Try not to overburden this with too much meaning, but I have a friend who stays inside. It would all be much simpler if this behavior could be ascribed to a pathological fear of open spaces. He lives at night. His behavior, however, like most things exposed to casual scrutiny, melts under the passing glance’s glare into a puddle teeming with conflicting motivation. There’s no talking one’s way around it: one is either in the puddle or out of it, and once in, you are in it up to your neck. The unwelcome, inelegant truth of the matter is that nothing could alter his conviction.
Mine was essentially a missionary effort. I brought him to stay with me in the hope of converting him to daytime living, of somehow convincing him that the world beyond the front door had much to offer, was ripe with possibility. I am still not quite sure how I came to believe in these things; at the time I invited him, they seemed self-evident.
There really couldn’t be a better houseguest: quiet, friendly, neat as a pin. Conversant in literature, science, and mathematics (the subject in which he obtained a degree from a fine university without ever attending a lecture during his four years there). Because his entire waking life was conducted between the hours of 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., it was possible to go about one’s business hardly aware that he was home. My intent, however, to mend his ways brought me slowly into orbit with him and altered the order in which I filled my days.
It went something like this: I would return to the apartment at around 4:00 p.m. to find him trotting benignly about the kitchen in his bathrobe and slippers. I gave a witty accounting of my day while he made breakfast (usually whole-wheat pancakes, legumes, steamed grain). While he ate breakfast in the afternoon, I chattered about the world outside. About the sun. About the intelligent and interesting things that others do during the day. He chewed his food. Nodded. Smiled.
The television news was turned on. I persisted. Talked, even, about foreign countries: Serbian farmers ploughing fields, Frenchmen eating peaches with knife and fork; Japanese pearl divers; Mexican rodeos; Moslems at prayer — positive proof of the substantive nature and value of the world beyond. Invariably, baronially, the newscaster, with bell-like clarity, chanted humanity’s ringing indictment. Multiple slayings. Sexual mayhem. The wounded. The staggering. The half-dead. The dying. The detective said the suspect showed no remorse.
Ask not...It tolls for thee.
He washed his plate. He put the milk away. I listened to my own voice grow tinny and dim. My stated case, this vague idea of personal daytime industry, sounded flighty, air-headed. Potentially lethal. By 7:00 p.m. my faith routinely vanished. The sun sets early on the Slough of Despair. Crickets chirp in the reedy mire. Full moon. Just remember not to struggle. Movement makes the mud swallow harder. Remain absolutely still. Wait.
With the same aimless, charitable time teen-agers spend on the phone, he stood with his ear against the apartment’s intercom at 3:00 a.m., listening to the street outside. The occasional car passed. He smiled at the rumble through the static. Very, very rarely he heard passersby talking — the best. The most profoundly disturbing aspect of this behavior was that it was not the product of a diseased mind. He was quite sane.
Gradually, inexorably, because I schedule my own hours, my circadian rhythm began to resemble his. Late night’s fuzzy edgeworld became my home. Shopping was done at 3:00 a.m. — no crowded aisles, no hassle at checkout. AnytimeTellers chirp as cheerfully at two in the morning as they do at any other time of day. I found myself again and again mutely pushing my cart through choice’s dazzling array. I stood before an endless glass case of frozen vegetables, mesmerized by the sheer enormity of my buying power. My nation’s famous stability stared back at me. Economic forces beyond my comprehension brought those vegetables there, the snow peas, the artichoke hearts, the broccoli flowerettes. Ghosts in a great machine that I would never know placed them in the case to be considered for purchase at my, the consumer’s, discretion. It does not matter that all frozen vegetables taste the same after months in icy isolation. I and thousands like me microwave them into rubbery insensibility. It is not an issue of flavor, but of choice.
In Safeway’s answer to the Dark Night of the Soul, there is time enough for such careful rumination.
On another late-night errand, it must have been around midnight, I passed a fried-chicken stand near Twenty-fifth and Broadway, only to spy one of our city’s homeless sprawled before it in what appeared to be a puddle of blood. My friend and I had watched news reports about the local homeless on TV, but by that time, it had been weeks since I had actually seen one. I stopped my car and observed the woman, it was a woman in a blue windbreaker, cough gooey phlegm balls onto the sidewalk. Although she was in plain view of the chicken-stand workers, they seemed to be taking her retching in stride. An overhead duct blasted the odor of rancid chicken fat down onto her as she moaned and sputtered. I went inside. “I think you should call the police, there’s a woman....” I offered to a young man behind the counter. “You mean the one in the blue windbreaker?” “Yes, she doesn’t seem to be doing very well. She’s bleeding and coughing.” “Yeah. I saw her.” But before our intriguing dialectic achieved synthesis, a man, a customer, approached the chicken stand, stepped directly over the woman lying in his path, and pushed open the glass door. “Could I have a two-piece dinner to go?” he asked. Not an eighteen-piece bucket, I noted, but a two-piece dinner. “White or dark meat?” the young man behind the counter asked.
At home my friend played flamenco guitar, a skill he had taught himself. Outside the apartment complex, Rome burned. I couldn’t tell him that. I mustn’t, I realized, in any way intimate that the out-of-doors was a vexing place; one slip of the tongue and he’d never amount to more than a successful night watchman. I understood that. I practiced scrupulous self-censorship.
