“Parhelion” February 7, 2022
First, let me say, I love this word, although until yesterday, I never knew it.
Nor I have I thought about this kind of image, until I realized it was living in my memory bank all along.
You see, yesterday I saw a “sun dog” while out on a drive.
According to Google search: “A sun dog, also called mock sun or parhelion, is an atmospheric optical phenomenon appearing in the sky as luminous spots 22° on each side of the Sun and at the same elevation as the Sun. Usually, the edges closest to the Sun will appear reddish. … Sun dogs most commonly appear during the winter in the middle latitudes.”
In that seeing a sun dog does not happen every day, I took this sighting as a message from the universe to pay attention.
Turns out I have a strange story about sun dogs. I had never heard of them until I was a student in Boston. I didn’t learn of them in a classroom but on the street, thanks to a quirky character a writer might call “an old salt,” a weathered sailor. You see, several of us film students had gone into town very early one morning. I can’t remember if it was to grab some footage or to grab some coffee before heading up to Plum Island to shoot.
The city was still asleep, and the streets were deserted, except for an old guy who came over and wanted to talk. He pointed to the sky and to two small rainbows, asking if we knew what they were. We didn’t. I hadn’t even noticed them. He explained they were “sun dogs” because they dog the sun (follow it) when atmospheric conditions are just right.
Without another word, he wandered off, down the street, never to be seen again. This bizarre encounter left such an impression that I used the imagery in SilverLine, when Jared and Alexa meet a homeless man in Boston who knows a lot about the Gardner Museum heist. Funny how some things stick with you.
That single moment gave me a visual and behavioral model that I could creatively develop. I added some personality as I imagined it and a situation that might have placed him there. I made my character crotchety and stubborn because living on the street takes fortitude, but I also made him street wise and proud, because he had self-worth. For depth, I gave him a backstory and imbued him with eloquent writing skills which are revealed as my characters engage with him.
The mild weather also brought out street people and panhandlers. Jared and Alexa tried to keep walking but were intercepted by a homeless man shaking a cup with a coin in it. “Spare change for coffee?” the scruffy man asked. Jared glanced down at the fellow in multiple layers of stained gray clothing and dropped a couple quarters into the cup. All of sudden, Jared felt Alexa grab his arm.
Jared stared at the man. “So, you follow that story?” Jared asked, heartbeat accelerating.
“Oh, yeah, been following it for 27 years. I was actually near the building that night, when that red hatchback pulled up with the crooks in it. I could have told that guard those guys were phonies. Their tin badges looked like they were bought at a costume shop.”
“Did anyone ever question you?” Jared asked. “I mean the cops or the feds.”
“You kidding? When you’re homeless, you’re invisible.”
That weekend, with brisk breezes blowing, they walked along the waterfront to the familiar diner on the street corner. The waitress recognized them, and without saying anything, motioned with her chin to where the homeless man sat. “I pay for his coffee once in a while,” she whispered. “He thinks it’s free.” Alexa marveled at how kind people could be.
“Greetings, stranger,” Jared said, still not knowing his name.
The scruffy man looked up. This time he wore a reddish corduroy jacket with too-short sleeves over plaid flannel pants. He had a woman’s frilly blue scarf at his neck that covered the stretched neck of a faded black tee-shirt. “Well, if it isn’t the ace reporter and his gal,” he said in a way that neither confirmed nor denied he cared.
“I was hoping we could ask you some more questions,” Jared said. Before the man could answer, Jared added, “Do you want some pie to go with that coffee?”
“Would you like to give me your name so I can credit you properly? Jared asked.
“Not important,” the man muttered as he pushed down on the door handle and walked into the sunlight. Jared and Alexa combined their money to pay for the food and left the waitress a 20% tip. Jared clutched the envelope all the way home, but it wasn’t until they were back in his dorm room that he looked inside, dumping the contents onto his bed in a multi-colored pile.
“Probably not the cleanest thing to do,” Alexa said, eying the mix of grease-stained yellow sheets, crumpled napkins, and inside-out gum wrappers. Jared picked up a sheave of typed pages, most likely printed at a library. As he started to read, his eyes grew wide.
“Some say that cities have no heart, that they’re an impersonal mix of concrete and congestion. But for those of us who live on the street, we know that heart exists. We are that heart, and our energy helps drive the pulse of the city. We see things that others miss. We watch people come and go… young lovers, old friends, children at play. But the public at large doesn’t see us. We’re transparent, invisible, and like parts of a mobile, constantly in flux.”
Jared flipped to another page. “This guy can write,” he said out loud.
So, if you’re an author looking for inspiration or a reader wanting to better relate, dig into your memory bank to find gems that crystallize the experience. Do you remember the combination? For me it’s sensations – something I’ve intentionally forced myself to utilize in remarkable situations. I ask myself: “What am I seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting, touching?” I tuck those impressions away in my memory bank for future recall. On a lucky day, something random — a parhelion, perhaps — opens the door.