Over the long holiday weekend just passed — a glorious and, dare we say it, chilly at times weekend, rarer in July in these parts than a politician with good sense — The Observer was able to get outdoors at night, just for the sake of being there, for an extended period of time. Usually in July, Yours Truly is parked under the AC with a cold one, mentally preparing our shriveled brain for the assault on Mt. Career the next day, hermetically sealed off from the skeeters and the moonlight and the big junebugs that drone like B-17s through the velvet dark. It’s that way for a lot of folks, we bet.
Still, we love summer nights in Arkansas, and should really make the effort to get out there more often, our fear of stepping on a wily copperhead notwithstanding. It’s a different world out there at night. Time moves slower. Conversations in the dark, devoid of body language or facial expression, roll on and on, punctuated by laughter, the glowing tip of a cigarette or the wash of headlights from a passing car on the road, the tires of the car saying to the trees and moon and crickets and all the secret things in the underbrush: Shhhhhhhhhh. … Eventually, inevitably, long after midnight, somebody will think to look down at his phone, face lit for a moment, and then he’ll say: “Damn. Look how late it is.” And with that, the spell of the night will be broken, time having stuck its nose where it doesn’t belong. Cigarettes will be stubbed. Beer cans will be drained and crushed. Then they will go back to the house, blinking their way into the air conditioning and electric light.
The Observer works late some nights when we’ve put off a cover story to the point El Jefe Millar starts looking at us funny, and the city downtown is a different place as well in the summer dark, even with the streetlights burning to the point they blot out the stars. Young women stand on the corner in their tall, Gone Clubbin’ shoes and smart skirts, staring at the walk sign on the opposite corner, waiting for the light to say that they can begin their lives. The streetcar rattles past and ding-dings, windows framing tourist faces. You know they’re tourists because they have that so-happy-to-be-here look to them, turning their heads, taking it all in like children. Down in front of the clubs and bars, the hard men lean on the seats of their lean and hungry motorcycles, smiles creeping out as they smoke and talk. The bouncers frown and eye IDs. The homeless people shuffle and turn, looking back in the direction they came sometimes, as if they don’t know what’s following them. The policemen roll past in their black and whites. Later on, the Last Call Brigade will stagger away, some singly, some with their conquests. Soon after, the signs will all go out, and then the cooks and bartenders and bouncers and servers will slouch to their cars, stinking of work, of flour and beer.
That’s the time of the night The Observer really loves, by the way, though we rarely get to experience it: the dampness before the dawn, 3 a.m., 4 a.m. The Observer was a roofer growing up, and in the heat of the summer, Pa would roll us out to the jobsite at 3 a.m. so we could quit before the real heat came on in the afternoons. The Observer is no early bird, but we always loved that as a young man: seeing the world emptied and stilled other than the truckers and the nurses and the late-night bartenders shuffling home. At 3 a.m., the streetlights go green and red over empty intersections, allowing and restricting nothing. The garbage trucks clatter like mastodons. The world is still dozing, asleep and dreaming, the few cars on the streets piloted by the night shifters, the nocturnals, headed home, shuffling back to kitchens and beds, returning to sleeping lovers and sleeping children. They’ll be asleep themselves by daybreak.