All-Night Diners and Eternal Darkness

1024px Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942 result

Контент 18+ There is a famous painting by the American Edward Hopper called "Nighthawks" which I ran across on the internet a couple of days ago. I love the frigid melancholy of much of Hopper's work and suggest to my readers that you check him out if you have never heard of him before.

"Nighthawks" depicts a late night diner-cafe in New York City in 1942. Four people are in the diner: a man sitting with a woman, another man with his back to us, and a young guy working behind the counter. The men have on dark blue suits and are also wearing the fedora hats that 'business' men (of all description), private detectives, and criminals, etc., wore during that era. (Check out a Bogart film to get the idea.) The woman is coldly attractive in the way of late, dead-end nights. Her long, swept hair is ginger-colored, and she has on a red evening dress. She appears to be examining the fingernails on her right hand -- always a sign of female ambiguity. The man whose back we see sits isolated with shoulders hunched -- maybe a gangster of some sort, but we don't know. The boyish guy behind the counter is wearing a white sailor suit sort of get-up (the company uniform), with a little beret type of lid perched on his head. He seems busy about his work, but, again, as fixed in time and place as a frozen mannequin caught in mid-motion..

The cafe' is bright, like Van Gogh's "Night Cafe'" or the idea we may have from Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well-lighted Place." In Hopper's painting there is no door visible; it is rather as though the inhabitants of the diner are locked inside, maybe for eternity. The smooth street outside, surrounded by softly firestone, implacably statuesque buildings, is silent, uninhabited. The city, representing the world outside the diner, is all the more stark, forbidding, and ghostly because of its implicit desolation juxtaposed against the hard enamel precision of the people in the painting, who are both fully conceived and absolutely empty, and the reflecting emptiness of the street, simultaneously terminal and eternal, means that, wherever they have come from to get to here, there is really nowhere else for them to go...

In this night-cafe' the world ends, the world stops not with a bang or a whimper, but with menacing ennui. This night will never cease, the invisible, inaudible gramophone's needle is stuck in time. .

I have been in cafes and diners like that before, often also in the dead of night -- sometimes sober, often drunk, sometimes with a place to go to afterwards, and once or twice with nowhere definite in mind. Do you know of them-- the nights when, wherever you happen to find yourself, the place is full of lonely souls and people with dark ambitions, women of many nightmares, insomniacs of all description, freaks of every assortment. These decadent die-hards, these violin-players with shaky hands, these ghostly mimics of the Moulin Rouge, they have their only chance at 3 o'clock in the morning. I know because I have been there too, I have been one of them.

In these night cafes, there seems to be sanctuary, even communion, among the greyhound bus rabble, the destitute pilgrims who never found anywhere, never located their own holy grail. In these places people tend to behave themselves, a least for a while, before heading off into whatever oblivion they choose..until the discoloring and racking realities of morning's sallow light gobble them up. They have come to pause and suck up a little breath before facing the night-wind.

Back in 1967, when I lived in New York City on W. 79th Street, I used to sit in the "Chock--Full--a--Nuts" coffee shop most of the night and work on the stories I was writing and sometimes talk to the black prostitutes who stood on the street outside waving at potential tricks gliding by in their cars. They were young and wore high boots and straight-haired (or 'processed') wigs. A lot of them had heroin habits, and with their johns I guess they would do most anything.

But on rainy winter evenings, or on those late lazy summer nights of dying sunlight in Manhattan, they would slink or bound (depending on their mood) into the diner and sit for a spell, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, which was allowed back then. Some of them would notice the strange little white boy hunched there night after night, and venture to say hello.

Well, that's all they had to do. Saying hello to me has always been like opening the floodgates, and so I got to know some of those women pretty well. Maybe I was like a mascot. But what I found was this: they were all just plain people in the end, people who really wanted to come in out of the rain, people who didn't really like having turned into the nowhere's-ville ghouls they had become. And so when they talked to me, they just knew I wasn't some pimp or drug dealer, Not even a potential trick. I was only a kid from West Virgina, just like they were from Tennessee or North Carolina. And so we talked like normal people and we were the briefest of friends.

