“Night time is the right time,
to be with the one you love.”
— Ray Charles
The mammoth steel presses bellowed, the praying mantis-like stamping machines screeched. Forklifts hummed across the factory floor carrying pallets of coiled steel wire. The midnight coal train clacketed down the railroad tracks behind the factory on its way to the River Rouge Plant, in the burning bowels of Detroit. The moment the whistle blew to signal the end of my ten-hour night shift at the steel factory, I hustled over to the time clock. Quickly, I punched my time card and slipped it back into the long metal card rack on the wall. As I turned to leave, I noticed some newly scrawled graffiti on the cement block wall:
It takes all day to get up
and all night to get down.
To this day I don’t know who wrote those pugnacious words, but I’ve never forgotten them. I still marvel over how well they captured our defiant factory-rat spirit during the four benighted years I spent at Industrial & Automotive Fasteners in Detroit. Hardly a day went by without someone groaning about how tough it was to get up every day for work. Then again, hardly a night went by—especially when the weekends rolled around—without hearing somebody boast about how they were going to get down as soon as they got off work. The street jive insinuated a night of hard drinking, heavy gambling, skirt chasing, or drag racing down Woodward Avenue. But it was more than braggadocio. It was a riff on “Night Time Is the Right Time,” the Ray Charles song that was playing on the radio in those years because whatever happened after midnight was our time. If we could “get up,” we could get to work on time; but if we could “get down,” we might get to that place beyond time that exists in the shadows of the night.
“Somewhere,” said Schick, the night shift foreman, “the real life is waiting for us.”
For the handful of us who were working our way through college, getting down meant pulling all-nighters in the hope we might catch up with whatever courses we’d fallen behind in during the week. After slaving away through those long night shifts and then doing homework until three or four in the morning I had to ratchet my weary bones to get up out of bed. For me, the sound of an alarm clock going off, especially during the dark dawns of winter, was like an ice pick in my ear. So I was rarely on time for my eight a.m. journalism class twenty miles away, at the University of Detroit.
One miserable morning during my senior year, my professor Judy Serrin noticed my bleary-eyed expression as, an embarrassing twenty minutes late, I slunk in. It may have been the oil stains on my hands or the smell of factory phosphate on my clothes, but a look of concern crossed her face as I passed by her desk. “It looks like you’ve been burning the midnight oil,” she whispered. Then with unexpected compassion, she added softly, “Hand in your stories whenever you can.”
It was very Detroit of her to say so.
Burning the midnight oil. My grandparents had used the expression to describe how late they were forced to work, night after night, in the family pharmacy, during the stark years of the Depression. Roger Turner, my first newspaper editor, at the Wayne Dispatch, had employed the phrase as a warning when he hired me to work the graveyard shift. But there was something else, something shiver-inducing in my professor’s voice.
Rust Belt respect is what it was.
In those years, in those factories and shops, people took pride in how hard and long they worked. You worked at whatever task you were engaged in—churning out steel nuts for the car companies or churning out essays in college—until you were done, even if you had to burn the midnight oil.
No excuses, no whining, no cheating.
“Cold fact,” sang Sixto Rodriquez, the legendary Detroit songwriter, who was working night shifts a mile away, down at Dodge Main, my last year in the factory, then playing the blues clubs down along the Detroit River. “Just a cold fact.” It was a given. If you were going to do anything worthwhile in your life, you had to burn the midnight oil.
Until the early seventeenth-century the word for working late into the night was elucubrate, which was defined in 1623, by Henry Cockeram in The English Dictionarie, or, An Interpreter of Hard English Words, “to doe a thing by candlelight.” Twelve years later, in 1635, the English novelist and poet Francis Quarles wrote a poem called “Emblemes,” which featured the first published reference to another way to elongate our days:
Wee spend our mid-day sweat,
or mid-night oyle;
Wee tyre the night in thought,
the day in toyle.
We tire the night in thought; the day in toil. In other words, it takes all day to get up, all night to get down.
The poet’s archaic but comprehensible language opens a window onto the seventeenth century, when the invention of street lamps and longer-burning lights in the home liberated people from the tyranny of darkness.
Originally referring to the actual act of burning oil in lamps for light and safety, the expression “burning the midnight oil” has come to mean any practice that allows us to stay up later, see better, push the natural rhythms, work overtime, even unravel the mysteries of the impenetrable darkness. Ever since I have equated it with working late, working hard, working it, as in working the system, using every ounce of strength and wit to get through life. To do that, I believe, you have to burn the midnight oil.
Years ago, while researching the history of cafés, I came across a poster for the Faggs Coffee House, established in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1926:
Any time is coffee time
When burning the midnight oil,
Whatever your brand of toil—
The swot, the poem, the woo—
Our coffee will see you through.
Together, the invention of longer-burning lamps and the concoction of coffee made for a revolution in the way people regarded the night. For centuries, life after dark had been dreaded and even avoided by sleeping and waking early. The night was dangerous; the night was cruel. It was the absence of day and light, not a value in itself. Night time demanded respect and even avoidance, usually by way of sleep.
