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.

Next to the cash register behind the counter there is a wrapped fruit basket, a red teddy bear, and a large Valentine card that says "To My Wife." There is a sign beneath the clock: "This clock will never be stolen... the employees are always watchin' it." Bonnie's caters to truck drivers and laborers from the cluster of industry around University and Hwy. 280, and it is apparent that most of the early morning customers are regulars.

"Whattaya know for sure, Vern?" the owner asks a new arrival.

"Not a whole heckofa lot." Before the man is even seated the young waitress asks, "Do you want your usual?"

Customers come in the back door, through the kitchen, and pause for conversation with the cook. A cop comes in and makes himself at home in the kitchen, throws something in a fry basket and drops it into the oil. At the booths, there is talk of trucks.

"What did you get this time?"

"Dakota."

"Extended cab?"

"Yep."

"Topper?"

"Yep."

"Yeah, well, they're saying below zero again this weekend."

The waitress brings a pot of coffee to my table. "You can stay as long as you want," she says when I pay for my breakfast. This is 1965 Main Street America at 4:30 in the morning, and I guarantee you that if you go to Bonnie's, you will not know for even one exhausted moment that you are in a big city.

At 5 a.m. the WCCO Good Morning show comes aboard, and it is trying desperately to be all the things that Bonnie's so effortlessly is. I drive to the Mall of America and park in the north lot between Nordstrom's and Sears. There's going to be an early morning wedding in the Mall's Chapel of Love, and I can't think of a more appropriately surreal way to cap off a sleepless night. I pause at the windows of the Mall of America gift store, enthralled by the Shut Up and Shop shot glasses, coffee mugs, and sweat shirts.

Next door there is a giant stuffed moose behind the dark glass of the Explore Minnesota, USA store. Taxidermy is unsettling at such an early hour and I hustle into the Mall, which is eerily half-lit and breathtakingly silent and clean. From somewhere I hear the rustle of water and the early morning chirping of birds. Empty escalators climb and fall. The neon clock outside the Twin Cities Grill says 5:20. From someplace deep in Camp Snoopy I hear James Taylor, faint and distant.

Camp Snoopy, poised as it is in darkness, is a fearsome thing. It is an oddly thrilling experience to be lurking about in an empty amusement park in the dead of the night. I slip five dollars into the "Let's Karaoke" booth and duck inside to record an inhibited personal version of "Just An Old Fashioned Love Song," a Valentine's gift for my wife.

Upstairs, outside the Chapel of Love, crews from three of the local television stations are scurrying about with cables and cameras, preparing to broadcast the impending wedding live on their morning shows. Darrell Milton has brought his fiancé, Angela Coleman, here from Waukegan, Illinois, for a surprise wedding. The Chapel of Love will host 14 weddings on this Valentine's day, and Darrell's late request had to be shoe-horned into the schedule at 6:30 in the morning. It seems Darrell has coaxed his fiance here under the pretense of an early morning suit fitting and a shopping spree.

When the couple is ushered into the Mall just after 6 a.m., they are met by a phalanx of cameras and microphones. The bride-to-be looks convincingly stunned. Channel 5's Rusty Gatenby is first in with the microphone and immediately offers his services as best man, effectively scooping the other stations and making an even bigger headache of camera logistics, since of course none of the other stations wants Gatenby in their shots. And how do you shoot a wedding without the best man? They make do.

I take a seat in a back pew of the chapel and watch the service unfold, presided over by Reverend Gary Gottfried. The clear highlight from a nonparticipant's standpoint is the moment when Gatenby steps away from the altar in mid-ceremony to deliver a live traffic report. As the couple lights the unity candles, accompanied by a tape of "Always and Forever," gawking mall walkers cluster in the entryway, chattering excitedly.

There was an episode earlier this winter when the wind had been all night at the windows, rattling ice and snow, and I imagined that I could hear the ice forming on the roof, building tremendous ice dams. Some time very late, I was shuffling around in the shadows and the pools of darkness in my house. I was definitely awake. For some reason I put my index finger on the bathroom blinds and coaxed a vantage point from which to see my neighbor's house.

And there, perched on the edge of my neighbor's roof in the freezing rain, I thought I saw a parrot. I looked several times, and each time the bird was there on the roof. I would even swear that I saw the bird shudder, ruffling its feathers around its head like a cloak.

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