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.

It is 3:20 a.m. at the intersection of Hiawatha and Lake in Minneapolis, and there he is, stumbling around in a pair of '70s vintage moon boots, one of the classic characters of the urban night: the Karate Kicker. After, say, two in the morning in every city in the Western world there is always a guy all alone on a street corner somewhere, howling and karate kicking at some private antagonist. I pull up to the stop light--the first red light I've run into since Lake and Hennepin--and roll down the passenger-side window.

"I've got everything," it sounds like the guy is muttering, in between the grunts and yowls.

Or perhaps it is this: "I'll get everything." I've seen this character all over the world--in Oslo, Omaha, Paris, Boston, and even in the morning streets of my hometown in Minnesota. In the shitty neighborhood where I once lived for a short time in Orlando, Florida, it seemed every corner and every 7-11 parking lot had its own Karate Kicker, shit-faced, sleepless, and fiercely vigilant.

Despite the screwy language of time, the sleepless understand that it is never truly morning until the sun rises and the newspaper comes up the sidewalk. The hours after midnight are always, unmistakably, night, and the night crawls along in a muddled and surreal procession of moments, each of them accompanied by the folding numbers of the clock on the bedstand: 2:37, 3:12, 3:48, 4:19, 4:40, 5:04. The night becomes an extended variation on the theme of turning over: thoughts, memories, images, the tossing physical agony of sleeplessness. Insomnia progresses along the lines of serious drinking. You get better and better at it, and then, gradually, you get worse and worse, until you'd give anything for a few large, slow brain waves, for a few hours of hard-charging REM sleep, for a few dirty dreams, but there isn't anything you can give. You can't sleep, and--like the spiny anteater, the duck-billed platypus, and very, very few other mammals--you can't dream.

Chronic insomnia reduces the mind to the body's Vegas (and Vegas, incidentally, is a place I steadfastly refuse to visit), a place where consciousness is literally incessant. Your mind becomes a whirlpool roiling with odd words, phrases, or images, circling wildly and then disappearing below the surface. One recent night the phrase "too melon tasting" kept pacing back and forth in my head, aggravated by the fact that I couldn't quite place it. Then--voilà: Around Christmas I had seen an elderly couple tasting free samples in a liquor store. "Too melon tasting," had been the old gal's assessment of a particular drink.

Jerome Bruner, in his introduction to A.R. Luria's The Mind of a Mnemonist, speaks of characters "symbolically dispossessed of the power to find meaning in the world." In the weird, wee hours, when the insomniac is losing the battle to conserve and control, and struggling, exhausted, to get a few thoughts to land, that feeling of dispossession is all too familiar. Given the disjointed nature of what happens in the brain between 3 and 6 a.m., consciousness becomes like trying to reconstruct an entire civilization from nothing but pottery fragments and a belt buckle.

This is the static mind--static absolutely, in the electrical sense of the word--observed, alternately confused and amused by itself, and ultimately defeated. The inexhaustible is always exhausting. Toward dawn the random thoughts move slowly across your brain in a creaking wheel barrow. Night after night you find yourself camped in the hypnogogic foothills of sleep, stuck at a permanent and groggy base camp far below the summit. You've given up on the summit. You've become a circadian anomaly, saddled with one of the last great biological mysteries.

The gist of what the experts can tell you is this: 1) you're living wrong; and 2) insomnia can wreck your life, but it can't kill you. Thirty percent of the adult population reports experiencing insomnia more often than he or she would like. Mostly it's women and old people who don't sleep, and people with much better reasons than mine. There are today more than 2,000 sleep disorder clinics in North America. Since the invention in the 1930s of techniques for measuring electrical activity in the brain, neuroscientists have made remarkable progress in the understanding of the biochemical and chronobiological mysteries of sleep, but sleeplessness is still a subject about which there is little consensus.

Sleep studies--in which the sleeper is wired with electrodes that allow researchers to monitor electrical activity in the brain, eyes, and muscles, as well as changes in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood--are effective in ferreting out organic disorders such as apnea, narcolepsy, and parasomnias (sleep-walking, night terror, bed-wetting, teeth grinding, etc.), but virtually useless in cases of primary insomnia. In other words, if you really cannot sleep, sleep studies can accomplish very little, because chances are pretty good that you aren't going to sleep when you're in a strange room and a strange bed, wired with electrodes and being watched over by researchers and video cameras.

Insurance companies, in fact, will generally not pay for treatment of insomnias where no organic cause is suspected. "We very rarely do sleep studies for insomnia," says Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center in Minneapolis. "Insomnia is regarded as a constitutional symptom and not a disorder in and of itself. Insomnia has always been part of the human condition, and it has long been assumed that it is due to psychological or physical factors. There's no question that there is a direct statistical relation between insomnia and psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety, but my question would be, 'Which comes first?' Imagine what your psychological profile or inventory would look like if I subjected you to five years of chronic insomnia."

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.

