Okay, so there wasn’t actually an astronomy salesman at the store peddling telescopes and promising me a wonderful evening on my balcony watching celestial objects like the moons of Jupiter. I dished out two thousand reais–roughly three hundred and sixty dollars–for a StarBlast refractor telescope because the picture on the box showed a father hovering over his son who looked through the telescope with his lips pursed in a ‘Wow’ moment and the father pointing up to the Milky Way galaxy at the other end of the glossy box, which, probably glowed in the dark.
The stock boy helped get the box off the top shelf but when I asked if there would be any assembly required, he replied, “dunno.” The cashier huffed at the size of the box and the difficulty of scanning it. When I asked her about any assembly required, she lowered her eyelids, snapped her gum, and said the store had a strict no refunds / no returns policy and that I should contact the manufacturer for any questions or money back guarantee. I bought it anyway. What can you do?
What I was also not told by the stock boy, the cashier or the description on the box, was that light pollution from the city prevented even the best telescope from revealing anything other than the moon, a few stars and an occasional planet. On my first night, I promised my son we would see Venus or Mars. With the viewfinder I spotted a pinpoint of light on the horizon that was not flickering–a sign that it was a planet not a star. I fussed to get the telescope lined up and let my son take a look. Five seconds later, he left and returned with his tablet to show me a picture of what Venus actually looked like. My department store telescope displayed the same pinpoint dot in the sky that we saw with the naked eye.
So I did what any amateur telescope owner does when living in the city: I pointed it at a window. After staring at someone’s drapes for a few seconds, I wondered if this was my path to moral decline and initiation into the peeping perverts club. I took the high road and for the rest of the night, only pointed it at people walking on the street. My conscious, with its lack of legal experience, justified it wasn’t spying if people were out in public.
Hardly anyone walks at night but I wasn’t going to use it to people-watch during the day; what would the neighbors think? And I don’t know anything about bird watching. Most birds in the city are just pigeons and you can get a closer look at those poop-rats-with-wings just sitting on a park bench with breadcrumbs.
The night was not pitch black and filled with stars the way I imagined using this three-legged waste of money. The night was not glowing mysteriously from a full moon. The sky had a hazy white sheen over a black background and the city was bathed in yellow from hundreds of street lamps that glowed like nursery room nightlights.
I turned my telescope to Poop Street–the name given by my son because it had strips of grass where people walked their dogs and pretended not to notice there was something they should pick up. Fifteen minutes passed. And then I saw it. A man walking his dog. Heat rose off the pavement in waves, but I could see the individual chain links in the dog’s leash. When I exhaled, my breath bounced off the main tube and tickled my nose with the new product smell of metal and plastic. The dog sniffed a patch of grass. The dog lifted his leg. The dog scratched the ground with his hind legs when he was done. I wondered if Galileo had nights like these. The owner ignored his dog yanking on the chain, occupied instead with his cellphone. If I magnified the lens, I wondered if I could read the text on his screen. For the first time that night my heart picked up a beat, something interesting, if not scientific, to observe.
I switched lenses, but in my rush to see the man’s screen I knocked my forehead on the eyepiece which shifted the telescope out of position. I took a peek to see where it ended up.
A building with copper paint. A window. A man stood in the window wearing a scuba mask and a regulator in his mouth. The bug-eyed mask stared back at me. I jerked back, sucking in my breath. With my panoramic view of the city, only a narrow section of the copper building appeared between the nearby blue high-rise on the right and the row of office buildings that ran along Avenida Bandeirantes on the left. I counted to one hundred–the length of time I determined someone would lose interest in me–and took a second look.
The man in the scuba mask stood at the window and combed his hair–parted on the left combing to the right. Still breathing through the regulator. I looked away. Looked again. For fifteen minutes, nothing changed. I wondered how long I would have to stay up to get a satisfying explanation. And then the trucks came.
Every summer, to prevent an outbreak of dengue fever, the city sends out trucks with large tanks of pesticide to spray the trees in the middle of the night and kill the mosquito population. The trucks start in distant neighborhoods where a background whirr can be heard and gradually they roll down nearby streets with a grinding noise from the pumps that fades away to other parts of the city. Tonight, a blast of spray from a passing truck agitated pigeons from a pitangueira tree and sent them flying to another neighborhood.
