I like neon.
You see, I’m partially color-blind; the subtler shades of red, green, pink and purple are beyond me. So I’m drawn to bold colors; and no colors shine brighter or purer than those of a neon sign. I’m fortunate to live in a town where vintage neon survives, and new neon still appears.
A lighted plastic sign merely shines. But neon burns in the air. It does somersaults. It flashes, it blinks. Glass tubes channel glowing gases into words and shapes of blue, orange, red, white, and yellow fire. They hang in the air, flaming, like the words of an impressive, if commercial, deity.
The glory days of neon are past; other technologies outcompete neon in cost and installation, ease of maintenance, power usage, even brightness. But not style. Glass is a liquid, and the glass tubes of neon, argon, and other gases paint the sky, and anything reflective, with shapes that have the fluid, organic nature of life itself.
Moreover, neon tubes glow with a depth that shames the flat light of fluorescent tubes and the eye-jarring intensity of LEDs. And so old neon is cherished, and new neon is still commissioned.
But the old neon is best; its aim is high, with impressive results. When the sun goes down, the Rio Theater’s neon draws its name on the night in elegant Moderne curves.
While the flashing, blinking, garish neon at the older Del Mar is anything but elegant. And yet the colors flare and burn gloriously. A few years ago they barely lit at all, but enthusiasts restored them.
Many venerable businesses maintain their neon well: a skating rink, a liquor store, grocery stores. We locals can’t imagine them without their trademark signs.
Some signs decline. The original patron dies or moves on, the new landlords don’t care and, tube by tube, the sign fails. A neon sign, like Blanche DuBois, survives on the kindness of strangers. Left to itself, it sinks into disgrace and decrepitude.
Little in this life is for the ages. Eventually every neon tube in existence will crack and spill its gas, every transformer will fail. Businesses move, buildings are torn down, and the glowing glass tubes will go down with them.
All the more reason to honor the folks who put their time and money into preserving these crazy, ephemeral assemblages of twisted glass tubes and wiring and glowing gas. So that for a little while, shapes of fire can be written on the night.
Although if it is true, as some physicists say, that information may never truly be destroyed, somewhere along the quantum conduits that tie together the universe there should be a cul-de-sac, an eddy, where good, dead neon signs gleam in velvety darkness for all eternity, without need of buildings for support:
A neon afterlife of glowing light and color, where the dreaming minds of the color-blind are allowed to come and visit. And smell the everlasting popcorn.