So in those wee hours, while he strummed, I puttered quietly. The city’s great silence wafted in through the open windows. Nights passed, and I found myself washed onto a foreign shore. I had reached a point sufficiently distant from the cares and practice of the everyday world to contemplate them at my leisure. Dusk-to-dawn living had its own codes for cracking. For a city its size, San Diego does go to bed early. After 11:00 p.m., every street, boulevard, and road becomes a cordon sanitaire. By midnight, the city becomes the sole property of the lonely and dispossessed. Once while exiting a downtown liquor store, I was approached by a frantic young couple. “Where is everyone?” the wife asked. “We just drove down from Los Angeles, and we’re looking for a place to eat. This place is a ghost town. Do you know of a restaurant that’s open? We expected, at least, to find something.” I could only think of a few all-night coffee shops. “Well, in that case, maybe we’ll just look for an all-night market.” Good idea, I thought.
Ask people, and they’ll tell you that they came here for the weather. “I couldn’t take another winter,” they say and rattle on and on about snow chains, frozen pipes, chilblains. And since the fine weather for which they migrated means sunshine, it is understandable, then, why they would not want to go out at night. Waterskiing, snorkeling, long walks in the park are at best hazardous after dark. All that bright business in the sun implies something else as well. All that jogging and manic Jazzercising, long sweaty interludes at the gym translate into a sound night’s sleep. No lying awake at 3:00 a.m. staring at the ceiling, interminable moments spent contemplating whatever or whoever it was they left behind with the snow chains. Taxing aerobicism vouchsafes a smooth transition from dark to light that safely skirts the midnight of the soul. Whatever it is that waits to face us in those hours that most of us shun, avoid, my friend routinely stared down with a steady, unblinking gaze.
The Chronobiology of Human Mortality
— M.M. Mitler, R. Hajdukovic,
R. Shofar and D. Kripke
Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation,
10666 North Torrey Pines Road,
La Jolla, CA
Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego, USA
A sample of 4920 disease related deaths showed a 60% rise in death rate beginning at 0200 o’clock (2 AM) and reaching a peak at 0800 (8 AM)....
Man has expressed concern about mortal and morbid events during the night since recorded history. The Bible records that Solomon’s bed was guarded by 60 valiant men because of fear in the night (Song of Solomon III 7). In the 16th century, St. John of the Cross referred to this issue in The Dark Night of the Soul.... These concerns may stem from chrono-variation in the vulnerability to medical catastrophe. Early morning peaks in human mortality were described in the medical literature as long ago as 1932.... We now report new data on age and disease specificity in the circadian patterns of human mortality....
It’s not that simple. Show anyone the sky, he thinks of God. Show him the night, he thinks of death. Unlike most godless people, however, my friend believes in nothing. The same way that some babies are born without brains, he was born without assumptions. He never discussed his way of life, his vampire’s existence from a point of advocacy, which is rare for Americans; we are all missionaries — it’s in our nature to convince others of our ways’ inherent rightness. He never did. He had perfected withdrawal into an absolute militancy. He didn’t need to state his case. The nightly news did that for him. I began to see his point: Wouldn’t we all be a lot better off if we spent more time in our rooms quietly whiling away the predawn hours? Wouldn’t the world be a safer place once relieved of our busy daytime mischief? Couldn’t we all stand a little more silence?
I ventured out one day during my friend’s stay to return some overdue library books. I am forever accosted by eager minds needing to know something. That day was no exception. Perhaps I have an open, earnest face. The old man who tapped me on my shoulder apparently thought so. “Do you believe in God?” he inquired at the corner of Eighth and E streets. If I had used the after-hours drop box, the question would have never been posed. “Yes, well, yes I do.” “Do you meditate?” he asked. “No. I don’t.” “You should. To know God, you should sit and be quiet. Go into the silence.”
“Go into the silence,” I thought. Yes, well, yes I do. Although I was starting to prefer not to. There will be silence enough, I realized as I toted my books to the return desk. After I’m dead, I will have millions of billions of years of solitude. The universe will come to an end, our sun will be but a spinning cinder, and I will have silence to spare. Finished your silence yet? How ’bout another serving? Eternity’s generous platter can always make room for more. My friend had a permanent stool at the counter of the all-night silence cafe. He was a regular. He, along with all those good folks crowding the intensive-care wards.
The truth is that he is a kind of secular saint. A saint in the world of religion is someone indigenous to faith’s terrain of uninterrupted silence, an aboriginal presence that exists in an environment where no outsider could survive. Strange music. Simple diet. Eyes on the sky.
Dream analysts report that during the very early morning, most of us are busy completing our evening’s Bildungsroman. The other dreams were initial drafts. The final one is the summation address, something that one wakes up remembering. A thought for the day from the chaplain of the mind. And medical science agrees that the first few hours before dawn are a critical period. Pain is most severely felt at this time. Just before daylight, the critically ill call a truce with time. They surrender. This transitional period is a universal classroom. Everyone learns something from it. But what?
Another thing that is true is that those people are learning something at that time. The obvious trajectory for the mind to follow: the patient waits to see daylight again. If one could make it through the night, it would seem only natural to wait to see daylight again. Dark to light — a handy metaphor for the promise of survival. Many people don’t wait.
Night will give way to day. One’s life has mattered. But just as one’s life has mattered, the ontology dictates ultimately that it will not matter. Night will become day. The specific will swell and swallow the general. That’s the sort of thing making the rounds of intensive-care units at three in the morning. That’s the sort of thing people stare down who are awake to see this transition.
My friend who stays inside went home. He is probably still in his room. I have returned to the living day. What will become of him, I don’t know. In our last discussion before his departure, I told him I thought a bedroom was too large a space in which to confine oneself. What he needed, in fact sought, was an inviolate enclosure. Any space large enough to house more than one was clearly an invitation to trouble. Our city is furnished with countless such dwellings, places where we will all find respite —- dark as night, secure as the predawn, we will all someday find a coffin in which to idly contemplate the silence.