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Morning Spew

Saturn Is in the Middle of Ninth Street

Joe Delfausse let a crowd in Park Slope use his telescope on Tuesday night.

9:51 AM EDT on August 25, 2023

(Hell Gate)

It’s close to midnight, and the man with the telescope is back at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and Ninth Street in Park Slope. This time, he's in the middle of the road. A line of people hoping to look through the telescope has formed on the yellow divider in the middle of the street. He won't tell them what he's looking at, only pointing to his target with a finger: what seems to be a single yellow star hovering above the line of brownstones. Instead, the man exhorts prospective viewers to look into the lens and tell him what it is. 

"This fellow with the telescope has been coming to this intersection for more than a decade and offering people a glimpse of the cosmos," says a middle-aged man behind me and my friend on line. He's wearing a blue-striped button-down shirt, but the sleeves are cut off to show his biceps. I later find out he is a poet. "We have a friend who wrote a poem about this," he says, before giving us her name: Lynn Chandhok. The sleeveless man says that it would be fun to read the poem to the man with the telescope, and thus begins a race to find a copy of the poem on the internet before we get to the front of the line. "The guy will be really tickled," he smiles. 

"Get out of the fucking road!" yells one driver, but it's no use—we all want to see Saturn. I'm up next. I shake the telescope man's hand. He's small, and old, and smiling, wearing a polo shirt and wire-rimmed glasses. His name is Joe Delfausse, and he has been coming to this intersection with his telescope for more than two decades. He's a former member of the Amateur Astronomers Association. But then, he says, he left because of political infighting: "It stopped being fun." He has me look into the lens.

Saturn is a gold charm: It's tiny, but the silhouette is flawless and unmistakable, gleaming in the dark with its ring perfectly visible. 

Most people in line seem to have come from the Alvvays and Alex G concert at the Prospect Park Bandshell. "I have to keep moving it every minute, do you know why that is?" he quizzes one of them. "Because of the rotation of the earth?" answers a long-haired zoomer. "Yup," he nods, smiling professorially. 

I stall for time while the others use their phones to search the internet for Chandhok's poem, published in 2007. "I've never had a crowd like this," he tells me. I ask if he's normally in the middle of the road. "No, usually I'm on the sidewalk," he replies. But this is the position you need to be in tonight to see Saturn? "Yeah, but as a matter of fact, for the last half hour, I could have brought it back on the sidewalk, but this is kind of fun," he admits with a mischievous chuckle. "Civil disobedience, or something like that."

He doesn't come out every week or on any schedule. "I come out when I've got nothing to do, and I know there's gonna be something good in the sky, and it's not cloudy," he explains. I try to gently pull him out of the way of an oncoming car, but he brushes me off. "If you don't take chances, nothing happens in life. My son always says, 'Dad, get out of the street!' but I can't think of a better way to go: He was looking at his telescope."

Someone's found Chandhok's poem, "Neighboring Planet," published in the Hudson Review. The sleeveless man urges my friend to read from his phone, and he complies:

He must be here tonight. There's a small crowd 
of subway riders, just emerged, like me, 
at 9th Street, murmuring, "No—it's free…" 

I'll wait, 
though I should be getting home. I've seen the news: 
Mars will never be this close again. 

A couple leaves, rejoining hands. "It's red," 
they whisper, thrilled. "No, really red." Last time, 
when he had Saturn in his sights, I said, 
"Exactly like the rings in all the books," 
or something equally brilliant, to the guy 
behind me in the line. 

When it's my turn 
he points out, first, up by the park, but low, 
a faintly orange star, then tells me how 
to hold my eye, just so, above the eyepiece 
until I see—dark valleys, smooth red seas—
jostling a bit, but "just like in the pictures—" 
There I go again, confirming—what? 

"It's really nice of you," is what I mean, 
and say, though, pleased or proud, he doesn't show it. 
He just turns to the next person in line 
and points up toward the park. I turn toward home,
now satisfied, now with grave, steady joy
 in this great thing, so bright, and not so distant.

Delfausse smiles graciously through the reading. He says looking forward to seeing Jupiter in late October.

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