A few months ago, an old friend and I went out for a night walk through my hometown. This city of 7,000 souls is perched over the Pacific Ocean, with redwood forest to the east and coastal plain to the north and south. A quiet town and generally peaceful, especially on a still June evening. We talked some and walked in companionable silence some, too.
As we walked across town and back, the half-dark streets kept revealing different hues of light, different shades, different scenes. Slowly, they cohered into a composite picture of this town, in this country, in this strange year, 2022. Or maybe they cohered only afterwards, as I lay in bed and waited for sleep, the images still fresh in my eyes. It seemed possible to read a message into these different lights, to interpret them the way you might interpret a spread of tarot cards. To see in them a suggestive reflection of the situation. Here I offer what I saw.
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On the east end of town, just a few blocks from my mom’s house, we came upon a blue block. Two different houses, on opposite sides of the street but not quite facing each other, had each fitted their porch lights with blue lightbulbs. Cold light stretched across lawns, bushes, picket fences, and the quiet street. The light painted flowers in eerie, unnatural shades. It hurt the eyes to look directly at the exposed bulbs, which vibrated with an evil, blue-white intensity. We walked through their influence and beyond, back into the cool dark of a late-spring evening, and I found myself partially blinded—the blue light had ruined my night vision.
Apparently, the blue porch lights signal affiliation with the Thin Blue Line movement. Like the lanterns placed in specific windows of safe houses on the Underground Railroad to signal it was safe to approach. But different.
To those on this street, a blue porchlight might seem to say: “I support police officers.” It’s not quite that, though. Grounding the Thin Blue Line movement is the idea, Police are the thin blue line separating us from anarchy. The Thin Blue Line ideology supports expansion of police powers and the militarization of police departments. Mostly, this means opposing the Movement for Black Lives, supporting police impunity, and fighting any regulation of guns. If you think it’s just about supporting cops, you might be surprised that many Thin Blue Line people stand on the side of Trump’s attempted January coup, in which insurrectionists used flagpoles flying the Thin Blue Line flag to beat officers of the Capital Police bloody. Understanding that the movement centers not the actual humans serving as police officers but the idea of police as channels of power and control—essentially, agents of white supremacy and patriarchy—it all makes a lot more sense.
Looking back at these blue-tinted porch lights, I found it hard to imagine these public Thin Blue Line people don’t receive special treatment from some cops. Can you imagine being a police officer who has pulled over an erratic driver, and as you walk up to the car you see their Thin Blue Line bumper sticker? Or responding to a burglary report at one of these homes with the blue porch light. Would it affect your decision on whether or not to use your incredible powers of discretion? Especially if you felt that beyond these few supporters, you and your colleagues were besieged by protests against police brutality?
There are so many problems with this, and one we don’t talk about enough is that public displays of cop-loving are unsportsmanlike. Police are supposed to be our society’s neutral arbiters, and yet here these people are very publicly sucking up to them. As if a basketball team sewed patches on their jerseys: “Pro-Referee.” Or a crew of middle schoolers wore armbands with the Vice Principal’s name on them. It’s a bad sign for society that police haven’t come out in large numbers to say something along the lines of, Thanks but no thanks—this actually makes our jobs harder. Alas, quite the opposite. Many police officers have joined the movement themselves.
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We turned the corner and walked down towards the ocean. We crossed Main Street and swung right, into the alley separating town on one side from the vast empty parcel where the mill used to be. We scampered across the tracks behind the train depot and into the quiet, residential district by the Portuguese Hall.
In an open window we saw, framed for a second, a man and woman in a small room on an overstuffed couch, bathed in light from a big-screen TV. The man, about my age, had his legs curled under him and a video game controller in his hands. He looked relaxed as he played Final Fantasy X, a video game from the 2000’s where among other things you could ride an emu-like bird called a Chocobo. That’s what he was doing in the game, riding a Chocobo across a plain. Meanwhile the woman was looking at her phone, which she held against her thigh. Yet something about their body language or their ease made me think the couple felt present with each other, each contentedly engaged by their digital pastime.
The house was a small bungalow. In the next window I saw the silhouette of a refrigerator in a dim kitchen. Through the last window, past a half-drawn shade, you could make out a kid, maybe ten years old, laying on a green bedspread, reading a book.
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“Did I ever tell you the story of the Wooden Mother?” asked my walking companion.
Three children were playing by the river when they met another kid who they had never seen before. He had a hurdy gurdy, and as they listened to him play it they immediately desired to have it for themselves. They said, ‘Give us your hurdy gurdy.’ The boy said, ‘I will give it to you, but you have to go home and be truly naughty.’ They thought it was a fair offer and agreed to it.
So when the children came home that day, they danced around the house rather than helping set the table for dinner. They refused to eat their greens. And when their mother told them it was time to go to bed, they refused and kept making noise until late in the night.
The next day they went down to the river and found the boy there with the hurdy gurdy. ‘We were naughty,’ they said. ‘Now you have to give us the hurdy gurdy.’ But the boy said to them, ‘I know that you weren’t truly naughty. I’ll give you another chance to be truly naughty, and if you are, I will give you what you desire.’
