Nighthawks

Unconsciously, probably,
I was painting the lonliness of a large city.
—Edward Hopper

INTRO by Phil Cousineau: Dusk darkens. Night falls. Nighthawks take flight. While the opening section reveled in the sheer beauty of twilight, this second section revels in what it’s possible to do in the middle of the night. Here we celebrate the poetry of work in the reflections of an insomniac, astronomer, poet, arctic explorer, photographer, doctor, naturalist, all-night disc jockey, musician, pilot, soldier, baseball historian, travel writer, and many other nighthawks. These are nightbound souls who refuse to go willingly into the arms of Morpheus. They would rather defy the urge to sleep and rest and instead burn the midnight oil and stay awake as long as possible to finish the unfinished business of the day — or get inspired to begin something bold and new.

For me, this caliber of observation of the night world is exemplified by a story I heard about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when I was living in London in the mid-1970s. It seems that one evening in New York City, in 1894, a crafty cabbie picked up Conan Doyle and spoke to him like a long lost friend all the way to the hall where the author, who had mythologized the powers of observation and the the supremacy of reason in his creation of Sherlock Holmes, was slated to give an evening lecture. Instead of a fare, the cabbie asked for a ticket to the lecture. Baffled, Conan Doyle asked, “How on earth did you recognize me?”

“If you will excuse me,” the cabbie replied, “Your coat lapels are badly twisted downward, where they have been grasped by the pertinacious New York reporters. Your hair has the Quakerish cut of a Philadelphia barber, and your hat, battered at the brim in front, shows where you have tightly grasped it in the struggle to stand your ground at a Chicago literary function. Your right shoe has a large block of Buffalo mud just under the instep; the odor of a Utica cigar hangs about your clothing. And, of course, the labels on your case give a full account of your recent travels, the plaque reading: ‘Conan Doyle.'”

“Excellent, excellent,” Conan Doyle cried out, happy that someone had been reading him and his books so attentively. “And so elementary, my dear boy. I did not observe, and you did.”

The contributors reveal a kind of melancholic exultation in the knowledge that while the rest of the world is sleeping they are observing and making deductions about the night world in a way that would make Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes proud. This ambiguous relationship to the night is explored in art critic Alexander Eliot’s interview with Edward Hopper and discussion of his iconic Nighthawks. The painting shows four quiet people lingering in an all-night diner that hauntingly portrays the ambiguity of modern life, in all its neon-amplified beauty and loneliness.

Twenty five hundred years ago, Sappho, the tenth muse, wrote of young women singing at night about their lovers, which may be the acme of the celebration of the night. In the fifteenth century, Galileo turned his telescope and the world’s attention to what is “splendid” about the night sky, an observation echoed centuries later by Rachel Carson and the Milwaukee poet laureate, Antler, who describes the influence of the campfire to spark in us the urge to “stay up all night” with our friends and lovers and “renew the pledges.” Similarly, in John Muir’s journals we find in the stunning beauty of a glacier the inspiration to write the night through. In Alone, one of the great adventure stories of the twentieth century, Richard E. Byrd describes how he kept his sanity during six months of isolation at the South Pole — steadfastly making scientific observations, or what he charmingly called his “obs” in his Scottish shorthand. And the nineteenth-century English poet Matthew Tate provides us with a rare glimpse into the subterranean world of coal miners, one of the most classic commentaries ever written about work. Mahatma Gandhi distills centuries of night wisdom when he writes in an essay how he “can see in the midst of darkness.” In his seminal travel book, The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin speculates on the universal fear of darkness that has plagued human beings since the days on the savanna. War historian Stanley Weintraub paints a haunting picture of the sacred dimension of the night in his story about English, French, and German soldiers who suspended hostilities in No Man’s Land, in 1914, and sang Christmas carols. The artist and composer Stuart Balcomb evokes the silken darkness of his college darkroom and its lifelong effects on his creative efforts. The Paris-based photographer Richard Beban calls up a Wolfman Jack-like evocation of working as an all-night disc jockey at KSAN, in San Francisco, in the 1970s, a piece he describes as “an attempt at songwriting, meant to be set to music.” After we flip over his record, we hear from Miles Davis who once admitted that he was trying to get the sound of the dark country roads of Arkansas into his trumpet. The American-Norwegian photographer Mikkel Aaland recounts a strange dream that allows us to appreciate the moiré of night and never be certain of what we see; other than that, as he says, it reflects our “obsession with time” — a good night’s work. Nikos Kazantzakis’s rendering of his iconic hero, Zorba, brings the man of fire to life one night, never a man so fiery; the moonlight helped the teacher see him better, as one in accord with the universe. Bill Haney throws a curving metaphor in “Night Game,” an account of one of the first games ever played at Briggs Stadium, in Detroit, under the flood lights. Despite being wary of playing ball at night, the Tigers and Yankees swatted 11 home runs, and the hometeam prevailed, 10-9. So much for not being able to see the ball at night.

All the shadow-fretted themes of this part of the book come together in Pico Iyer’s essay on nightwalking in Manila, which he describes with an unmistakable sense of awe and wonder at the sights and sounds of the teeming capital city. His observations are rooted in what he calls monogashi, which he describes in The Painted Word as referring “to the beauty of things that are dying, the sweetness of sadness, the mingled quality of life, and the way that dusk can be evocative and haunting precisely because it speaks for the end of things, the coming of the dark.”

