The soon-to-be setting sun reflects in the windows of an apartment building, casting a harsh glare. I put on my sunglasses, even though I can’t find the sun itself. The Manhattan cityscape distorts the sky that it touches; the city is composed not only of buildings and people, but of their interactions with the world above.
I first realized that New York is quite sunny only after I’d moved away. I was living in Germany, a land plagued by rain and grayness. Up north the German winter nights are longer, the Mönchengladbach streets a dark, damp desert from 4 p.m. to sunrise. Life returns before the sun, though: schoolchildren with square backpacks squeeze through interstices between grown legs for the morning commute, the bus a hermetic capsule speeding through space, the bright lights within ushering in a new day unlike the midnight darkness beyond. At school, the first-period teacher interrupts herself to say, Klasse, guck mal den wunderschönen Sonnenaufgang — “Class, look at the beautiful sunrise!” — as she gestures toward pink and orange stripes piled up above the parking lot. On occasions such as this, the German sky opens up radiantly; more commonly it “opens up” in the idiomatic sense. To me it feels rather like the world’s nimbus ceiling is leaking.
The California sky hides nothing. The sun is always there. My mother visits and extols the beauty of the state’s unique natural lighting — it’s “a certain slant of light,” I joke. I know what she means, though: the sunlight that turns not only the sky, but the world yellow, like in a watercolor or an apocalypse. The summer sun draws sweat from forearms and knees as no exercise regimen can; it extends burning rays out from its clear, blue perch to touch skins and sidewalks directly. Nighttime skies in my suburban town are darker than the wet, charcoal Nächte of Germany, but when I can’t see the bumpy road I’m biking on, I look up and notice the shocking multiplicity and brightness of stars that refuse to light my way. The bold California sky is paradoxically aloof because it’s always so high up, so out in the open, except on winter evenings when an opaque fog rolls on the ground through the valley, obscuring streets and cars and people: a noteworthy weather event in these parts.
New York’s hide-and-seek sky is in fact less distant than either of my other home canopies. It’s harder to get to know at first, certainly less obvious, but this sky is right there in the middle of it all. Clouds live among the high-rises, which play games with the streets. Buildings block and reveal the sun. They channel wind tunnels from one river to the other. The breeze lifts leaves, plastic bags, and debris into visible vortices. Summer humidity hangs just outside front doors for people to swim through, snowfall gleams in street lights, and air conditioners fool pedestrians with simulated raindrops. The bricks and concrete may command more attention, but the sky lives with us like weeds in pavement cracks.
Sophia Bamert is pursuing her PhD in English at UC Davis. After receiving her BA from Oberlin College, she lived in Germany for a year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Sophia studies cities and the environment in American literature.
Photo by Mikey Schmid