Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Sidewalk Astronomer

After my show last night, on the way to the bar, the castmates and I came across a man standing on the sidewalk next to a large telescope on a sturdy tripod. Initially, I gave little more than a smile to this man and his telescope. I was distracted by the barking beagle tied with a rope to the parking meter next to the telescope. The beagle was in a staring match with a tall, leathery homeless man who appeared to be in his 50s and who was standing across the sidewalk next to the entrance to the theatre. It seemed as if these two were communicating with one another: the man, telling the beagle to scram and the beagle barking his reply that he was here first.

But when we walked past the man with the telescope, on the way to the bar, my friend and castmate, Jeff, craned his neck up into the sky to look at the moon. It was slightly obscured by the 5 story building we just exited. Joe, another friend and castmate, stopped to talk with the man with the telescope. It wasn’t until I looked back at him that I saw a brown boxboard sign hanging from the front of the telescope. It read, “Sidewalk Astronomy Club: Look at the Moon” with the word, “FREE” written in mad scientist handwriting at the bottom.

The Sidewalk Astronomer was professorial, with a silver beard and unkempt hair. He has a starry twinkle in his eye. He was wearing a khaki safari vest with various pens and papers stuffed in its many pockets.

“Wow! Is that a waxing gibbous?” my friend Joe asked, still peering into the telescope.

“Yes, it is! You know about the moon!” The Sidewalk Astronomer replied smiling. Joe is a science teacher at an alternative high school in Chicago. They began to talk.

While Joe was talking with The Sidewalk Astronomer about the moon, Jeff and I spent some quality time petting his beagle. The homeless man had left defeated in his staring match. His sweet old eyes looked like his owner’s. He was comfortable with strangers. I imagined many evenings outside spent tied to various light posts and street signs while his over tried to catch glimpses of activity in the starless Chicago sky.

After Joe finished, I took my turn behind the telescope.

The moon was breathtaking. It was bright white and with perfectly crisp edges against the black sky. A small sliver of darkness crept up on the left horizon. There were hundreds of craters. Each crater was sharply outlined in shades of blue-gray. One ridge was especially deep. The sidewalk Astrologer informed me that it was the largest mountain range on the moon.

I have seen many photos of the moon. I have spent many nights on the beach, or in my front yard, or in my car, gazing at the moon. I have seen it through the telescope that my brother had gotten from Santa for Christmas ’86. I have seen photos taken from space. But this was different. It was one of the first mild nights we’d had since winter. A clear, warm night is a May novelty. No wonder The Sidewalk astrologer decided to take to the street. Seeing the moon in this city, surrounded by concrete and car fumes and a scary homeless man with a crazy look in his eye, was a singularly beautiful experience.

“Can you believe it is a quarter of a million miles away? Tonight it looks like you could reach out and touch it,” The Sidewalk Astronomer said while I was taking in its magnificence.

A moth flew in front of it. Amplified by the telescope’s enormous lens, it looked like a bird.

The Sidewalk Astronomer gave us a piece of paper with various star charts on it “These diagrams are pretty up-to-date, although you can’t see any of these constellations in the city.”

We thanked him. He smiled, thanked us and told us to have a good night.

As we walked away, on the way to the bar, I noticed there was a cardboard box between the legs of the telescope’s tripod. I could see that there were a few crinkled dollar bills and some loose change in it, but they were mostly obscured by a few books and papers on astrology that were set on top of the box. I did a mental inventory of my wallet. I didn’t have any small change on me. I didn’t want to make an awkward scene about it.

Later that night, on the way home from that bar, with my belly filled with beer and humus, I walked past the area where he had set up. He and his beagle were gone. I regretted that I didn’t make change to give to The Sidewalk Astronomer. He provided one of the loveliest memories I’ve had in the six years I’ve lived in Chicago.


suki said...

This is beautiful. Maybe you'll get to see him again one day.

Carrie said...

you're nice.

yancy said...

And here I was hoping for an astrologer. . . .

Kidding aside, that is a pretty cool tale; perhaps it's finally the inspiration I needed to get motivated to take advantage of KU's weekly telescope offerings--oh damn: storm damage has forced them to cancel . . . maybe this summer, then.

It was great seeing y'all last month; and thanks for visiting my blog--you've got me thinking I should start cussing more, dammit.

Carrie said...

Yeah, I don't properly edit before I post. Thus, the varied use of "Astrologer" and "Astronomer" in the first draft I posted. (My brain types what it wants.) I did correct it over the weekend, so hopefully there is no more confusion. Well, I'll still be confused. I'll always be confused. But hopefully my 2 or 3 regular readers will no longer be.

A Sidewalk Astrologer would have been a cooler.