Hanif Abdurraqib: Columbus Sunsets
I always loved to watch the sun set. During the pandemic, I began to need it.
It feels needless to say, almost, but I didn’t love the job nearly as much as I loved the view. The building that housed the job had large windows. The structure itself was mostly all glass, towering over the Scioto Mile. I loved working in the months after daylight saving time had settled in on the back end of the calendar. The months where the sun didn’t stick around too long to see what the other side of 5 p.m. had to offer. These were my favorite hours of the work day. I’d take a chair to a big window and watch the sun make a mess of colors along the skyline. I’d watch the brownish hue of the Scioto start to reflect a glistening that made it seem whole, almost pure. I’d take photos on my phone of this phenomenon, even though I’d see it nearly every day when the weather was clear enough. I’d send it to friends who live in the city, who know it as intimately as I do. I’d caption my texts with things like look at what the sky is doing for us now and they’d text back a picture of the sunset wherever they were, not always as glamorous as where I was, but something I was happy to receive nonetheless.
I was never particularly invested in sunsets until they signaled a type of escape from the end of a work day for me. At the intersection of my cynicism and my romantic nature, there’s a desire to search for beauty but also an impulse to take repetitive beauty for granted. I never considered the reality that the sun can set thousands of different ways in a lifetime until I watched it happen from a high-rise, near the top floor, close to the clouds. From there, descent feels like a type of glorious labor. Colors are more vibrant, the series of movements from high to low feels like a tightly arranged symphony. And the disappearance of the sun presented, to me, a kind of ache. I certainly don’t mind darkness, as an emotional concept or a material reality. But there was something about witnessing what the sun does over this city that made me long for its immediate return. An encore, if you will.
I left that job in 2017 and haven’t worked a structured 9-to-5-ish job since, which means that I haven’t spent a lot of time in high-rise office buildings, which means that my sunset-seeking has been something I’ve had to do all on my own. But I didn’t think much about it as a consistent seeking. I was on the road seemingly endlessly from 2018 to 2020, and the sunset doesn’t always look as glorious from a plane (surprisingly) or from the corner room in a hotel. When I’d return home to a glorious sunset, I’d sometimes be driving and would search for a place to pull over and watch with a sense of serene calm before returning to my whirlwind life.
When the pandemic ushered me and all my pals inside, the most immediate shift I felt was a simple one: I struggled to figure out the movements of time. All of the time markers that I knew and loved felt muffled, or at least slightly incoherent. Sure, I’d worked from home in years past, but not like this. Time felt fluid, both fast and immensely slow. I lamented this to a dear friend of mine, asking her what I was supposed to do with this newfound confusion, this conundrum of trying to unravel my many shiny sadnesses from the real condition of days passing me by, sometimes without me knowing or understanding how it was happening. Her solution was that I should get in touch with the sunset again. If I wanted to understand the concrete passing of time, go outside and watch the time pass in a very concrete way: the blending of day into night. It made sense to me, even if the project of going outside–particularly early in the pandemic–felt a bit treacherous. But it also meant that I would have the city to myself, or at least some corners of it. I could pick my place to return to an understanding of time that I could easily grasp.
I know this city well enough to know that there is no shortage of places to be captivated by the sun’s descent. When I was a kid, my father would take me and my brother to the airport, back when it was less full up with structures than it is now. We’d sit in a field and watch the planes fly into the newly kaleidoscopic sky. When I was in my early 20s, I would simply drive circles around 270, starting about an hour before the sun was slated to go down, watching the sunset from every angle.
I’m older now, and I have less time than I used to, even for my basic delights. At the start of the pandemic, I needed my sunset fix with some immediacy, and I needed it most on the days I didn’t want to leave my house.
At the side of the Miranova building where I used to work, there’s a NO OUTLET sign, a road that leads to a small circular patch of pavement, for those who might want to turn around and head back to humanity. But if you are me, it is a patch to park in the post-work hours which—in the late spring and early summer—double as the sunset hours. The hours where no building security would get too suspicious about me, sitting on the hood of my car, staring out into the coming evening.
I also like this spot because it is mostly silent. In the Frank O’ Hara poem “Katy,” there is the line “I am never quiet/I mean silent.” When I do workshops with this poem, I always ask young writers to tell me what they think the difference between “quiet” and “silent” is. There is no right answer; it’s mostly a thought experiment. But I think of this when I sit at the top of my little circle. I believe silence is work, and it is the work of the person seeking it to find it. Quiet is something that arrives to me, sometimes with ease. My sunset corner is joyfully quiet, but not silent. It’s far enough away from the buzz of the Scioto Mile to be sort of hidden, but not so far that I can’t still hear the echoes of children laughing or the low murmur of collective conversation or the occasional song bending through the air from a car’s open window. I love this most of all—my sunset soundtrack. It reminds me that I’m alone enough, but not entirely.
On the good days, a train will slowly be making its way along the tracks that line the western end of my line of sight when looking at the sunset. It’s always a train hauling things, and not one of the kind that hauls people. But I like to imagine it as the latter. The thing about the magic of sunsets, as I see it, is that I can dream up whatever I need to make the fluorescent moment even more so. And, with that, the train becomes a train of people, marveling at the sky as I am marveling at the sky.
I leave the house more often these days, and with less anxiety than I used to. I don’t need my sunset spot and its joyful reminders as much as I did a year ago, but I still show up a few times a week when the weather is good. I’m busier now than I’ve ever been. Left to my own devices, I’d stare at emails and my calendar and my bad drafts of writing for hours on end, until it gets dark without me noticing. I need to be reminded of both endings and beauty. I’d like to think that I could happily find those reminders anywhere, but I’m happiest to find them in this city. When people who don’t live here ask me why I still live here, I barely even offer a real answer anymore. I don’t need people to understand the answer, and what is known doesn’t need to be explained. And besides, I’d like to keep my sunset spot a secret for as long as I can. I suppose writing this doesn’t entirely help in that project, but I don’t mind making a little room at the edge of the circle for anyone who might want to join me for an evening. All I ask is that if you see me there, sitting on the hood of my car and staring into the train crawling its way along the tracks, please say hello. We don’t have to talk much. Just enough to remind each other we’re there.