Wednesday, September 18, 2013

love songs to blue skies

With art school, parish duties, and New York at my doorstep, I barely had time to be homesick for California, that first autumn in 1989. But I was. I missed Berkeley's temperate climate and dramatic landscape, the way nature entered everyday life, how people treated one another, the forward-thinking politics, and my friends. Oh, my friends. And the deep, clear blue West Coast sky that saturated Berkeley's daylight, the shadows, and my mood most of the year. 

Having in the past only visited New York during its damp springs and hazy summers, I had no idea that crystal blue skies were a trademark of New York autumns. Nor would I ever have guessed that over the years I would live here, whenever I'd glimpse a shard of azure cutting all the way down between the skyscrapers to the uptown end of an avenue, that I'd begin to associate such glorious blues with meeting Bob in September at NYU, visiting SoHo galleries on October weekends, picking apples from a Union Square farmer's cart, shuttering at the forgotten backdrop of 9/11, embracing the annual brisk relief from summer's oppressive street smells, or relaxing to the sound of a lone saxophone crooning a love song under a canopy of copper leaves in Washington Square.

But, that first year, it was an anomaly—something I expected of the West Coast, but certainly not the East. Throughout that first autumn, I'd gaze out the tall, narrow, stone windows of the Jesuit community on 17th Street, over the sooted water towers on the Chelsea building tops toward the Empire State Building, and sigh, "Look how clear it is. Not a cloud. It's like a perfect Berkeley blue sky." 

I said it a little too freely, as if everyone in my new Jesuit community had the same fondness for Northern California and similar mind expanding memories of graduate school there. Never mind that I was living on the dark, dusty top floor of the old St. Francis Xavier grade school, with a small group of Times-ink smeared, tired, pale, hoarder New York natives that knew that scrap of blue overhead as their own. I was certain everyone saw that blue and thought only of eucalyptus groves and Telegraph Avenue, while they were actually thinking of the new season at the Met and the changing windows at Barneys.

Finally, at a point when I'd cooed once too often of the "Berkeley sky" over Manhattan, Bill Cain, the Jesuit playwright who'd grown up in the City, burst out sharply, "New York was having those blue skies long before Berkeley EVER EXISTED!" I turned to see him with his fists clenched to his sides and his hooligan expression twisted into furry. He stared at my naïve Midwestern face for a moment and then relaxed, grinned, and walked off toward his room with a shrug, murmuring "that was silly wasn't it," as matter-of-factly as only someone who'd cut his teeth on New York non sequiturs could.

These days, when I'm looking up at a magnificent sky over this town that's become my home, and someone comments on how beautiful it and the weather are, I simply say, "yeah, New York in autumn—they write songs about it."

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