The City Lights

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As San Francisco became deserted of artists, I began to go to my roof. I don’t stargaze: I study the terrestrial order of the city lights. There is a strange beam that shoots out near Civic Center, the yellow, starred hill of Ashbury Heights, the white neon cross of First Baptist Church that is now obscured by construction cranes and rising condos, the flashing lights around me as people go to bed, enter rooms, watch television: these are my constellations.

Technically, I am not allowed to go up on my roof, but that doesn’t stop me from climbing the stairs at ten or eleven or midnight armed with a glass of whiskey and a sweater. For many years I’ve been the only one late at night looking at the city from the roof. But recently, just a few streets south, past a concrete building and the steepled roof of a mansion, I see a man standing on the roof of a Spanish villa. Late at night we see each other on our separate roofs, airing our bodies, looking at the spread of twinkling lights, searching for meaning in the dim landscape, searching for order, or at least that’s what I’m searching for.

I have never encountered my roof companion in real life. He lives in a nice apartment that I know was for sale last year, but it’s hard to tell anything from a dark silhouette. Is he a techie? Does he work for a non-profit? Does he know I am one of a few artists still living in the city? What I do know is that he is part of the wilderness that is the city, because in a city it is other people who are the wilderness. It is the alcohol tasted in dark places, the dancing among strangers, the deep involvement in the lives of others, both known and unknown to you.

One night I raise my glass to my roof companion. A long while goes by without a movement and I decide he can’t see me. Then, just as I am turning my eyes to the starred hill of Ashbury, his arm goes up and the unmistakable twinkle of a glass in his hand winks back at me.

With a Perspective, I’m Ingrid Rojas Contreras.


Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a Colombian writer living in San Francisco and recipient of the San Francisco Foundation’s Mary Tanenbaum literary award.