There is no night anymore. In or around cities, in suburbs and small towns, there is no night. It still gets dark, and the days still get longer or shorter. Lights are everywhere — large, harsh, powerful, all of the time pushing back the dark.
Not much more than a hundred years ago the only things lighted were lighted by fire. Did things burn down more frequently then? A barn burning in the middle of the night on a lonely farm will draw many people. They don’t come to help put out the fire. Once a barn is burning, particularly if the lofts are full of hay, you can only watch it burn. They come because they are drawn by the light, by the great torch of a barn fire. I’m not sure so many people would show up, even in a densely populated city, to watch an equivalent-sized fire. It does not light up the sky with the same drama and rage. There is too much light in a city for a light like that to stand out. There was something about these hours — 3:00 to 4:00 — in the morning that I had forgotten: a romance, a dread, a solitude, an atmosphere, a tone.
For many years I lived as a nocturnal person. I would stay up until the first peeps of dawn. Then I’d sleep until noon or one. I have a friend who still makes fun of me for the time he called at noon and I yelled at him for calling so early. I liked to write; I liked to walk, particularly in New York City; I liked to read. Reading alone at night: perfect. Wallace Stevens has a poem with these lines: “The house was quiet and the world was calm./ The reader became the book; and summer night// Was like the conscious being of the book./ The house was quiet and the world was calm.” I liked that the phone didn’t ring, that there was no traffic; I liked being awake when most others were asleep.
The best time-clock job I ever had was as a night watchman at a small women’s college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I got to work at 6:00, had a free meal in the college cafeteria, walked around the campus and turned on lights, and read a lot in old armchairs in which the buildings-and-grounds day-crew goldbricked. These were set up around the boilers in the basements of classrooms and dormitories. These were especially good places to read in the colder months. I think I made only 75 bucks a week (it was 1971), but I probably got to read three or four books a week on the job. I considered that a serious perk. This job also provided me with another free meal later and all the toilet paper and lightbulbs I needed: I was the night watchman, I had the keys to everything. There was another watchman on the same shift. He was 80 years old. His name was Tom too. I was in my early 20s. They called us Old Tom and Young Tom, in the same sense as you’d call people Frick and Frack or Tweedledum and Tweedledee. It is a blazing miracle that no serious trouble occurred on our shift. We had the keys, and we turned on lights, but we did not own the night.
For most of my life, however, I’ve made my living as a college teacher, an even better racket than the night-watchman deal, and arranged my classes for afternoons or evenings. My nocturnal ways were changed, I think forever, 15 years ago. Fatherhood. The only time to sleep was when the baby slept, and my daughter seemed to sleep little. And she was an early riser. I’ll never forget my pleasure the first time — she was ten — when I got to wake her up. I poked her leg and said the thing I hated to hear when my parents woke me up as a child: “Rise and shine.” A parent’s revenge may be slow but it is sweet.
Now I love mornings, the light parts of which I rarely saw for so many years. I wanted to try to change that circadian clock again, if only for a week or so. We really do carry clocks around in us in the form of a tiny clump of cells known as the suprachiasmatic (nice word in which you hear other words) nucleus, or SCN. This clock is highly sensitive to the daily change from light to dark, with the rising sun setting us up for wakefulness and the dusk setting us up for sleep. We are programmed by circadian rhythms to sleep at night and be awake during the day. I’d try to flip the switch. I wanted to know what was out there in the night. Who might know about the night, the darkness, literal and figurative? The cops. They do their best business at night.
I went out on a 10:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. (he works a ten-hour shift four days a week) ride-along with a young (26), smart, tough, aggressive cop from the Chula Vista P.D. named Scott Schneider. He’s about 6'3", maybe 200 pounds, and like so many young cops today, ripped. He works out, lifts weights just about every day. It relieves stress and “helps if I have to fight guys.” He wears a bullet-proof vest in the center of which, as added protection, he places a ceramic insert, about the size of a dinner plate, right over his heart. He keeps a small handgun tucked in there and carries a regulation weapon on his hip. He said to me, “Some guys carry a third gun too.” He’s a graduate (a B.A. in English) of San Diego State. He was in his second year on the force. I liked him right away. I always respect cops and usually like them. Even in the ’60s, as a card-carrying hippie and a half-assed radical, I was never comfortable with “the cops are the pigs” bonehead talk. To me that was like making an enemy out of teachers or farmers, say — people who do work that has to be done and done well if we are to survive as a civilization. Plus, cops’ work is dangerous. Every day a cop thinks about the department’s chaplain walking up his sidewalk to ring his doorbell and tell his wife, or father, or mother that something bad has happened. So, if you’re going to badmouth cops, don’t do it around me. I know lots of young men about Scott Schneider’s age. Most of them are graduate students, studying the writing of poetry. I hope Officer Schneider writes about what he learned on these streets.