Like more than a few stories in my life, this is one of procrastination and regret. Yesterday's total solar eclipse was the first to be viewable from the US in my lifetime, and my hometown of Lincolnville, South Carolina, was right in the path of totality. But I live in New York now, and for a number of reasons, I wasn't able to travel to see the eclipse in all of its glory. And believe me when I tell you that I was a whiny brat about it -- especially as the big day drew closer.
However, a few days before the Aug. 21st event was also when I decided to start looking for eclipse glasses. This was well after everyone had sold out of them and it was probably too late for an online order to arrive. This made me even whinier, because I knew it was entirely my fault. I called dozens of stores in NYC and across Long Island -- 7-Eleven, Lowe's, Walmart and Toys "R" Us -- with no luck. I popped into 7-Elevens I came across while driving, and from the employees' reactions it was clear they had sold out ages ago and I was embarrassingly late in my search.
But my luck changed: My sister in North Carolina had an extra pair that she could mail me. (She clearly doesn't have the same procrastination gene.)
Of course, I overestimated the speed of the postal service, and the morning of the eclipse, I still didn't have the glasses. Tracking told me they were at the post office, but if I waited for regular mail delivery they probably wouldn't get to me until after the eclipse was over. My backup plan was to attend one of the library viewing parties nearby, but I took a shot and called the post office, begging them to pull the glasses out of sorting and let me pick them up instead. They agreed because they're saints.
So while I was still regretting not being able to see the eclipse in totality, the procrastination part of the saga seemed to have worked itself out just in the nick of time. About an hour before the eclipse was set to begin, I set myself up outside a coffee shop near my apartment in Queens that had a perfect view and outside seating.
Around 1:25 PM, when the eclipse began, I started to look up and also looked around for fellow eclipse watchers. No one. Just me. I was a little disappointed and wondered if maybe I should have gone to that library party instead. But a little later a couple sat down behind me and I could hear them talking about the eclipse. They were checking to see what time it was going peak and trying to figure out some information about this eclipse and eclipses in general. I heard them say they didn't have glasses and were going to use their phones to see it, something you should only do with a filter. (And yes, at this point I was just straight up eavesdropping.)
I waited for them to say the word "eclipse" loud enough that it wouldn't be totally obvious that I was listening in and conceivable that I had just overheard them, and then I offered them my glasses. They didn't realize the eclipse was already viewable, and when they took up my offer and looked, they were blown away. Right at that time, a group of people was walking into the shop and saw that we were using glasses to see the eclipse. They asked if they could use them too; of course I said yes. Our growing gathering then attracted a few passersby who took turns looking up ... and suddenly, finally, there was this burst of excitement and wonder and all of my regrets just sort of fell away.
This happened over and over for the next hour. People walking by would see me using the glasses and ask where I got them. I would tell them my story of near disaster and then offer them mine. Everyone took up the offer, and their first look almost always came with a gasp and joy. One person used my glasses, left and came back a few minutes later with someone else he had clearly pulled from work just so she could see the eclipse. She used the glasses and then quickly ran back to wherever she had come from while yelling thanks and waving as she went.
The couple behind me and I kept passing the glasses back and forth into the eclipse's peak and well afterward. At one point, another woman with glasses showed up and started sharing hers with another small cluster that had formed to use mine. But I noticed another group had gathered down the street and none of them had glasses: Everyone was just using their phones. Since she seemed willing to share her specs, I asked her if she wanted to let the group down the way use hers. (I was set up with my laptop and pretty immobile.) She did, and when they started using her glasses, I could see the excitement from where I was sitting.
At one point, I mentioned that I was a science writer, and the people around me started asking lots of questions about the eclipse, how it works, why this one was special. I still wish I could have seen it in totality, but between the curiosity and the thrill people had when they looked at the eclipse with the solar viewers, it was the next best experience I could have asked for. For a short period yesterday, so many of us were looking up together, both at this coffee shop and across the entire country. People were excited about something totally new to them. They were sharing this experience -- the first for many and the last for some -- with complete strangers. They were asking questions. They were curious and excited. And really, what more could a science writer want?
This isn't an "isn't it great when we all get along?" story or me opining on how we're bigger than all the turmoil that's going on around us. This isn't even a comment on how everyone should trust science a little more. I know that what happened yesterday at that coffee shop and coffee shops, fields, sidewalks and building tops across the country was brief and momentary. It wasn't evidence that we can heal our country's wounds anytime soon or that there's a light in the distance. It was just a really lovely moment, and that's all.
I'm glad to have experienced the eclipse the way I did. I won't forget the looks on people's faces the first time they looked up. And I won't forget the temporary and spontaneous camaraderie that I experienced with perfect strangers on a sidewalk.
So while there was definitely a hefty amount of procrastination in this experience, there was less regret than I imagined there would be in the end. But you best believe I'm heading toward the path of totality in 2024. I'll see you there.