That night, the children knocked over the soup pot and kicked the dog until it snapped at them. They screamed at their mother until she locked herself in her room. They stole the sugar crock from the kitchen and stayed up, wrestling and singing, almost till dawn.
The next day, however, when they went down the river, the boy told them that they had not been naughty enough to deserve the instrument. ‘You have one more night to be truly naughty, but if you are, I promise that I will give you my hurdy gurdy.’
That night they ran riot over the house, breaking every dish, pulling all the food in the pantry into one big pile in the center of the kitchen, driving the dog off into the night, and tearing their mother’s dress with a pair of scissors.
In the morning they walked to the river certain that they had been naughty. The boy was sitting where they had seen him before, and as soon as they came up to him, he handed them the hurdy gurdy. ‘You have been truly naughty,’ he said. ‘You have held up your side of the bargain. The hurdy gurdy is yours.’
The children were delighted as they walked back from the river to their house, grinding the hurdy gurdy so it made its droning noise. They danced around and laughed and clapped. As they came up to their home, however, they heard a thump-thump-thump from inside the house. And when they looked through the window they saw that their mother had been replaced by a wooden mother. The wooden mother turned and, seeing them through the window, rapped its tail against the floor.
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We made it down to the old trestle, which when I was a kid the State Parks rebuilt and made into a bike and pedestrian walkway. We stood and looked out at the darkful sea, smelling the salty, fishy shoreline. Up in the sky there was the first-quarter moon, with a big arching moonbow all around it.
Down below the trestle there was the beach, and back a ways towards town we saw a light shining back at us: somebody down by the bathroom at the edge of the parking lot for the beach was shining their cell phone flashlight all around them, each direction. Then they turned the flashlight off and stared for a while at the phone screen. Then turned the flashlight back on and shone it all around. I imagined what it would feel like, staring at the phone in the dark, eyes adjusted to the light of the screen, unable to see what was around you on the night beach. Would you feel paranoid? Afraid of being snuck up on? Why would you choose this to be the place you spent your evening and played with your phone? It was the sort of question that, as soon as you asked it you knew the answer: if you had no better option.
Further back towards town, by the low-slung bridge that Highway One carries cars across the creek, I focused on an illuminated, diamond-shaped yellow road sign. The sign showed a pictogram of a stoplight: a black rectangle with a red circle up top, a yellow circle in the middle, and on the bottom a green circle. Framing the sign were two actual lights, round ones that blinked yellow, on and off, back and forth, first the one up and to the left of the sign and then the one down and to the right, then back, back, back. All day and night, blinking this gentle warning to drivers.
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We walked to the edge of the ocean and then scampered back up onto the trestle and set off towards home. On the road back into town, we passed a parked camper van, dark and still. Then a hundred feet later we came upon a parked Subaru Forester with a light inside. As we got closer we could see: in the back of the car, a hovering cell phone, visible through semi-translucent curtains hung over the windows. The back seats clearly folded down, making space for a bed in the back.
I could fill in the blanks. The phone was held in the hand of someone who was getting ready to sleep in their car. They soothed themselves with the light of Facebook or YouTube or a news website. An enchanting, complex light box that we hold in our hands like an ember or a glow stick, except that it’s also a portal to escape whatever situation we’re in—even the circumstances that might have you sleeping in your car on the edge of town.
At the same time the phone light reveals you to others. As long as you hold the phone aloft, your illegal camping situation is visible to busybodies and police and even essayists out on a late night stroll.
My walking companion and I fell quiet as we passed the car, not wanting to bother its occupant as we passed just a few feet from their bed.
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We took a different route back, walking along the industrial strip on the north end of town, past a commercial gas station that was bathed by bright floodlights. Past a red fence with a thicket of yellow nasturtiums growing at its base, the colors desaturated in the weak, distant streetlight.
Up near the middle school, we passed a house with a terrarium visible through the window, the red heat lamp glowing dully in a corner of a living room. It promised a small wonder: a reptile. Kept perhaps by a young person. I imagined them entranced by the alien intelligence that flickers across the eyes of something so different from us. And to think of the effort required to keep this creature warm through fog and wind and rain. Perhaps the reptile-keeper wakes in the night and passes the terrarium on their way to the bathroom, and they see the creature basking in its red heat. Do they feel pride? Wonder? Friendship?
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Back home, my mom had left the porch light on and the door unlocked. I let us in and filled us glasses of cold water from the fridge’s built-in dispenser. My friend stayed up, sitting on the porch smoking cigarettes. I went to bed.
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When I was a kid, I insisted my parents keep night lights burning in my bedroom and in the bathroom. My favorite was a milky orange shell with a tiny light bulb inside. I loved the dim, warm light it cast. It made me feel safe.
As I got older, we put the night lights away. I learned to live with darkness and deep shadow. To accept the unknown. To navigate the bathroom by memory and touch. To walk dirt roads without a flashlight, using as my guide the starry sky and the silhouettes of trees. To give myself to the world without the knowledge that it would catch me.