Magazine | August 14, 2017, Issue

Children of the Night

(Mike Segar/Reuters)

‘Morning’s at seven, the hillside’s dew-pearled.” Not my mornings. The sun regularly gets up before I do — and not only the sun, but millions of city dwellers. I will never be healthy, wealthy, and wise.

How did I get to be a fairly late riser? (My range is 8:40 to 10.) I married a night owl, and we never had babies, those abolishers of day and night. The luck of moving to the city in the grim years means that I live in an apartment only a five-minute cab ride from the biweekly morning editorial conference of the magazine that employs me. (One of my less fortunate colleagues lives on the Upper West Side, not much farther as the crow flies, but two changes of train away; he might as well come in from Larchmont.) So my schedule has been formed and preserved.

Occasionally I am raised early by a phone call. I just had one from a scholar in Ireland (late afternoon there). Could I identify Alexander Hamilton’s handwriting? What, did he bounce a check? To me all the Founders are generically good penmen. Some write small (Madison), some write big (Washington). The only one I can ID for sure is the journalist James T. Callender, whose hand screams perv. I referred my inquirer to other experts. My most frequent early caller is my trainer, making last-minute adjustments to our schedule caused by unexpected kinks in his. His schedule and his address make him the earliest of risers, taking the subway in from the barrier island at dawn (earlier in winter). He sees characters at that hour, such as the drunken Hispanic construction worker, praising Trump’s victory the morning after, dropping F-bombs and insisting that everyone would be paid $15 an hour. Mook and Kellyanne both missed him; truly, there is one of everything in the city.

We have a blackout curtain on our east-facing window, but for three weeks before and after the solstice, enough light slips irresistibly in, like mildew, or grace, that you wake briefly before your time. There is enough time left to resume dreaming: travel . . . intruders . . . houses, ours upstate, my grandmother’s, but always with new access roads or unfamiliar neighborhoods adjacent . . .

Catching an early flight to a small midwestern city will force me to wake for real. The low light at that hour coming from unfamiliar angles makes the buildings seem scrubbed, surprised. Maybe new beginnings are possible. Who is up then? Dog walkers, faithful as Fido himself. Sometimes a mad person. Sometimes a woman dressed up from the night before. Where did it begin? How did it go? Why is it ending now, in this way? Anonymity, the city’s courtesy, draws the veil.

Rarest and worst are those mornings after nights when you never slept at all. My wife assures me we do nod off in the midst of these vigils. She is the shrink in the family, she has reviewed dry tomes on sleep, she knows what she is talking about. I know the sinking feeling when, though it is still dark, you hear the first bird. There is no dream to resume, because you haven’t dreamt. The failed night ends like a failed life: If I had been a chiropodist instead of an actor, I might have made enough money to see the Galapagos –

Dawn and night in the country are very different from their urban homonyms. Night creatures are shy. In 18 years, I have glimpsed two owls, one possum. You see more in the Central Park Zoo. But they are noisier than they are bold. Their presence is a sonic carpet, and a comfort, even when a specific sound is alarming. You are not alone, the passage of time is not all about you. Were there any animals in Proust’s book, or life? Not that I recall offhand. If there had been, chastened, he might have written a brisk little memoir.

In late spring and early summer, there is a nocturnal frog or toad that emits long, vehement trills. We have had a pond all the years we have been here, without such creatures in it. They debuted only after our uphill neighbor dug a pond of his own. So they like his place, not ours. Some nights they are deafening. But loud, or louder, their curfew is midnight. A little later in the summer come the back-to-school bugs. I don’t know their real name, or even what they look like, but I call them by their three-note cry. They go longer into the night, but by the hour before dawn they too have fallen silent.

We know this from sleeping outside on a screened-in deck. The night is too lively to let you sleep straight through (and children of the suburbs and the city stay too alert to surrender consciousness entirely). Once in a great while something truly goes bump: a raccoon, snarling for dropped bird seeds (we took that feeder in pronto); a coyote yelling from the hill where we sit and drink rosé (you’ve hit your limit). Most intriguing, for mammals larger than voles, are the barred owls, calling, cackling, asking one another insistently, plaintively, Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?

Doug rises early, gets in his car, and makes his rounds. He has one regular destination, a convenience store, on a back road, called the Star Deli. He made a large wooden five-pointed star for the owner to hang behind the counter. They do not know each other’s first names; the Indian owner calls him “sir.” Then he drives on, checking in at the dump (the best pick of the free stuff is always first thing), dropping off muffins he has baked, calling on people who have asked him to fix something. But as he goes he watches to see who is up then. This year there have been a lot of fawns, all legs and spots, as if just unpacked. On one circuit, he has seen as many as 30.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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