The Living Dead of the Night

The Living Dead of the Night

Being a collection of notes on the art and science of sleeplessness, with a helpful sidebar on the commercial attractions of the night.

Dr. Peter Hauri is the head of the Mayo Sleep Disorders Center in Rochester. "Doctors administered potions for sleeplessness from the Middle Ages on," he says. "In the '60s benzodiazepines were given out like candy. There was of course a backlash when it was discovered that people developed habituations to these medications. Now we have struck something of a balance. Pills can be efficacious in the short run, but we've learned that three out of four serious insomniacs can be treated exclusively with behavioral treatments."

Such behavioral treatments--with their emphasis on strict sleep hygiene and regimen--can be particularly rough sledding for someone who has built an entire lifestyle and identity around sleeplessness and all its hazy opportunities and routines. The question the insomniac must eventually answer is difficult and complicated: How bad do you want it?

Seen in daylight, the Koch refinery southwest of the Twin Cities on Highway 52 is an ugly, sprawling expanse, but in the darkness it is a vision of night itself. There was a time when that fearsome and thrilling tangle of fire and light was for me the perfect evocation of insomnia. The first time I saw it, I was hitchhiking toward it at dusk on my way to Rochester, and I spent several hours walking along the highway, marveling at that monstrous and oddly beautiful spectacle.

One night I went out along that road and took a cheap room at one of the edge city strip motels that afford a view at night of the lights and fire of the refinery down the highway. Late in the night I was sitting in my room trying to read a book and I kept hearing the same Eddie Money song playing over and over at maximum volume from the room next door. It was after 2:30 when I finally poked my head out the door of my room to see what was going on.

There in the parking lot was a pick-up truck backed right up to the door of my neighboring room. In the back of the truck were a couple of industrial strength shop lights and a video camera on a tripod, all of which were pointed in the direction of the open door of the room, from which the Eddie Money song seemed to be emanating.

Lounging against the pick-up truck and smoking cigarettes were what appeared to be twin sisters, or at least two women who seemed to have studied the same models of degradation--they were shopworn in exactly the same ways, right down to their perm-damaged hair. They were both wearing lingerie that looked to have come from a vending machine. "Go to fucking bed," one of them sneered at me. When I left the room the next morning there was no evidence that the episode I witnessed had been anything but an hallucination.

As a child I learned not to sleep, and cherished the quiet moments after midnight for the privacy they afforded. Those hours sitting up were the time I had to myself in the crowded world of childhood and family life. I'm sure there was some of the usual trauma and unprocessed anxiety involved, but mostly I remember the peace and quiet, watching the big trees on the boulevard move moonlight and shadows on the lawn.

The night was a time and place to feel alone. As an adult, of course, I've learned how to do that anywhere, but in childhood that was a valuable and treasured discovery. My hometown was in those days geared almost exclusively to the biological clocks of its inhabitants. I suppose the slaughterhouse was even then working through the night, but there were no 24-hour places of convenience. Some nights I would run through the town and marvel at the stillness, the block after block of dark houses. In those days a gas station was unmistakable, a plain thing standing there in the darkness waiting for morning. If you went in there when the place was open you might get a handful of peanuts from a dusty bubble, a drink of cold water or a bottle of Orange Crush; you might get a road map, but nachos--no. Vogue, no, deodorant, no, cat litter, no, you couldn't get any of those things there, and whatever it was you wanted would have to wait for morning.

There was without question not so much light then, and what light there was made it clear there was still darkness. Sitting on the front steps after midnight I could hear nothing but the lovely endless surf of traffic passing on the highway outside of town. The water tower at the end of our street looked like a cartoon rocket pointed at the stars. In those days before the whole country became so sleepless, so malnourished, so convenient, the night seemed to be all mine.

Big light came to my hometown shortly thereafter, and it came decisively. It is no consolation to me that I am from the last generation that can remember life without McDonald's. Today plastic signs blaze all night along the main drag and clear out to the periphery of town. Some places never close, because if they did it would be some sort of admission. Yet some things have not changed: On Friday nights stoned teenagers still gather in the empty parking lots at midnight, giggling, the cultivated dumbness a tic refined in suffocating boredom.

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