This is not about the window I sleep beneath now. That would be too easy. And a little strange, since it opens out onto a courtyard formed when my apartment building grew to wrap the space in a smokers alcove, where voices emanate–sometimes dully, sometimes with great energy. Luckily I can sleep, or not sleep, through the best of it. I can sleep through a brass band tuning up–once I lay my head down.
No, this is about a window overlooking the urban sprawl of one corner of Baltimore City, the scariest place on earth … at least for a shy, skinny 6th to 7th grade kid. For me, life during the day was all about survival. Not so much survival of the fittest … in that town it was more survival of the meanest. If you’ve caught an episode of The Wire on TV you’ll know what I mean. That was my town. No, no … you can keep it.
But then there’s the night. At night even mean people sleep. The city that frightened me became calm for a time, almost beautiful. It’s no wonder I wanted to spend so much of that time awake, appreciating it. Whenever I was caught by my parents sitting up at some odd hour of the night, I could always blame it on my little brother’s monumental snoring and get an apologetic shrug. But he was slightly duller than a brass band tuning up. I knew it was the night calling to me.
Our bedroom was on the second floor–third floor from the rear–of our ancient brick row house, with a window facing out the back. High enough off the ground the oak tree striving to escape the dark alley beneath had yet managed to block the view.
If you’re new to the concept of “row house”, it’s basically a solid block of 100-year old brick structures sandwiched thinly against the sides of other row houses. The 3-story row house we lived in–4 from the back–would have looked precariously thin and have toppled in a light breeze if it ever stood alone, but like a shelf of books it was tightly packed together on a block-wide shelf. The only separation between them was a thick firewall from the foundation to its flat sloping roofline–back when a firewall was a thick layer of fire-resistant cinderblock rather than a paranoid computer program.
Our block sat atop a natural ripple in the geology of the city, a shelf of homes higher than the rest, the row backing up to the other side of the alley, fronts facing away from us, sat several floors below. The forgotten land then rippling up again a few blocks beyond. Atop that next ripple sat a single-story shopping mall, basically a huge parking lot with the edge of a mall to one side, as far as I could see from my little window.
This was my world at night. Expanses of well-lit asphalt in the distance, over rows of invisible black tarpaper roofs and silent shadowy streets. It might easily have been a jungle at night, or a valley between cliffs, if not for the parking lot in the distance, lit like the outfield at a baseball game, waiting for the next home run.
No game ever played there, but I was probably its most avid spectator most nights: the tiniest of things that happened out there becoming small adventures. Cars would randomly traverse the parking lot, for their own reasons. Often these cars would approach from diverse angles and meet someplace in the middle. The occupants would get out and I would revel in my ability to hear the sounds of their voices echoing over the rooftops, uttered by the ant-sized people so far away.
Only now do I realize I was probably witnessing drug deals in the night. I wonder why the police didn’t sit in windows in the middle of the night, they would catch all kinds of perps that way. I could have had a job at that.
Not all of my attention would be taken up by the non-doings of the mall lot. That was more a meditation of sorts.
Often I would spend the time also listening to the AM stations bouncing off the ionosphere from odd distant places, with the sun charging the air in weird angles out past the horizon. Late Saturday nights I would listen to the wacky tunes of the Dr. Demento Show, still a cult favorite on the internet today, decades later. In a few years this would become a hobby, listening to radio waves bouncing from points on the opposite side of the globe, using a shortwave radio I built from a kit; but for now the AM bands on my tiny transistor radio were exciting enough. Radio propagation was a magical thing to me back then.
I have been a companion of the night ever since. We moved from the city of roaming bullies to the rolling countryside of Pennsylvania, barely rescuing me from my first year in high school … a massive building that resembled a penitentiary in my mind. Again I had a third story window to gaze out from, but the view here was a moon-lit field of grass, or my mother’s sleeping vegetable garden, and the shadows playing across shades from the neighbor’s duplex. I had a silly crush on one of the tenants there for a few months, a tiny married woman who playfully joked or played Parcheesi with us on her front porch, with the popping dice in the middle. I learned from her that I would always love women who nurtured their child-like (not childish) spirit throughout their life, and to never quite grow up myself.
My hormones soon pointed me more appropriately toward the pretty girls in high school, also mostly unrequited. But my nights were much the same here, minus the fear of the city ebbing away. A quieter town nestled in the dark valley to the right, tall trees rustling quietly in the night breezes atop the hill to the left, the stars swirling with hopeful abandon above. The quiet of the night needing at least one soul to stay up to appreciate it.
I wonder now if my night vigils today were an acquired habit, or a simply part of my spirit. Was it nature or self-nurture? I imagine I’ll never know, but I can almost feel the air grow quiet in the night, as more people fall off to dreamland. The crosstalk grows silent, my mind becomes clearer, the night more full of possibilities.
I still have my excuses for being up at that time, even without a parent to randomly look in to wonder: I tell people I can’t sleep normally on my own–I don’t want to lay in the dark alone, since I can easily sleep like a “normal” person when I’m in a relationship. There is some truth to this, too. But I know, deep down, if it wasn’t for the cuddles and kisses, I’d be up at night, exploring the magic of the universe, watching life on the planet slowly ebb and flow. I am a friend of the night. I think I shall always be.