Where is the moon? Gone. This inferior luminary cannot compete with the corset ad signs and the ice cream ad signs that blaze in the night sky. We stand on a bridge that connects State Street and look at the river.
There are night shapes. But first we see the dark water of the river and silver, gold and ruby reflections of the bridge lights. These hang like carnival ribbons in the water. The "L" trains crawl over the Wells Street bridge and the water below them becomes alive with a moving silver image. For a moment the reflection of the "L" trains in the river seems like a ghostly waterfall. Then it changes and becomes something else. What? The light reflections in the dark water are baffling. It is a game to stand on the bridge and make up similes about them. They look like this, like that, like something else. Like golden pillars, like Chinese writing, like monotonous exclamation points.
There are boat shapes. The river docks bulge with shadows. The boat shapes emerge slowly from the shadows. These shapes, unlike the river reflections, do not suggest similes. They bulge in the darkness and their vanished outlines remind one of something. What? Of boats, of ships, of men.
Men and ships. Little lanterns hang like elfin watchmen from the sterns of ships. The bulldog noses of tugboats sleep against the docks. High overhead the corset ad and the ice cream ad blaze, wink and go out and turn on so as to attract the preoccupied eyes of people far away. Then the bridges count themselves to the west. First bridge, second bridge, third bridge. Street cars, auto lights and vague noises jerk eerily over the bridges.
The sleeping tugboats, launches and lake craft remind one of nothing at all except that there are engines. But as one stares at them they become secret. There is something mysterious about abandoned engines. It is almost as if one saw the bodies of men lying in shadows. Engines and men are inseparable. And these boats that sleep in the river shadows are parts of men. Amputations.
The night shapes increase. There are buildings. They drift along the river docks. Dark windows and faded brick lines. Their rooftops are like the steps of a giant stairway that has broken down. Where is the moon? Here are windows to mirror its distant silver. Instead, the windows sleep. The nervous electric signs that wink and do tricks throw an intermittent glare over the windows.
Do you know the dark windows of the city, you gentlemen who write continually of temples and art? Come, forget your love for things you never saw, cathedrals and parthenons that exist in the yesterdays you never knew. Come, look at the fire escapes that are stamped like letter Z's against the mysterious rectangles; at the rhythmic flight of windows whose black and silver wings are tipped with the yellow winkings of the corset and ice cream signs. The windows over the dark river are like an alphabet, like the keyboard of a typewriter. They are like anything you want them to be. You have only to wish and the dark windows take new patterns.
Wall shapes arise. Warehouses that have no windows. Huge lines loom in the shadows. A vast panel of brick without windows rises, vanishes. Buildings that stand like playing blocks. The half-hidden shapes, the tracks of windows, the patterns of rooftops suggest things—fortresses, palaces, dungeons, wars, witches and cathedrals.
But after watching them they lose these false significances. They suggest nothing. They are the amputations of men. Things, playthings men have left behind for the corset and the ice cream ads to wink at. And this is the real secret of their beauty. The night devours their meaning and leaves behind lines; angles, geometries, rhythms and lights. And these things that have no meaning, that suggest nothing, that are not the symbols of ideas or events—these become beautiful.
There are several people standing on this bridge—loiterers. Their elbows rest on the railing, their faces are hidden in their hands. They stare into the scene. A hoarse whistle toots at Wells Street. Bells clang far away. There is a scurry of dim noises in the dark. Something huge moves through the air. It is a bridge opening. Its arms make a massive gesture upward. A boat is coming through, a heavy shape drifting among the carnival ribbons that hang down in the black water.
Noises that have different tones. Boat whistles, bridge bells, electric alarm tinglings and the swish of water like the sound of wood tapping wood. Lights that have different colors. The yellow of electric signs. Around one of them that hoists its message in the air runs a green border. The electric lights quiver and run round the glaring frame like a mysterious green water. Red, gold and silver pillars in the water. Gray, blue and black shadows; elfin lanterns, "L" trains like illuminated caterpillars creeping over Wells Street, waterfalls of silver, Chinese writing in ruby; black, lead and silver windows and a thousand shades of darkness from bronze to strange greens. All these are things that the loitering ones leaning on the bridge rail know.
How nicely the hoods of automobiles hide the twisted lines of the gas engines under them. Smooth as chariots, curved and graceful as greyhounds, pigeons, rabbits—.
State Street begins after one passes odors. This is South Water Street. A swept, dusted and wonderfully silent street. White wings have scrubbed its worn body. But the odors deepen with the night. Farm odors, food odors—an aroma of decay surrounds them. By their smells one can almost detect the presence of chickens, eggs, oranges, cabbages, potatoes, plums and cantaloupes.
A group of movie theaters holds carnival at the entrance the loop. People hurry under electric canopies, dig in their pockets for dollar bills and buy tickets. The buildings sleep along the river. The boats wait in the shadows. Movie signs, crossing cops, window tracks and different colored suits of clothes; odors, noises, lights and a mysteriously tender pattern of walls—these lie in the night like a reward.
We walk away with memories. When we are traveling some day, riding over strange places, these will be things we shall remember. Not words, but lines that mean nothing; and the scene from the bridge will bring a sad confusion into our heads. And we shall sit staring at famous monuments, battlefields, antiquities, and whisper to ourselves: