A couple of weeks ago I went to a waterpolo match between the men’s national teams of the USA and Italy. My university in California hosted the event. If you don’t know anything about waterpolo, it looks like a cross between rugby and soccer and is played in an Olympic-sized pool by massive men in Speedos and shower caps. I’ll leave that without commentary, although when I looked up whether to refer to the contest as a match or a game, I found this on Wikipedia: “The team with the most goals at the end of the game wins the match.” That, too, I’ll leave without commentary.
My point is not about waterpolo and how the Americans won but what happened afterward. I went to the event with friends from New York and we had drinks and dinner afterward. Even though we finished late, I left my car at the university and walked home. I do that a lot, since I live just under three miles from campus and like the exercise.
Some people may find walking after midnight strange, even dangerous, but I am used to it. I’ve walked late at night in places as diverse as the Bronx, Washington, DC, Manila, Istanbul, Abidjan, Nairobi, Guatemala City, San Salvador, Rome, Buenos Aires, Santiago, São Paulo, and places in between.
I’m not bragging. In fact, it’s a miracle nothing happened to me in any of those places. I chalk it up to a combination of divine protection and what self defense experts call “situational awareness.” Still, I may have gotten out of some scrapes through cluelessness rather than awareness. A stroll through a housing project in the Bronx comes to mind. Of course, I had to do it with a five-hundred dollar, leather book bag just to make things interesting. It’s possible that I really do become invisible at times like those (see Ye Olde Cheese Shop).
Not all of my night walking has been in the city. I’ve roamed the hill country of southern Italy where wild boars snorted in the bushes. I’ve wandered the pine barrens of South Jersey guided only by a sliver of moon. I’ve walked on an unlit, gravel road around a lake in Tikal, Guatemala convinced that a big cat stalked me. Whether jaguar or cougar, I do not know. Nor did I care. I scanned the trees overhead and protected my neck until I made it back to my cabin.
Sometimes when I walk at night I think of Freddie Gonzalez. He was one of the boys from Willowbrook State School my grandmother cared for (see “McNamara’s Boys”). I remember spending the night at my grandmother’s once and Freddie coming back late that night cut up and bleeding. He had been in a fight and someone pushed him through a storefront window. I had mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I pitied him because of his injuries. On the other, I admired him for being “out there” on city streets. It took courage and he suffered the consequences with my grandmother and the school.
You might be tempted to think that the differences between night walking and day walking have to do with the contrast between light and dark, work and rest, coming and going. Those differences exist, to be sure, but the night is more nuanced than that. As I walk and–eventually–sweat, I remember events and people from my past, some of whom I will never see again, which saddens me. Night walking gives me a chance to do what the Jesuits call an “examen” or review of the day with its good and bad events as well as the role I played in both.
Night walking makes you aware of life and death. You see things at night that you’d never notice in the glare of day. You hear things that daytime drowns out. You peer into the dark, into those quiet corners where death resides. And, like death, night walking is intimate and intense at the same time. With nearly every step you feel the weight of your own mortality.
Image credits: feature by Simon Launay; city street by Patrick Tomasso. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”