It was because the cafe was a sanctuary, a safe house. Maybe it was somehow like the title of that John Le Carre novel, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold."

I thought then, and I think now, that whoever you are, you need a place to come in from the cold.

Like the truckers who drive long hours across Europe, Russia, Canada, and the United States. And, I suppose, everywhere in the world even China and India. It must be lonely, out there in those great rigs, driving from Denver to Pittsburgh, from Glasgow to London, from Ontario to Alberta. It must get damned lonely.

But as long as there are truck-stops along the way, you can make it, right? Bacon and eggs, coffee and camaraderie, a pretty waitress with a saucy smile and exposed cleavage -- the tastes and smells of humanity in a single room where the food is hot, the coffee hotter. This is protection from the wolfish darkness out in the parking lot and beyond. Of course, there are girls waiting in the shadows to accommodate the truckers. For a price. There are always night-hawks waiting in the crevice-like wrinkles of the eternal seam, and they are always available for a price. The bacon and eggs come cheaper. And better.

Likewise, when I was a raw, green, punk child of West Virgina, my grandfather (who took me in after my parents' divorce), would sometimes pack me and my granny in the car and take us from Martinsburg to Morgantown, which back then meant 9 hours of driving over windy, mountainous roads of two-lane blacktop. We would stop in nondescript towns along the way for toilet and gas. But for some reason we always paused for lunch in a place called Sutton. The same restaurant, the same proprietor. He was a basic country man with a toothpick constantly wedged between his teeth. He knew my grandfather from previous trips, and so he was always friendly. As friendly as the owner of a small diner in the middle of nowhere could be expected to be. He is still there, of course, but now in a time-bubble.

My portion of food, as I vaguely recall, consisted of a hamburger and French fries and coca cola. Afterwards, the long journey would start again. Sometimes I would get what they called "car sick" and they would have to pull over for me to vomit. When you are a child, nine hours in a car can seem as long as it takes for school to be out in the spring when it's only February. I would wish I was back in Sutton, still nibbling on my burger.

My mother, in the days when she was young, knew some Greek people in Martinsburg, and this Greek family ran a restaurant called "Louise's". I ate a lot of greasy plates of food in that establishment. But, again, I felt safe and secure inside, because I could watch and hear my beautiful, perfect mom chatting with her friends. It was 1955 and the Brooklyn Dodgers were about to beat the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series. There wasn't anything wrong with the world back then that I knew of. I can still see Charlie, the cook with one glass eye, spitting on the grill to check if it was hot, and hear my mother complain with disgust, "We must eat his spit."

Big Chevrolets and Pontiacs and Mercuries and Packards were parked outside in the sun-sprinkled streets of that long-lost era. And serious-looking men in fedora hats passed along the street. The women back then were not like the rail-thin super model wanna be's like today. They had big breasts. They would sit along counters and smoke cigarette after cigarette, their pumps dangling from the foot of whichever leg they had crossed, revealing the rich trails of shadow between their toes.

But even then we we all nighthawks.Those little restaurants and cafes, well, they saved us from a bigger world, a grander universe. They spared us the impossible things we didn't want to think about and couldn't have fathomed anyway.

Amid smells of bacon and burger and coffee, we bought ourselves a few hours of insulation from what was out there and beyond.

Death seemed far, far away. But I understand now that, even in the bright daytime back then in Martinsburg, where the young women wore splotches of crimson lipstick over their basic, workmanlike faces that nevertheless woke up in me the beginnings of eroticism, those small-town ladies who always seemed to end up marrying alcoholic guys named Fred and Sam -- I know now that it was always night-time. I know because they still come to me in dreams, but only in the dead of night when something buried in me needs these confused memories to be awakened.

They snap back to life then when they too know it is night. Maybe they are ghosts, but I am not afraid of them. I want them. I couldn't see it clearly then, but now I do. It was always the middle of the night. It was always three o'çlock in the morning when my grandpa or my mother and I inhabited such dream-cafes and sat along the counter-tops.

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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