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.

The winter months following the new year are insomnia's dog days. The house is sealed up and all sound seems an intrusion. The furnace kicks in. The clock in the bathroom sounds like a metronome. The suction gasp of airplanes falling toward the airport never fails to startle. Silence--or what passes for silence in a city; A. Alvarez calls it "the perpetual noise reality makes"--is interesting to a point, then maddening.

I have strenuously avoided cable television and the Internet; diversions that far-flung, with that many absurd snags and crannies, would capture me wholly. Television has always terrified me. I know that such an obsessively lonely anchor would be the end of me. Whenever I find myself in a hotel room with a remote control in my hand, the entire world recedes and I am paralyzed. Perhaps that is the point, and perhaps it is therapeutic, but I remain skeptical. Recently, in a motel room in Illinois, I sat up most of the night watching Manson groupie Leslie Van Houten's parole hearing on Court TV, skipping up the dial to beach volleyball during commercials. When the sun came up I felt hung over and ashamed, and took my dog for a run to assuage the guilt.

Politics also makes for disastrous late-night company. After years of sitting up fuming and suppressing the urge to call talk radio shows at 3 in the morning I finally canceled my subscription to The Nation, but only after I'd lost the battle on a couple embarrassing occasions and made a sputtering ass of myself in front of thousands of lonely truck drivers. Imagine the humiliation of sitting on hold for 45 minutes to argue welfare cuts for two minutes with a fathead in California.

Rock & roll, I also discovered long ago, is largely not companionable after 1 a.m. I have spent years now experimenting, exploring, and fine-tuning a soundtrack for the night. Jazz works especially well, just about any jazz. Roscoe Mitchell's Sound is the soundtrack for God's night: Imagine an endless corridor, empty room after empty room, the world just a distant, lulling wash of sound, surf, occasional fugitive bleat; a sad harmonica from a room far down the hall. Thousands of candle flames noisy as sheets on a clothesline.

Miles Davis's In A Silent Way is perfect for winter nights. Piano is almost always fine: Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, Bill Evans, Art Tatum. For the gloomy night there is always Mahler's Ninth or Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Hank Williams is generally good, as are Blind Lemon Jefferson, Nick Drake, and Otis Redding. Neil Young's Tonight's the Night is great car music for 3 a.m., and so is side two of Springsteen's Born To Run and all of Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska. The only time I can listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad is in the car and after 1 a.m.

There are so many books that I almost certainly would have never found the time to look into had I learned to sleep like a normal man, all the great peaks that sleeplessness allows the insomniac to tackle: The Bible, Frazer's The Golden Bough, Kathryn Watterson Burkhart's Women In Prison, and the insomniac's Everest, Robert Burton's 17th-century cudgel, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

It is once again 3 a.m. Everybody knows that at night the brooms move, the mops and vacuum cleaners, the shelf stockers, street sweepers, and snow removers. Production, assembly, light industrial, security--all those things go on under the cover of night, but the streets of the city are largely empty. To the police officer or the security guard, anything moving after 2 a.m. is suspect, a blip on the night's radar screen.

You never really travel in darkness in the city, rather you move in and out of penumbrae--from shadow to penumbrae to light. Things stand out: billboards, the insomnial carnival of automobile lots, funeral homes lit like national monuments, spotlighted American flags, trees along the boulevards strung with white Christmas lights. Cabs and neon. All-night oases are scattered around the cities: White Castle, Embers, Perkins, the occasional check-cashing place, car wash, or laundromat.

There are a few Vietnamese guys playing pool at Truc Mi billiards on University. The anarchy, nicotine, and chess set keeps late hours at the Hard Times Cafe on the University's West Bank; the place is crowded with leather and loud at 3 a.m., the coffee still flowing and the punk rock blasting from the speakers. The Hard Times is one of only two places I've found in the Twin Cities where, at 3 a.m., it's impossible to tell that it is the middle of the night. The other is Sex World, in the warehouse district, where men--most likely flushed from Deja Vu at its 3 a.m. closing--are milling about at 3:30, browsing the videos and magazines and standing in line for the XXX video booths and live sex shows. Perhaps it is symbolic that a short time later (4 a.m.) I found myself going through a car wash on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul.

At 4:15 I am sitting in the parking lot of Bonnie's Cafe on University Avenue. Through a window at the Midwest Hotel next door I can see what appears to be a card game in progress. Bonnie's is a little countertop-and-booth breakfast throwback. There are hand-lettered signs all over the walls and smiley-face stickers on the menu, which features a "steak snadwich."

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