Just off the highway in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along the south side of the Allegheny River, my friend and I found a small park, pulled off, and sat on a bench to watch a creative display of lights. My good friend from high school was home during a break from school. One of us had gone away to college in Boston, the other — me — had stayed home to attend art school. When her breaks brought her home, she would call me, and we would go somewhere and do something in the city. I did not drive but my friend had access to her parents’ car, and on this evening, we discovered the sign on a drive from the Hill District down Bigelow Boulevard toward downtown and we two sat in a comfortable darkness and watched in quiet fascination as, on the north side of the river, nine great signs blazed in a seemingly endless arrangement of the elements of the Westinghouse Electric Company’s logo.
It would take years for me to learn the unemotional facts about that display. Westinghouse had contracted with the designer Paul Rand to create a new corporate logo, and the nine elements of his design were arrayed for 200 feet across a hillside above the river in a recent debut of the first computer-controlled sign in the country. Rand’s design consisted of four diagonal strokes to form a “w;” three dots above the lines; a solid bar beneath them, and a circle to enclose the grouping. The nine repetitions of the logo, each of which was 17 ½ feet tall and 175 feet in diameter, were composed of 3,000 feet of neon tubing filled with argon gas. The computer controlled the display of the elements, and the diagonal strokes would dance in random order across the nine signs, then disappear as the three dots popped up, and died as the circles and the bars lit up in no particular order. This went on in a seemingly endless fashion until the nine signs would light up with the complete logo. My friend and I never saw the same iteration twice, and we spent more than that one night on a bench, watching.
I am poor source of comfort in an emotional crisis. I don’t know what to say to ease someone’s pain, and I cannot tell when a hug might be necessary, or even welcome. My fallback position has become an offer to dance away someone’s emotional pain — “I’ll dance for you” — because my dancing is likely to make you laugh, and perhaps, forget, for a moment. I have offered a friend in pain something as simple as a walk with me, a way to stroll away from the moment in the company of someone who demands nothing, but will commit anything to allay pain.
1n 1967, Westinghouse Electric Company’s neon sign danced across the consciousness of two friends who — though they did not know it then — would marry. That night would be the first of a few times when, unable to summon a proper response to my friend’s emotional pain, we could find some comfort together in the quiet darkness, lit by the peripatetic display of the sign. Love was as great and wonderful a mystery to me as the neon display along the Allegheny river, but even when I lacked the words to comfort, I could always ask, “Do you want to see the Ws?”
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