In his magisterial The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel describes the room of books in his fifteenth-century French home, Le Presbytère: “In the dark, with the windows lit and the rows of books glittering, the library is a closed space, a universe of self-serving rules that pretend to replace or translate those of the shapeless universe beyond.” The extract I have chosen here reveals Manguel’s admiration for two great readers, Machiavelli and Montaigne, and his own predilection for writing by day and reading by night. “Reading is, in this sense, a ritual of rebirth.… But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but the space of books remains in existence.”

This squinting in the soul is for true vision, learning to see the invisible. For we strive always to see in the dark; we hope for light through poems and prayers; and we pay any cost to wedge open a crack between the worlds if it means learning one new thing about ourselves. These night writers provide an antidote to the search for enlightenment, which is the daily discovery of endarkenment, an acknowledgement of our need for both light and darkness. Rather than grinching to us about what is missing in the day world, they are beguiling us about what can be found in the shadow-fretted night.

“Night Gigs in Motown”
Christopher Bakriges
American musician, composer

I realize that I’ve spent the majority of my professional musical life not in a conservatory practice room or sun-drenched grand salon but working in cellar cafés; those storefronts where one walks down a series of steps into half-lit spaces where the distance between the bandstand and the audience makes touching one another feel predestined.

In these dim juke joints of the world, peoples’ physical actions become long and sharp. From my piano stool, humanity’s brooding and complicated movements appear as if they’ve stumbled out of a Romare Bearden work. They exhibit themselves through slivers of light being cast from cigarettes, clinking bar glasses, even bangles worn by those who are slow dancing — all brought together for the sake of the music and somehow spirit-filled. These cellar cafés can feel like a sanctuary in its better moments.

Nothing ever appears overly planned in these intimate spaces. When the collage of dark and illumination, the music and intention fuse, a flicker of humanity and the thirst to know more ignites — all of us enjoying the bit of light we’re casting without exactly praying.

My first professional gigs happened at Cobb’s Corner, a Bar located in the Cass Corridor, a stone’s throw from Wayne State University and embedded firmly in Detroit’s red-light district. Cobb’s Corner was considered inner city; located on the corner of Cass and Willis and home to poets, political pundits, Rainbow Party meetings, Detroit Artists’ Workshops, college activists, the occasional prostitute, pusher, pimp and many a gregarious local alcoholic. I had a late night “hit” with my quartet immediately following local legend Faruq Z. Bey and Griot Galaxy’s set and people were still milling about eager to hear more space music with soul. I had waited eons for this moment and simply couldn’t disappoint. It was an unusually cold fall evening, so chilly that even some members of the band has joined many of the bar’s patrons and were wearing gloves.

The music that washed over me that night must have splashed on some of the patrons because I remember the pinball machines and pool table falling silent as the set progressed. The place heated up fast. In between tunes and energetic applause came a commotion from the front door. In whooshed saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, in stride with his shepherd’s stick and wearing a brocaded African dashiki, who was appearing at the famous Baker’s Keyboard Lounge off Livernois and Six Mile Road. He must have been coming to Motown’s “new jazz corner of the world” to catch Mr. Bey’s group.

Instead, he found an upstart hammering away on a battered upright. We all knew Mr. Sanders’s pedigree, his first name bestowed to him by Sun Ra. There was so much energy the moment he entered, I half expected hearing the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, being recited. Instead of showing his displeasure and simply walking out, he seated himself, nodded approvingly at the music being made, and remained until the set was completed.

I walked out of the bar that crisp morning up in the air not about my future in music, but aware that, like the song says, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”

“West with the Night”
Beryl Markham
American aviator and writer, 1902–1986

You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds, nor to have crossed continents—each man to see what the other looked like.

Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own hands in semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the beliefs, the faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind — such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.

It is dark already and I am over the south of Ireland. There the lights of Cork and the lights are wet; they are drenched in Irish rain, and I am above them and dry. I am above them and the plane roars in a sobbing world, but it imparts no sadness to me. I feel the security of solitude, the exhilaration of escape. So long as I can see the lights and imagine the people walking under them, I feel selfishly triumphant, as if I have eluded care and left even the small sorrow of rain in other hands.

It is a little over an hour now since I left Abingdon. England, Wales, and the Irish Sea are behind me like so much time used up. On a long flight distance and time are the same. But there had been a moment when Time stopped — and Distance too. It was the moment I lifted the blue-and-silver gull from the aerodrome, the moment the photographers aimed their cameras, the moment I felt the craft refuse its burden and strain toward the earth in sullen rebellion, only to listen at last to the persuasion of stick and elevators, the dogmatic argument of blueprints that said she had to fly because the figures proved it.

So she had flown, and once airborne, once she had yielded to the sophistry of a draughtsman’s board, she had said, “There: I have lifted the weight. Now, where are we bound?” — and the question had frightened me.

“We are bound for a place thirty-six hundred miles from here — two thousand miles of it unbroken ocean. Most of the way it will be night. We are flying west with the night.”

 

Purchase the Book

photo © Richard Beban