ANDY ROONEY 2.0 DEP’T.: The Sidewalk

in Hmm Weekly
on May 20, 2021

THE SIDEWALK UNDERFOOT in the night was covered in little grids of light and shadow. I’d looked at this pattern before, over and over, but not properly seen it: the pavement looked like a window screen—maybe it always had? Maybe I had been looking at it all my life without seeing it. Some things do take a while to catch on to. Honestly, what with the kids, it’s not like I’m walking around the streets in the dark all that often.

But now I was outside, by myself, and I was thinking. The light was coming through the leaves of the street trees. By day, there would be dappled sunlight—each little dapple a pinhole projection of the round sun in the sky. That was a fact I hadn’t understood till I was in my early 20s, when I went outside from my temp mailroom job to take in a partial solar eclipse and was startled by the fishscale pattern of the crescent sun repeating on the ground.

So this grid-light was showing me something. I looked up and there were the LED streetlights, with their diodes packed in rows. It was hard to see them straight on, but if I moved my glance across a lamp head, its infernal flicker would give me a little strobe snapshot of the individual lights. I hate this about LEDs—more than their cold and thin color, or the way they cycle off with no explanation, or the offhand warnings about how permanent LED fixtures will eventually just get gradually dimmer and dimmer—the insistent glaring dot pattern that keeps jumping out, where the eye just wants to see a simple glowing brake light or reading lamp. They save energy, and they are superior to other energy-saving technologies, but they are still ineffably worse at being lights, the way digital music is super-convenient yet thin and brittle-sounding. The night sidewalks had not been gridded before, after all, and now they were. The grid was a new fact of life.