Emerging from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art into the bright noon light after a luminous exhibit of Winslow Homer paintings, I hardly expected yet another optical assault.
But there at the foot of the great flight of steps that descends to Fifth Avenue was a street peddler, hawking a spray of dazzling umbrellas. Covered in jungle colors and zigzag patterns, the umbrellas decorated the sidewalk. I was drawn down the stairs toward the display, and as I approached, I was caught by the peddler's sales rap:
Don't walk in the rain
Don't 'sperience pain
Cover your head
With my beautiful spread!
Colors of flowers
To brighten your hours
Laugh at the clouds
With my rainbow shrouds
They're so iridescent
They're so evanescent
They're so incandescent
They're so ... so....
"Fluorescent," I offered.
The peddler spun around. "Flu ... flu ... what?"
"Fluorescent, fluorescent. What's that? What's it mean?"
"You know," I said, "like fluorescent lights."
"'Yeah, man, that's good. That's good. 'They're so fluorescent.' It works; it's perfect. How d'you do that?"
"Well, I don't know," I stammered. "I just...."
"Where d'you get that?" someone asked.
I turned around just as an awestruck customer stopped to buy an umbrella, and I, a little embarrassed, slipped back into the Metropolitan.
But I couldn't forget those splendid umbrellas.
As I passed the afternoon with Vermeer and Monet, Mantegna and Velazquez, I began to see umbrellas adorning the galleries and paintings. They danced before me - pirouetting, pliing, beckoning. I wanted to buy one - but which? The red-and-orange geometrical, or the blue-and-green tropical?
I'd have to return to that garden of earthly delights to sample the pleasures again. But I couldn't go empty-handed. I needed more radiant offerings - aurora vocabularis.
By 4 o'clock, I could contain myself no longer. The museum would be open for another hour, but I could see no more paintings - only umbrellas. I raced through the great marble halls, flew out the door, and half tumbled down the steps. He was still there.
"Oh! Here's the funny man again," laughed the peddler. "Scope out these beauties. They're so iridescent, they're so fluorescent. Ha ha ha ha!"
Fingering the umbrellas with studied nonchalance, I casually said, "I have two more words for you: opalescent and phosphorescent."
His laugh evaporated as his face collapsed in disbelief. "Opa ... opa ... what? What are those? What do they mean?"
"Well, you know," I said, "opal - the jewel - opalescent. And phosphor - that burns and glows - phosphorescent."
Wide-eyed, he mimicked my pronunciation. "Opa ... opalescent. Phos-phor-escent. Where d'you get those? I've been rapping for years. I never heard such words."
"I just know them. I learned them in science."
"Science! Science words? You do science?
"Yes, I'm a scientist."
"Man. Where can I find these words? Are there more?"
"Sure, lots more. They're in books - science books."
"Books! Science! Man. What a gas! You're a gas! Here, take an umbrella. Pick any one you like."
"No.... I mean, thanks, but I want to pay you."
"No, man," he said. "You take one free. A gift - for a gift. What's an umbrella compared to such words!" It was starting to drizzle. "Here, cover your head - and thanks for the 'lumination."
To that I had no answer. I opened my umbrella and walked off in the rain, covered in radiant tigers and giraffes.