Over time, the way people experienced the dark was transformed alongside a newfound belief in the strange beauty of after-dark, which was captured by the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt the shadow-strewn world of The Maltese Falcon, or the radiant photographs of distant galaxies coming back from the Hubble Space Telescope. Although known mostly for his playful novels, like Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll was also an inventor. His most noteworthy device was the “nyctograph,” which he fondly described as an “indelible memorandum book” that allowed him the freedom of not getting out of bed, as he put it, “at 2 a.m. on a winter night to light a candle.” The book was really a wooden board that featured alternating square and round holes, which he used to mark the letters of the alphabet with a pen or stylus. In absolute darkness he was able to record “some happy thoughts which would probably be otherwise forgotten.” This depth of devotion to the night world goes a long to help explain the uncanny way Carroll was able to take a form of dictation, as it were, straight from his phantasmagorical imagination.
Recently, I found myself at the venerable Hodges Figgis Bookstore on Dawson Street, in Dublin, searching for an obscure book on one of my favorite, if arcane, topics—the bardic training schools of medieval Ireland. I’ve long been mystified as to how it was possible for Ireland’s revered Celtic poets to memorize such a staggering amount of poetry, myths, curses, and riddles that it was commonly believed among peasants and kings alike that they possessed magical powers.
As if welcoming the challenge, the bookseller found the volume I’d been searching for for years, Irish Bardic Poetry, by Osborn Bergin, first published in 1912. His learned introduction included an obscure passage from an antiquarian book, published in 1703, by the doubly named Martin Martin, who wrote in his travelogue, Descriptions of the Western Islands of Scotland, about the “Dark Cells” where Scottish bards studied in their very singular way: “They shut their Doors and Windows for a Days time, and lie on their backs with a Stone upon their Belly, and Plads [plaids] about their Heads, and their Eyes being covere’d they pump their Brains for Rhetorical Encomium or Panegyrick.”
Apparently, there is a light that we can find only in the dark, which is the very definition of the inspiration that brings about new thoughts and ideas.
The French painter Henri Matisse needed only four one-syllable words to describe this ineffable power, “Black is a force.”
I’ve been haunted by the night since I was a young boy growing up in Wayne, a small town outside Detroit, ominously named for Mad Anthony Wayne, the Civil War hero. Listening to Ernie Harwell’s late-night broadcasts of Tigers baseball games on my transistor radio, canoeing and camping under the stars on Isle Royale, lazing in the grass underneath a shower of fireworks along the Detroit River, attending midnight mass at Wayne St. Mary’s, or, crazy as it sounds now, driving all night in my Uncle Cy’s 1965 Hot Rod Lincoln up to the Mackinaw Bridge with my high school friends. Just for the thrill of watching the sun rise over Lake Superior….
Looking back, it’s as if I was in training for a life of noctivagating the world: night walks around the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter in Paris; night writing on Naxos with Greek fishermen; riding a train all night from Oslo to Narvik, in the Arctic Circle, to witness the aurora borealis; tracking elephants at night to a watering hole in Namibia.
Looking back over my shoulder at the unreeling film of my life, it seems I have always felt more at home in the night world than in the day world, more comfortable with nighthawks than early birds.
This anthology reflects my fascination with “eating the darkness,” as a shaman in the Philippines described to me the act of storytelling by firelight. For years I have been gathering strange material for my Odditorium, which celebrates life after dark, from quotes, poems, chants, and song lyrics to short stories and novels, and even a night-game box score about the oddly luminous aspects of night time.
The result closely resembles what used to be called a noctuary, a record or journal of nocturnal contemplations that aspires to be a source of inspiration for the nighthawk brooding in an all-night diner, an insomniacs guide to the dark night of the soul, or a beguiling companion book to sit alongside a warm brandy on the bed stand.
We now live in a 24/7 world where lights blaze everywhere, as any astronaut can tell you, and darkness is harder and harder to find, as any astronomer can verify. If we are to survive this onslaught of light and withstand the pressure to be always working, then we will have to work on what my main man, Detroit’s own Bob Seger, called our “night moves.”
Burning the Midnight Oil is offered in the spirit of one of my boyhood heroes, Mark Twain, whose daughters insisted that their father regale them with a different story every night before they went to bed. They would name different objects in the house and insist that he use them in his nocturnal tales, whose purpose was to entertain, of course, but also to become, as Robert Frost suggests in his totemic poem, more acquainted with the coming dark.
I imagine this collection to serve a similar function, an offer to the reader of a wide range of stories, poems, chants, and song lyrics designed to celebrate the dark side of the moon, our endarkenment rather than our enlightenment.
Consider the marvel. One day I was being interviewed at one of the movie studios in Hollywood when I noticed a curious sign on the door of a room where special effects were being created:
Don’t open the door.
The darkness may leak out.
I am haunted by the night.
North Beach, San Francisco
July 19, 2016