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Al's Sidewalk Astronomy Adventures

If you're lucky, like me, the astronomy bug bites early and deep, leaving a chronic itch. Mine began with a trip to the majestic old Hayden Planetarium in New York City, with its inviting art deco blue doors trimmed in stainless steel. Naturally I thought a telescope was in the dome (hey, I was 11 or 12). The program was "Mission to the Moon" narrated by a live, rich baritone voice, backed musically by "the Ride of the Valkyries". (Ironically, I later got a job with an optical company that moved to Valhalla, NY.) Imagine astronomy and classical music bit me together. What bliss.  

I vowed to work whatever odd jobs I could to save enough for a telescope, and joined the Junior Astronomy Club section of the Amateur Astronomers Assn. This allowed me to indulge my model-making hobby, with a Yerkes telescope model for the club's display case in the Natural History Museum. For a REAL scope, I finally got a Skyscope reflector, and started buying S&T issues in the early 50's. I was on my way, but a kid with no family car, living in a Bronx tenement necessarily had limited observing time. My rooftop and sidewalk next to Safirs delicatessen (where I once broke a small window with a softball) were my observing stations.  

One day, I was observing the moon or double stars when a car screeched to a halt at the curb. This fellow, Tony, jumped out and told me how he made a 6 inch Newtonian at the planetarium workshop. What a deal! We not only became lifelong friends, but he introduced me to another lifelong bug: Hi-Fi. For years my good friend "did" astronomy with his scout troop. Sadly, Tony "Toscanini" Paterno passed away in July 2017.

My high school years were spent scheming and cutting classes to spend every opportunity to work on my shop project. No tie racks for me. A 200 lb. 8 inch Newtonian with a wooden hexagonal tube and pipe-fitting equatorial mount was MY dream project. I bought a mirror kit from Precision Optics, (the back room of a Bronx optometrist) and proceeded to "work" it after nailing cleats to the top of Mom's Singer sewing machine to hold the mirror. Can you imagine pouring grinding slurry, pitch (like tar) and polishing "rouge" all over YOUR Mom's furniture? Project complete, I bought an old Checker taxi from a friend's father who had a floor scraping business. I didn't like its black color so I got a brush and simply painted it green (my favorite color). Now I could take the scope to the "country"-next county north, with my observing buddies and still do sidewalk astronomy.  

If pedestrians had to get off the sidewalk to avoid my 8-inch behemoth, that was their problem. Nothing gets in the way of a Bronx kid! While I didn't make many friends this way, I did have some interesting experiences. I showed some teenagers the moon, and after they walked away, I noticed the image was blurry; -I hadn't noticed when they shot the mirror with a water pistol! Another time, a matronly lady suggested I take the scope to the Catskill Mountains so I could be closer to the stars. Technically true I guess. Expanding my sidewalk venturing to a main shopping street, Tremont Avenue, I set up in front of a Chinese restaurant and was rewarded with egg rolls for showing the employees the moon and Saturn. For solar viewing I used eyepiece projection. I walked away for a moment once until someone yelled there was smoke pouring from the wooden tube.

Unlike our great contemporary sidewalk astronomy crusaders, John Dobson and Bob Summerfield, I never felt the burning need to do sidewalk astronomy on a regular basis. But getting more people to share and understand our place in the universe is more important than ever, given the anti-science we see in the media from astrology, UFO mania, and creationism. Sidewalk astronomy is fun, educational and uplifting. You can't recreate the thrill of your first view of Saturn, but sharing another's thrill comes close. This is a gift kids need.

I find a hospitable location for sidewalk astronomy these days is outside my local Barnes and Noble bookstore. You might check with the store manager first. I once had the thrill of showing Hale-Bopp to incredulous customers exiting the store. "Yep. That's it. You can see it naked eye, just below the streetlamp." If they don't care, it's their loss. You'll make friends, help the Dark-Sky cause and have an adventure. I'd say it's a good pick-me-up, if my wife wouldn't interpret that poorly.

There are two experiences I haven't yet tried but always dreamt about. Maybe you could try. One, get involved with a local charity and offer moon views for a good cause. Two, get a tape recorder and capture a steady stream of ecstatic expressions and joyous expletives as people view Saturn for the first time. It's even better if you can do it on SATURNday, SUNday, or MOONday. And for those of you who are timid about sidewalk astronomy, don't take it personally when people ignore you, or try to keep their kids away from "strange people". There are always enough to have the spark to appreciate what you are offering.

For passersby who will inevitably ask, "Why are you doing this?" I found the perfect answer: "BECAUSE YOU'RE HERE!" There will be a long pause. Their next response is likely to make you want to do even more sidewalk astronomy.

— Al Nagler

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