Night People & Other Tales of Working New York
Not only in the realm of film noir does New York City thrive by night. The sensation of winter’s chill on Downtown revelers, tired workers on their way to late shifts, the glare of traffic on a lonesome diner, wet streets under late-night throngs, long shadows thrown against empty office buildings. The crowds, the vibrancy, the noise, coupled with the unsettling stillness of a starless night over an empty street.
This is New York at night and these are tales of its most restless inhabitants, its Night People.
1) The Cell
“It’s so close in here, so close”, said the woman to no one in particular.
“With two weeks before winter officially gets here, the radiator burns like its January…”, she trailed off somberly, listening to the polyrhythmic tap dancing of the rising steam.
Rubbing her forehead, the woman dropped her fork suddenly, ignoring the clank-clunk that came with its bouncing off the dish and onto the table, leaving reddish-brown markings of food-stuff on the slightly yellowed Formica. She rose to her bare feet and walked slowly toward the furthest corner of her confining studio apartment. The thermometer over the sink read 68 degrees, though she believed that the inexpensive thing was way off. It was all she could do to keep from throwing it out.
“Like a cell, just like a prison cell”, she thought inwardly, her body tensing as she exhaled through her teeth. As she walked, the woman’s shoulders were hunkered down defensively as if trying to avoid sudden attack, but she was unaware of this. The roundness of her back over the years had become common place. The curvature was, by this time, comfortable. Had she looked at her reflection as she passed the mirror tacked to the closet door, she may have thought of her mother who’d always brandished this tired posture. In fact, mother wore her fatigue like a badge of courage, a sure sign of one, “who never feared hard work”, she was wont to say. She usually said this in the same breath as, “whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”. Mother had worked as a cleaning woman by night, but raised four children by day, simply telling neighbors that she was a “home maker”. The term housewife never really fit mother, especially as father had never really been there.
No, the woman rarely took note of the mirror. It was usually easier to bypass it even in such a small space, as she walked by, cat like, with silent steps.
2. Night People--Pietaro
With no territory left to conquer, she rested her face against the cool glass window, almost as if it alone stopped her from continuing on, stepping out just beyond the tight walls about her. The gray-blue early winter sky hovered over Brooklyn like an imaginary landscape, a painted backdrop in an old movie.
The woman angled her eyes first up at the outline of Manhattan in the distance and then downward toward the harried five o’clock throngs moving in a confused unison toward the subway. From her sixth-floor “city view”—as the real estate agent glossily explained when she first came to see the apartment, then fresh with the smell of clean white paint—everything seemed slightly out of reach.
“Where you going? Where are you all going?, she said, more to the dusty glass than to those out of vocal range. “All noise, all rush, all the time”. She felt her belly tighten as she contemplated the anxious, quivering street scene below. She never liked to be crowded-in like that.
“Like drones moving around a beehive—that’s how they look. That’s exactly what they look like”, she said aloud while almost looking back at her faint, blurred reflection in the fogged glass. And then she echoed it again, downwardly this time: “That’s exactly what YOU look like”, but no one heard, no one responded.
So taken was she with this familiar late-afternoon display that she at first ignored the smell of the coffee pot, sitting atop a lighted pilot on her stove, beginning to burn.
“Damn”, she exclaimed, rushing across the room to the dining area that was separated from her living area by a couch and a throw rug. She got to the stove just as the bubbling brew streamed over the spout, hissing at her as the flames extinguished in the stream of browning fluid.
“Not my day”, she told the stove, “Not my day at all.”
She left the half-done pot of coffee on the simmering black metal and simply turned the stove-top switch to OFF. Better to leave this till later when she could think about it more clearly. “Too much going on just now”, she thought, shaking her head. “Definitely” she whispered aloud to the otherwise still room.
As day faded to black the woman clicked on the floor lamp that stood vigil by the couch. She drew the blinds tightly, shutting out the glare from the neon sign on the building’s edge. It seemed to offer an almost warming sensation to the room, oddly enough. She turned on the television which she insisted remain off during most of the day, afraid to become too comfortable in the bluish, flickering haze. She was hell-bent on not making the TV into her company, yet she invited its clash of programming and commercials into her secured hovel for a couple of hours at a time. After watching the news and part of a black and white movie on cable (something about truck drivers with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart), she turned the television off. It was 8:45PM. She rose, grabbed her coat from the small closet and buttoned it up to the neck. She wrapped her neck with a paisley scarf, pulled on her cap and grabbed her big shoulder bag, now ready to emerge.
3. Night People--Pietaro
The woman stepped out into the hallway, sounds from the other apartments bouncing off the hard tiled floor and tall ceiling. Bits of muffled conversation that are confounded by the barriers around her, the throb of music , a baby’s distant wail, arguments, laughter, and her neighbor Bill Lampert’s always-too-loud television cranked up for the sake of the hearing aid he keeps set too low, but maybe more for the sake of anyone who’s straining to listen to all that goes on behind closed doors. .
The smell of far-off cooking, saucey spices, permeates the halls as she waits for the elevator, as Lampert’s favorite show, blaring in the foreground, fights for her attention.
“God, why does it have to be Fox News of all things?, she thought as she stood impatiently waiting for the clicking old elevator, fending off the irritated rants of this or that right-wing pundit. Enjoying the strange smorgasbord of far-away foods still wafting in the air, she breathed deeply as the elevator suddenly appeared, ready to carry her down to the outside world.
The woman emerged from the building on the still-busy avenue, absorbing the blast of frosty air like a thirsty sponge. The damp breeze enlivened her and she looked about while making a rapid left turn to the next corner, moving-- in one felt swoop really--to the next block. Though it was late, the downtown streets were still busy. Christmas songs, usually that thing by Bing Crosby and David Bowie, alternating with Andy Williams, the Jackson 5, some contemporary dance acts and scratchy recordings of heavenly choirs, were everywhere, beckoning. Tired-looking newsstand owners were tying up papers as people were finishing up shopping, running out of neighborhood bars (after-work cocktails, of course) and standing on corners talking. Yuppies clashed with the community’s older residents, those who hung on for dear life as rents were going through the roof, and everyone had something to say, somewhere to go.
Three and one-half blocks later, quickly advancing into a quieter, more residential street, the woman was able to see a horizon where the rush, the voices, the noise, the crush came to an end . She headed that way, gulping deep breaths of chilly air as she moved toward the welcoming shadows.
The woman turned the next corner and melted into the cool blackness.