I closed the windows and went to bed. I had an acceptable explanation–the scuba man liked to watch the night and didn’t want to be disturbed by the poisonous air. I slept quickly and had surreal but comprehensible dreams.
The following night I snuck out of bed at 2am and crept onto the balcony. The copper building, from my vantage point, had twelve windows. All shut. It seems the only highlight of my day would be this morning’s staff meeting when my boss came in with bird poop on his shoulder and dominated the conversation for thirty minutes before his assistant got his attention. He turned, saw the mess and left. Meeting adjourned.
I went through the motions of scanning the sky for pinpoints of light and then aimed at other windows. The office building with the faded orange paint halfway down Avenida Bandeirantes did not have curtains. A face stood in the window on the sixth floor. I switched lens. Looked. Jumped back and looked again. Another man with a scuba mask and regulator in his mouth. Hair parted on the left. He ran his fingers through his hair pulling it to the right. For fifteen minutes, he did nothing more than that. I searched other windows and found five more men in scuba masks, regulators in mouths, hair parted on the left. All combing it right. Still, none of them did anything more than watch the streets below. I turned to the blue apartment building nearby. Two more stood on a balcony and pointed at me.
I ducked down. My heart raced faster than the time I sideswiped an oncoming truck. On my knees, I eased back up. But before I could raise myself high enough to see the two on the balcony, one more looked down from a top floor window.
I crawled to my son’s room and parted the curtains. Glowing green eyes dotted the cityscape. Blinking. Winking. Like stars. I eased away from the window and knocked into a shelf. Several toys crashed to the floor. My son moaned in his sleep. I picked up some Pokémon and reached for an action figure but the action figure stared at me with bug eyes and a regulator in its mouth. I dropped everything and yelped. The light came on. “Dad?” My son squinted at me. I whispered to him to go back to sleep. He reached out for his toys and I handed him the action figure–Iron Man. After a few minutes of caressing his hair I went to bed, but every hour I got up and checked the window. Each time less eyes blinked in the night and by the pre-dawn, all had gone.
Thursday. I moped off to work, stared at my screen all morning and covered yawns in afternoon meetings. At home, I told my wife I had a rough day and went to bed after dinner.
I got up at 2am and patted our dog, Scruff, until she woke. She turned her head and raised an ear to ask what’s up. I dangled her leash in front of her nose letting the chain jingle. She furrowed her brows in the only way she knew how to tell me I should go back to sleep. I shook the leash again. She huffed in disgust and lowered her head back down on her pillow. Anthropomorphism, be damned. There must be a term that means the opposite–like when a dog sees a man peeing behind a tree or a cat is in bed with two people having sex. Our pets must wonder why we act so superior and still behave like animals.
I took a walk without Scruff. The streets were empty. All the windows were closed. I turned onto Avenida Bandeirantes and in the corner of my eye, I saw movement from a first-floor window. I spun around. A curtain blew in the breeze.
Crickets chirped. Stopped. Chirped again. The pauses and the starts reminded me of Morse code. I got out my phone and brought up the chart. Chip-chip, Chirp, Chirp-chip-chirp. Silence. The message said, It knows.
Five cockroaches sauntered by, walking on two legs. I leaned over to get a better look and shooed them with my arm. They waved back. Between my feet, silverfish wiggled down the sidewalk in rows of four like a miniature superhighway. Over by a fence, a couple daddy long-legged spiders curled up and shivered in their webs. Ants stood still in their tracks and watched the parade of cockroaches and silverfish.
I sped-walked home, waved to a sleeping doorman, and entered the elevator. A fly got in. I opened my palm to swat it against the panel but it flew away. And sped right at me. A soft dab hit my forehead and then it came at my eye. I danced and flailed my arms. It circled and weaved. My ears tickled and buzzed. Then it fluttered near my nostrils. When the elevator door opened, I ran for my door, got in and locked it. An angry hum echoed in the hall.
That night, I slept with the covers over my head.
In our small city of Quasi-La, in the state of Parana, in the southern region of Brazil, we had a pigeon problem. The population had grown so large that every tree housed dozens of birds at night. They left messes on every park bench and sidewalk in the city. The mayor had been elected on the promise of cleaning up the streets–both of crime and fecal matter. Several church leaders promised the problem would be solved without killing any living creatures. Retired ladies insisted on feeding them breadcrumbs by the lake. Car dealerships wanted compensation for the damage to the shine on newly waxed paint. Residents living near the central bosque complained of the smell. And at the annual citizens’ art exhibit, children drew pictures of the city’s landmarks with V-shaped birds dropping dots and dashes from the sky.
