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Reading the City

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on June 4, 2010 No Comment

There is a dark blue neon sign that glows in the distance at the entrance to my new apartment building. It’s unreadable: in fact, I do not even know if it has lettering. It is this exotic, inscrutable glow casting a mysterious light, bathing the building before it in a dim glow, a faint glimmer escaping on to the side street before it. But it surfaces only after the sun sets, only once the city is enveloped by the darkness of the night. It is a nocturnal creature, with a life of its own, calling attention to itself, but essentially, maddeningly unknowable. I peer towards the building during the day, on my heels, trying to see what the day makes invisible. What is it? Why does it call to me? Why does it elude me in this torturous way?

My move to a new city has been magical…and the most exciting aspect of the move has been my immersion in a sea of unfamiliar letters. Signs that are new, sketching out a new urbanscape that entices me with a sense of new possibilities. The fgrand_lake_theatreurniture stores with their blocky storefronts but ornate signs; the movie theater whose marquee is aged, a carcass of unbulbed letters in the backdrop recalling its glorious past; the gitzy, newer office buildings with their ironically classical clean signs; and tiny local grocery stores and cafes with painstakingly handwritten whiteboards.

The signs, billboards are slowly becoming naturalized…I expect them now, even though it has but been two weeks. The letters are sucked in to my consciousness, imprinted in it, so that I see-but fail to notice-them. How little time it takes for us to read our neighborhoods…and how easily familiar they become in every read, boring fixtures of our living spaces, or like old acquaintances we rarely think about: rendered slowly and rapidly invisible, their mysteries faded in every iteration of their reading.

Part of me wants to know what the sign I spoke of at the beginning this post says. And another part hopes that this quest to read it will continue, so I will always be captivated by that which cannot be read-and hence never rendered invisible.

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