a sense of perplexment and enthusiasm. Something was different, I thought, yet I was too tired to attribute any meaning to what was amiss and quickly headed for the subway, longing for home.

Once I boarded the train, I remained standing, next to the window, gazing outside at the new environment of the city, thinking to myself that I prefer it to day. Indeed, the city is beautiful in the absence of light, illuminated only by cars, buildings, and streetlights — suppressing the ugliness and the smells that all New Yorkers despise yet nonetheless tolerate and, at times, even appreciate. In turn, shadows become more assertive and unlit, unknown streets out of bounds. The familiar reintroduces itself and the unknown becomes a daring adventure, a sentiment that varies in resonance across the different locations and dimensions of the city.

Endless and seemingly thoughtless pondering gave way to a new view of the city, a construct I had felt coming out of my shift but could not adequately communicate with words.

Now, weeks later, after being reminded of this experience, and after the murkiness of what had so much then impressed me has subsided, I decide to retrace my daily train ride, attempting to reintroduce those feelings back to my memory. Doing so, a new world seems to unveil itself — as if by the flicking of a switch.

I start by boarding the train and remaining standing for a better view of my surroundings. Looking outside from within the heavily lit trains cars, only objects that are well illuminated can be seen, the most abundant and noticeable of all being the apartments — houses to the outsiders and homes to their occupants. Just a week prior to the time change, gazing at the buildings and the changing landscape of the city as the subway navigated through neighborhoods, all one could see and appreciate was the outside, the external — the people, the structures, the streets. At night, though, black windows become lit and New York unveils a new world to the outsiders.

Assisted by the elevated tracks of the 7 line, I come closer to the window, my nose almost touching the glass, observing what during the day remains out of bounds — attempting to gain a picture of how people’s homes, and perhaps in a meager degree their lives, look through their apartment windows, from the inside.

At Queensboro Plaza station, where buildings become tall enough, negating the need to cover the windows at night, a stark difference emerges. I can distinguish motions, figures, and decorations, but the distance from the ground appropriately limits the observations to these blurry and ambiguous features. I ask, how do their lives differ from my own? I can see them working out. I can see their expensive TV monitors, their Peloton bikes, their groomed cats, and their fancy furniture, yet they are detached and masked from me, as they should be. Questions and thoughts shower me. I feel no envy, just a genuine curiosity for the diverse lives of the city, enabled by electricity and darkness.

My commute continues, the train taking me northbound to Flushing, as I keep staring outside. At Woodside station, tall buildings fade into the distance, and the ubiquitous red-bricked apartment structures with their rusty fire escapes dominate the landscape. With this change, the demographic also begins to shift, marked by a conflation of South and Central American languages — variations of Spanish, Argentinian, and Portuguese.

A few stations later, my gaze is within a few feet’s distance from apartment windows — most of them now shut by blinds for privacy, though a few remain uncovered, allowing me to also notice differences in socioeconomic status — there are no more Peloton bikes, fancy furniture, and attention-grabbing interiors. Tilting my head upwards I can see a living room, a dimly lit kitchen, someone staring at the pages of a book under the yellow light of a study lamp, and, farther away, a few kids playing on the carpeted floor of an empty wallpapered room. I stare, for this is all I can do, though my ambitions are larger: to connect those seemingly disparate worlds into a web of meaning that forms the city, its people and its institutions. The train begins to move, leaving the station, the disparate worlds, and my ambitions behind.

A few minutes later, as the doors open at Junction Boulevard station, a sharp smell of grilled meat and spices makes its way to my nostrils, urging me to get off and indulge myself into the mixture of national cuisines present at street level. I am amazed at the diversity of the city and how quickly the subway can take me through neighborhoods marked by their own distinct cultures and peculiarities. I call this notion the United Nations of the 7 Train.

At Mets-Willets Point, named after the team that almost made it, the urban sprawl comes to a temporary halt before entering the Flushing tunnel. In the distance, the only light sources that prevail are the City Field stadium and more apartment buildings. The train begins to descent into the underground, marking the end of my commute. Shortly after, the doors open, and everyone disperses.

I walk up the stairs and exit the station, emerging in the illuminated heart of Flushing, again noticing a mixture of cuisines, although this time predominantly Asian. I resist my cravings and swiftly move on, thanking the city for opening up itself in the absence of the sun — for the lights of the night are but a purposeful, artificial arrangement of human decisions, needs, and designs, establishing that the city brightens and animates not only its buildings but the various worlds that live within it.

It’s not that it is impossible to be aware of human complexities and decisions within the city’s enclaves during the day, but the night sky acts as a canvas on which light, spread through its various mediums, plays a leading role. It is fascinating how a simple change in a daily commuting routine can transform the perception of my surroundings. I wonder what else I have taken for granted in the city.

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