The city had tried several solutions: shining strobe lights at the trees at night, attaching a fan belt around the trunk of a tree with the other end running through the engine of an old VW fired up to shake the branches. Secret payments were made to the owners of hawks who surreptitiously let them fly on busy workdays when retired citizens did their errands.
The mosquito men, as my son called them, had now been living out in the open for the past six weeks. Private meetings had been held to discuss what to do with them but in spite of the disarming appearance of their masks and regulators, they’d done nothing troublesome. All of them wore oxygen tanks on their backs carried by long spindly legs. They spoke through their regulators, if they spoke at all, and in time the residents got used to them.
When the pigeon problem reached its peak, the mosquito men washed cars. They washed them by hand, day and night. They drove around in trucks with tanks of water and high-pressure hoses that blasted windshields, roofs and side-paneling. They did a thorough job.
In a month, the residents had been so satisfied with the cleanliness of the city that they forgot all about the pigeon population. The mosquito men suggested several laws be passed. Pigeons shall not be fed human food. Sensible and humane. Housing, raising or breeding of pigeons shall not be allowed. Reasonable and natural. Pigeons should be left in the wild. And so, the laws got passed and for the first time since anyone could remember, residents could sit on park benches and walk around the city without having to wipe gunk off their clothes.
And then one day, a retired lady, the unofficial dame of the city who called everyone Dear and sat in the park conversing with passing pedestrians and birds alike, had her car washed. Inside and out. The mosquito men found loaves upon loaves of stale bread. She was arrested. And sentenced to two years in prison.
Residents protested. The people who loved the woman and the birds. They took to the streets wearing red t-shirts with emblems of birds flying free. They fed the pigeons fresh bread in civil disobedience and cars got dirty.
Other residents protested. People who loved their cars and the way the mosquito men had cleaned the streets of crime and fecal matter. They wore green t-shirts with emblems of shiny cars and buckets of sudsy water. Protests and counter-protests occurred every weekend. Some people banged pots and pans. Others buckets and brooms.
Around this time, my wife sent me to the department store to buy a large, plastic container for my dusty telescope that she would put up in the closet with the holiday decorations. Customers argued at checkout counters demanding refunds for every item manageable–like chipped plates and wedding dresses worn only once. The stock boy organized the lines. He wore a red t-shirt with a pigeon on it and a bandage across his nose. It took five minutes to find what I needed and one hour to get to the front of the line. The gum-snapping cashier huffed at the size of my single-item box and stared with one eyelid lowered as I took too long to hand her the cash. The other eye had been swollen shut and purpled. She wore a green shirt with a bucket of sudsy water.
On every street corner people in red or green t-shirts handed out pamphlets and demanded to know which side I was on. I wore a grey polo shirt from Disneyland with a Mickey Mouse logo on the front and khaki cargo shorts. I was not neutral enough. Everyone assumed I was a spy for the other side.
Along Avenida Dez de Dezembro, a gooey slime had splattered on parked vehicles and some had dried to a crust. The mosquito men and their supporters no longer had time to wash and clean. With so many disobeying citizens, they taught violators a lesson by scraping off the paint of their cars.
The people in red protected the ants and spiders from persecution. The people in green aligned with the cockroaches and silverfish. Each side accused the other of supporting a species whose very existence suggested uncleanliness. The people in red found a loophole in the laws and hid pigeons in vans. They avoided penalties by regularly relocating cars with oil leaks. They gathered support from the retired friends of the arrested dame by frequenting bingo parlors but some said those games had been fixed to bribe the elderly for support.
When the supply of oxygen tanks disappeared, the mosquito men tried to change the pesticides in the trucks to an untested chemical. They searched homes for feathers and other clues of dissent. They celebrated historical moments in the city’s history with extravagant banquets and served disrespectful breakfasts like diced chicken in scrambled eggs. And when the pigeons kept coming, they took deep breaths before cutting down trees.
I went home to tell my wife all that was happening but she had a shareholders meeting. She asked me to drive our son to school, back through the streets, for a makeup history exam. I changed my shoes, grabbed the keys, and cleaned the windshield.
The city’s gone mad. But I’m sure we’ll be fine. We just need to get used to these things.