Leaving the house after sun down is practically a requirement of living in this city. 7:00 is an early dinner, and if you turn in before midnight it means you're either old or sick. There's a constant layer of light that permeates Manhattan, the bright blaze of Times Square and its satellite areas reflecting off lower clouds and, with the help of street lights and store displays, illuminating the whole island like it had its own miniature sun. In the brighter parts of the city you can mistake 2 AM for an overcast afternoon, and the stars are routinely outshone by man made incandescence. Except for in the parks. Beneath the boughs of aging trees one can find true darkness. There's the bridal path in Central Park, with just enough light that one can dodge the puddles of a recent rainfall. The Ramble, an interlocking series of small paths cut and paved through wild forest, so drenched in black that sometimes you mistake a stranger for a tree and startle as it moves what you thought were branches and roots and begins to walk towards you. Then in Riverside there are un-named paths that veer away from the lamps, beneath tall walls blocking out the skylines, or into small valleys between two hills where one can almost imagine oneself alone in a city of 8 million, something that separates old New York from a place like Tokyo, where aloneness can only be found behind paper thin walls and drawn shades.
Fear of the dark is common among New Yorkers, and not in an abstract childhood inspired bogeyman-is-coming-to-get-me way. It is a rational fear, inspired by statistics on muggings and rapes and murders, all more common for those who find themselves alone in the dark. Even if one takes proper precautions, be male, be big, be ready to give up your valuables, there are gangs and drug addicts and crazies out there. Park benches often hold sleeping homeless people when the weather permits it, and while many of them are harmless enough are not that one would be well-advised to avoid the parks at night. Provoke the wrong person and the best you can hope for is a glass bottle hurled at the back of your head. As for the worst, well it's guaranteed that you won't remember the worst. I know this, I know that even in a cleaned up New York with a more responsive police force and a crime rate that inches ever downwards there are still upwards of three murders a day, and a score of beatings. Muggings are too numerous to count. I know this and yet I am not deterred by my fear. Call it irrational confidence. I call it a taste for the quirky.
New York parks at night are full of characters. There are the underage girls dressed in attire that Humbert Humbert's object of desire could never have dreamed of, the packs of blacks and Hispanics dancing to music playing from the stereos of their cars, the dog-walkers determined to give their pooches the dignity of going to the bathroom outside even at 12:20 AM, the Indian families dancing to live music well past dusk, and of course the lovers, clambering all over one another on benches that have seen a thousand asses and dozens of piss-soaked winos sacking out there. I'm never quite sure if it's romantic or slightly disgusting to grope a chick on a seat of wood that's almost certainly been shat on at some point in the not so distant past. These types are all fascinating to watch, they have their own rituals and sometimes it seems their own language, but they pale in comparison to the true oddities one can encounter. The young Asian man, apparently on some sort of drug, who asks you where you are going and then asks you for a cigarette, as if by knowing your destination he has become your friend and is now entitled to request what he really wants. The man walking with a woman who is wrapped in a blanket. You come up from behind and he glances over his shoulder nervously while she shuffles on like the listless dead. Has she been raped? By him? Is she on drugs? Do they know each other? What's he so afraid of? As you pass them you resist the temptation to look, afraid that if you turn around you might find her visage to be vampiric or worse, perhaps a fleshless skull, all gray bones and maggots. Their footsteps behind you are positively haunting. The elderly couples, providing hope that the graying of hair and wrinkling of skin does not necessarily imply a 9:00 bed-time or a fear of the outside world.
I consider myself one of the odd characters inhabiting the darkest parts of the New York night, although I probably don't appear so to others. Wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants, sometimes jeans if they're clean and I don't plan on doing any running, I'm no longer big enough to attract much in the way of notice. Oh I'm still larger than I should be, but at this point the fat is wrapped around bone and muscle, the bulges receded, the shadow on the way to looking like the thick side of normal. It's my internal monologue that makes me odd. I imagine most people go out for some peace or fresh air or exercise. Some clearly want a place to lock lips away from prying roommates and brick wall views. I go for the exercise, true, and I do love the feel of the cool night air on my skin, but mostly I go to think.
For some reason my thoughts are sharper when I'm moving. Sharper still when it's late and I'm ever so slightly scared. I think of things to write about, ways to do it, improved methodologies for the actual process. My mind whirs fast and I work through my frustrations late at night. It has been a frustrating summer. I've written plenty, but every essay feels like a false start, a poorly run race. There's awkwardness, tonal inconsistency, little mistakes that add up to significant flaws. So many times I've sat down to write, feeling cool and confident, only to have it come out wrong, like a sprinter who feels perfect at the starting block only to slip, sprain an ankle, or come up lame each time he sets out towards the finish line. This journal serves as a record of mistakes, a race program filled with scratched competitors, a track covered in deep divots from disavowed competitions.
Late at night, in the darkness, the creativity flows easily, and I feel like I can transcend the failures, use them as stepping stones for the future. I have perspective on my age, my newness to what I'm attempting, the fact that many, even most, people who've tried this have wandered in the desert for awhile before finding the promised land, if they ever found it. Me, I wander in the park, watching the strangeness and hoping that I'll be able to use it for the writing I hope to be able to do. Someday.