It was the spring of 1848, a Saturday afternoon. During the previous two months, gold had been discovered in California and America's war with Mexico had finished. An impromptu revolution in Paris had caused the French king to abdicate, the first of 50 revolutionary dominoes to fall in Europe. In New York City, the writer and photographer Timothy Skaggs--35, single, fun loving, with no grand purpose in life--prepared to go among the multitude.
Skaggs had finished his day's work, a double portrait of the magician Signor Antonio Blitz and his favorite wooden dummy. He decided to use the rest of the afternoon to start writing an essay, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's lecture last month, on the ways that railway travel and photography and the telegraph were warping the perception of time.
And he'd decided that a taste of opium, just five or six grains, would be a propitious way to prime his pan for the task.
And so it was. By the time he stepped out on the sidewalk for a stroll, he had filled two large, double-elephant sheets and started on a third--ten square feet of fresh words. It was five o'clock.
No! Not merely five o'clock, he noticed as he looked in at the clockmaker's, but precisely seven past five--no, seven minutes forty-three, -four, forty-five seconds past. He had been writing all afternoon about "the useful tyranny of clock time," and here it was, displayed two dozen different ways in a shop window on his own block. Today he had scribbled out his theory that because watches in every pocket and clocks in every factory and railroad station had stimulated in people an acute awareness of time passing, that itchy new awareness had in turn stimulated the popular impatience with the status quo, and the new demands for still speedier progress.
"Schveep for half a cent?"
Skaggs blinked. Occupied by his own overheated thoughts, he had hardly registered the presence of the city, let alone its people. He saw now that he was in the crowd huddling along Broadway, waiting for a landau and a city wagon to pass. In the landau were a pair of rich ladies dressed for a party, each smiling and holding a tiny candle out the windows of the carriage. Piled in the wagon were dozens of street carcasses--mostly dogs, some rats and cats, a couple of pigs, the whole heap covered in an inch of lime, which sifted out between the boards as the wagon rolled, leaving a fuzzy trail of white on the pavement.
"Schveep for you, sir, please?" A street arab of nine or ten was tugging at his coat with one hand and with the other held a broom as tall as she. A patina of filth made her chestnut hair black, and she had no right eye.
"Ja, bitte," he said.
The girl smiled.
"Which I'm afraid," he continued, "is practically the entire extent of my German, which I acquired in Buffalo. Haben sie von Buffalo?
The girl giggled now at this funny American and started furiously brushing away the dirty feathers and bits of dried manure from the patch of Broadway in front of him, making the odors and motes rise and swirl as she cleared a place for him to step. When she came for her wage, he noticed that his writing pencil was still gripped tight in his hand, so he ceremoniously placed both it and a penny in the girl's open palm. She glanced up quizzically, registered his smile, winked her good eye and plunged the pencil like a bodkin into one of her braids, shouting "Danken sie!" as she dashed off down ... Worth Street, Skaggs saw on the sign bolted to the lamppost. The single Negro among the city's lamplighters stood on his ladder wiping soot from the street sign with a rag.
Skaggs had walked quite far, he realized now, in this pleasantly addled state. And that was part of the problem with his current life, he reckoned--his familiarity with almost every board and stone and step of Manhattan, his habitat by now so well known that even in a light opium haze he was able to wander for a mile, chatting silently with himself.
As he crossed Worth, he watched the lamplighter gingerly poke his torch, like a wizard's wand, up inside the glass globe toward the jet of gas. The bloom of light enveloped Skaggs.
A moment earlier it had been afternoon, the sky still indigo; now from within the glamorous bubble of white-hot glow, night had fallen over the rest of the city, it seemed. Skaggs' favorite hours in New York had always been the gradual, liminal recession of day into night, the daily autumn, with each of its slow, soft, ambiguous gradations of deepening color and shadow. But twilight had been rendered obsolete by the New York Gas Light Company. Half the city's streetlamps were gas now.
Skaggs did not believe, as many people did, that gaslight harmed one's eyes. But expanding its territory in every direction, the new light allowed New York to remain awake longer, to ignore the earth's rotations. The interminable glow had turned tens of thousands of New Yorkers into night-crawling scamps instead of the select fraternity that stayed out late carousing when Skaggs had first arrived. And Skaggs did wonder if the city's gas-fired wakefulness had begun to overstimulate its inhabitants, make them merrier, louder, funnier, stranger, greedier, crazed.
As he stepped now from the luminous Worth Street blossom back into the ordinary mid-block evening, the whole view down Broadway struck him as unusually bright, saturated with light.
To be modern, he thought, is to be artificially aglow.
Nor was the new luminosity only a matter of gaslight spreading into every dining room and parlor and respectable street. There were also the laughably large new panes of plate glass that amounted to architectural magician's tricks, erasing the old boundary between indoors and out. And the unearthly rays of light beaming from burning lime that transformed any actor on a stage into a shining angelic or demonic figure; the magic-lantern shows of Halley's comet; the new, exceptionally yellow yellow paints and bright red printer's inks, all mixed up by chemists in laboratories; the telegraph wires that sparked and blushed against the night skies like grapevines beset by St. Elmo's fire.
Then, however, he recalled the world's other great modern metropolis--murky, sullen, dun-colored London, which he had visited last year. It was a city that seemed to darken a little more every day from the soot belched by smokestacks and chimneys.
All right, then, an amended declaration: modern America glows.