In the 1980s sociologist Murray Melbin wrote a book called Night as Frontier, in which he examines the ways in which electric, artificial light has opened up the night for exploration and exploitation. The original pioneers were primarily outcasts who pushed their biological clocks further and further into the night in response to the increasingly crowded and regimented daylight world. Corporations, production, and convenience followed right behind them, and in very short order they managed to keep even the smallest towns up and running around the clock. Today a young boy sitting out on the stoop after midnight in America is likely to hear not peace and quiet and the distant surf of traffic, but a greater, even less specific racket, a droning metallic hum, the now universal industrial cicada.

At some point, then, coinciding oddly enough with the mass arrival of fast food and a new shopping mall, sleeplessness lost much of its romantic appeal, and the night ceased to provide me with anything approximating serenity. I had lost my proprietary claim on the night. I began to attempt sleep, and was crushingly unsuccessful. There were still too many things I needed the night for--the library books stacked around my bed on the floor, the records, all the things still waiting to be processed, sorted out, abandoned or pursued. A biological clock--once it has been monkeyed with--is a very difficult thing to reset.

I've swallowed things on orders, all sorts of things, hopeful for a chemical vacation, but almost none of it has worked. Halcyon, Klonopin, Ambien, Xanax, Melatonin, Passion Flower, Valerian. You run your finger down the laundry list of possible side effects--many of them truly terrifying--and you roll the dice. Ambien kept me up all night jerking violently, teeth chattering. Halcyon gave me two hours of violent nightmares and then left me flat on my back and wide awake, doing everything in my power to ignore the stiff aluminum balloon that was straining against the top of my skull. Melatonin gave me eye-crossing headaches.

As disappointments go, my experience with sleeping pills, my search for the "peerless soporific," has been right up there on the top of the list. I've tried also the reeking teas and all the usual rituals of health and relaxation, the exercise, meditation, and idiot white-noise tapes with their racketing combination of "brainwave frequencies," ambient music, and droning subliminals. My head wouldn't fall for any of that stuff, and I'll be the first to admit that the effort was largely half-assed. The first requirement of any effective sleep program is a cooperative subject, and it now appears that I am a hopelessly uncooperative subject.

"A great deal depends on the patient," says Dr. Mortimer Malemak in Lydia Dotto's Losing Sleep. "A lot of people don't cooperate. These are people who like to be up at night; they do all the important things in their life at night." Every week or so now I swallow 0.5 milligrams of Klonopin and settle for six hours of relief from the usual stupor. The rest of the time I've learned to cope with what Jorge Luis Borges called the "atrocious lucidity" of sleeplessness, and to make the most of the opportunity that is every wakeful night.

The odd mentation and hallucinations of sleeplessness provide perhaps the one pure opportunity we may ever have of being simultaneously analyst and analysand. And insomnia is not without its occasional spectacular rewards; I often realize that a disproportionate number of my most treasured and visual memories are night memories.

One summer night I was sitting in the darkness of an apartment overlooking the intersection of Lyndale Avenue and Lake Street. It was a sweltering night, after 3, and I was watching two men who were leaning against a parked car on Lake Street, having what seemed to be a very heated and, I thought at the time, theatrical argument. It was a very quiet time of the night; nothing else was moving anywhere, and the two voices carried up to me as clearly as if they were coming from my television set. I watched, eavesdropping, absolutely fascinated.

The two men had their backs to me, and I watched as one of the men reached through the open window of the car and removed from the back seat a tennis racket, with which he proceeded to flail at the other man, who ducked and covered his head with his hands. The one guy was swinging the tennis racket with what appeared to be all his might. The racket broke in the middle and the man continued to swing it, shouting out now, very clearly, very emphatically, "I!... Will!... Not!... Let!... You!... Dee!... Stroy!... My!... Play!"

I watched then as the man with the broken racket stalked away down Lake Street toward Uptown, broken tennis racket still in hand. The other man took a moment to compose himself on the sidewalk and then got in his car and drove away.

Symbolically, night is always the bad guy, the province of nightmare, bogeyman, secret, and sin. Night's bad reputation is, of course, timeless and universal. On a map of the unconscious, night occupies as much space as Asia, and represents equal parts Antarctica, Transylvania, and Tangiers. "In a real dark night of the soul," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "it is always three o'clock in the morning." Sleep researchers call the hours between 3 and 6 a.m. the "Forbidden Zone," and people who are up at that time of the night fall largely into one of three camps: those who are trying desperately to fall asleep, those who are trying to stay awake, and those who are trying to be awake.

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."

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.

It's not impossible, I say. People keep parrots. From time to time I'm sure that they get loose. It was certainly disastrous weather for a parrot. At any rate, when I reported the incident--which I foolishly did--and when I told the story later, I said for some reason that the parrot was a pelican. Instead of saying that I'd seen a parrot, I said that I'd seen a pelican. And somehow I continued to make that mistake in remembering, until it was, in fact, a pelican that I remembered seeing.

A few weeks later I picked up, purely for the hell of it, a little book called The Bestiary of Christ, by a strange and long-dead Frenchman named Louis Charbonneau-Lassay, and when I got home and opened the book I saw an old engraving of a pelican. And I read these words: "The pelican, the old symbol of the purifying Christ who washes the sins of his children with his blood and so returns them to life and grace."

Now tell me, if you were me, wouldn't you be a little bit frightened at this point? And to think that if I had been sleeping, I would have missed it.

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