One winter I was house-sitting an elegant new condominium in a pretty much empty building, keeping an eye on the place rent-free to work off my student loans. Back in the day, the neighborhood was tight-knit immigrant families in fishing and shipping. Then the jobs disappeared, and by the time I moved in it was all auto-salvage yards and boarded-up factories and a manicure salon and elegant new condominiums that were going to be great investments some day.
The condo had a huge collection of classical music records, and speakers that piped sound through the ceiling. But instead of handling any of that I taped a few rock songs off the radio by standing on a chair and holding my cassette player over my head. My favorite had a good violin line; the vocalist as far as I could tell was Richard Butler from the Psychedelic Furs, and the lead line in the refrain was “You Know the Way.” Until the cassette broke I played that song over and over all winter. I couldn’t replace the song because when I went into record stores and asked for “You Know the Way” and sang to the guys at the counter, they didn’t recognize it. Neither did my co-worker, an expert on all things Psych. Fur, so I finally gave up on finding my song.
My friend Bill moved me and my pots and pans in at the start. But otherwise my friends didn’t visit the condo, only because the winter was too cold and it was out of everybody’s way, and I didn’t have the energy to visit them and then trek over there. So it was a quiet winter. After work it took two subways and a bus in 1 hour 45 minutes, then walking a mile uphill over a freight train trestle and past an empty warehouse wall of barbed wire with graffiti and kung-fu movie posters and a chained up angry Great Dane. Being pretty anemic I’d stop halfway up in the snow to breathe and to borrow some encouragement from a light at the top of the hill. It was a flickery blue-gray sheen from somebody’s TV. The houses had front doors that opened right on the sidewalks, so anyone passing by could look right in to the living room. I didn’t actually look, but from the corner of my eye could tell that by the TV light there was a couple sitting side by side sharing an evening at home. It cheered me up to think that this couple was there together, braving all the changes in their neighborhood, loyal to their home and one another. Every night, their light helped me make it up the hill. Every night I’d trudge past and wish them a blessing.
Finally, the long winter was winding down. The student loans were paid off. House-sitting duty was over. My friend Bill offered to drive over and pick me up with my pots and pans. I even found my song again! It came on the radio one night. I called my sister and got on a chair and held the phone up to the ceiling and made her tell me what it was. “‘Cuts You Up,'” she said. “Peter Murphy.”
Coming home one last time I promised myself a quick peek in at that light on the hill, at those neighbors and their cozy domestic life. All the way up the street, past a bedraggled pussy willow tree in bloom and a wet robin sitting on a drainpipe, I had this sweet notion that the older couple inside would see me look. They’d wave and say “Hey, we’ve been watching you! Come on in.” Maybe they’d dish up some nice calorie-packed spicy food from the old country. I would tell them all about how much their light meant to me, and they’d have a good laugh about it, and then I’d come back and visit them. Here was the house! I looked in, and found out that all winter my devoted couple was a guy drinking a six-pack of beer on a sofa next to a life-sized stuffed clown. I forget which one of them was wearing the Kaiser Wilhelm hat.
That moment taught me to appreciate lights in windows, all kinds. There was one in my neighborhood last fall. Somebody in a little house must have seen me stop and pick up a few apples from the street by their tree; next day the tree wore a new little hand-drawn sign, “Take some more! Good in pies and sauce.” At a rehabilitation home a young motorcyclist was getting over an accident, and for a while he couldn’t speak except by pointing to letters of the alphabet. But every morning he wheeled out to the street to set out a checker board and checkers and some lemonade and paper cups, just in case someone passing by felt like a game or a drink. He met quite a few of us that way; sometimes he even let us win. On New Year’s evening, the Sisters at St. Joseph Carmelite Monastery stayed open until 6:00, after Vespers was over. There was a wind-driven deluge of rain that night. Since it’s a cloister anyway, there were no sisters in sight. But they kept that chapel all warmed up with a red sanctuary light and candles and a Christmas crib. And in fact a steady line of people, most of them young men, filed in to sit and be in the silence.
Lights can be small things that don’t take much trouble. We all do things that look like lights to someone else. We never know who might come by and notice. Or what hills they were trying to climb along the way.