Night Hawks

by Larkin Vonalt

“Night people, funky but neat” – John Cooper Clarke

More than one person has advised to write in the morning. Only one of them is a writer, and she happens to be a morning person.  The last thing my husband says to me before he goes up to bed is “Don’t stay up so late tonight.” I can’t help it.  This is when I write.

I’ve tried to write in the daytime. Writing on deadline would have been a lot easier if I could somehow focus on the matter at hand during the daylight hours. I could do the interviews, make the notes, fact-check and peel back the layers of research, but I had the damnedest time getting the words down on the paper in some kind of orderly fashion, let alone words that would dance, take flight, suspend disbelief.

Some of the absolutely most brilliant things I’ve written have been crafted long after the rest of the world has gone to bed–and some of the worst dreck too, which is why although it’s good to write late at night, it’s wise to edit in the daytime.

I am less guarded at night , which allows for the literary blood-letting that seems to have become an essential component of a number of these personal essays. It also allows me the quiet and the solitude to work out complicated issues and present them in some kind of halfway coherent manner.

It’s been this way a long time. In college, I once wrote a poem about defrosting the refrigerator at four in the morning, and I wrote it after I finished defrosting the refrigerator. And not just for the writing, but most social interaction too. In the old days, we didn’t even get ready to go out until 10 o’clock, closing down the clubs and finishing up with breakfast at the Varsity, or whatever all-night diner was available. Then, as now, I did try to go to bed before it was entirely light out. Last night was a squeaker in that regard.

At home or out in the world, the night feels comfortable to me. The risks seem better calculated, the interaction with other people more immediate, the night its own soft, safe velvet cloak. Even online, there is a sense of camaraderie at finding that someone else is also up in the middle of the night.

Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, has become a kind of icon for night-crawling, and the scene with its four figures has been the subject of many short stories, poems and cinematic homage. Fluorescent lights were quite new when Hopper made the  painting in 1942, and they seem a beacon out of the diner. After seeing the painting as a cheap print, it was quite shocking to come face to face with it in the Chicago Art Institute.  For one thing, it’s quite large– five feet long and almost three feet tall. But more immediate to me was the sense of wistfulness it evoked. Not that the figures were experiencing “existential loneliness”  (as suggested by one self-important art critic) but that Hopper had captured that late night blend of melancholy and magic. I wanted to be at some counter in the middle of the night, eating pie and drinking coffee from a stout mug.

Sister Wendy Bennett, an English nun who has been trotted out for a program in Art History on the BBC (honestly, even the premise sounds like a Monty Python skit) wrote in her book Sister Wendy’s American Masterpieces that the figures in the painting symbolized caged and miserable birds of prey, but it was unclear if the woman was preying on the men or the men on the woman. She loaded on more tripe about only the counterman being able to experience freedom by having a life outside of the diner. She thinks perhaps Hopper based both the male customers on himself (not the case) and that this indicated that he thought of the men as clones. Clones?

It’s not my place (or anyone else’s) to tell you what the  painting’s about. That’s the nature of art. Experience it for yourself and make your own interpretation– but in my opinion the English nun is heavily layering her own negative feelings about late night perambulations on top of whatever Hopper intended.

There is a very definite sense  in our culture that it is virtuous to be up early, and degenerate to be asleep at noon, even though there should really be no difference.  Ben Franklin, echoing earlier philosophers wrote “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise,” and those prejudices linger, generating all kinds of pop culture studies, medical research and unending zeitgeist that it is better to get up early. Sometimes that moment of awakening and leaping from the bed is referred to as the heroic minute. Heroic! But apparently not so heroic when the minute of your rising is after 11 a.m.

Studies over the last forty years have shown that there are “differences in the fundamental property of the intrinsic period of the circadian rhythms” that will determine whether someone is an early bird or a night owl. These differences then are hard-wired, but can be adjusted through habit, will, and light therapy. There is sometimes a bias against “night people” in the workplace, where they may be regarded as undisciplined or lazy. In January 2007, “night people” in Denmark began a serious campaign to end discrimination against those who stay up late. Forming the “B Society,” they argued that the “Early Bird Model” was less relevant in a post-agricultural society and sought to attract the support of “trade unions, politicians and policy makers interested in making a more flexible workplace.”

I don’t consider myself “nocturnal,” but rather “cathemeral,” like a lion– an animal that is active night and day, depending on the circumstances. We night-hawks are in good company, though:  James Joyce, Winston Churchill, Marcel Proust, Hunter S. Thompson and Keith Richards.

A few years ago, a high school classmate rekindled our acquaintance. She and her husband both did shift work for the Canadian coast guard and often we were all three up in the wee small hours of the morning. I think those late night online conversations helped us to forge a much better friendship than the one we enjoyed in high school.Since then they have both retired and no longer have to deal with shift work (which neither particularly cared for) and I’m glad for them. But I miss seeing Jeanne pop up on my computer screen when I am noodling around after dark.

Tom Waits’  1975 album Nighthawks at the Diner was inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting, and the song “Eggs and Sausage”  is a brilliant evocation of late night in a diner. For years though, I mis-heard the line “Now the paper’s been read” as “Now the paper’s put to bed,” which for journalists is a lot more sensical. The paper’s “put to bed” when it’s sent to the press, a nocturnal exercise everywhere– it’s close to daylight when the day’s edition hits the streets. (And if it was the previous day’s — why bother reading it?)

There’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight
All the gypsy hacks and the insomniacs . . .

I could get up at, say 5 a.m. and try to write. An hour into it, my son would be hitting the shower. My husband would be up soon after, and then downstairs making coffee, and letting the dogs out. The television would snap on for the morning news. Julian would stick his head in the study to ask if I know where something is, or can he have ten bucks, or did I  make an appointment for the dentist? They’d be out the door to school — I’d have 30 glorious minutes of peace and quiet and then my husband would be back. The mailman rings the doorbell, the dogs bark, everything pulling at my attention from fifty different directions.

If I start writing about midnight, I can write for four hours with very little to interrupt me. Four glorious hours, my family snug in their beds, the dogs snuffle, feet twitching, chasing rabbits in their dreams.

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