Swans Commentary » swans.com May 5, 2014  



Insomnia, The Wee Hours, & The Furthest City Light


by Glenn Reed





Author's note:  This piece was written in the early morning hours of a mid-February day in Skagit County, Washington.


(Swans - May 5, 2014)   I am aiming for the furthest city light. I've seen a figure standing in its glowing circle, nodded to him, and not spoken a word.

But I've not found that furthest city light. I'm walking and walking and it keeps beckoning at the point where this street, this broad avenue, stabs at the blackness.

The city lights converge there and are sucked in as if it's a black hole, where time and space and Big Gulp specials take on supernatural, unearthly, Stephen Hawking book qualities.

And it's not really a city street at all. Is it a boulevard in "suburbia?" I don't know.

And it's...

I have outwalked the furthest city light

...to be more accurate.

All kudos to Bob. I'm trying hard to acquaint myself with his shadows and sorrow. But it all becomes a loop, from last line to first to last again. My own shadows and sorrow trip me up. They give me no lines worth repeating except in my own head.

And it's not any watchman at all. Though I know they're out there. Perhaps in the gray light and mocking echoes of that big box store. Sipping bad coffee and checking the locks and such. Or they peer out in dying gasps from the Dime Saver shopper that's coated with boot prints on the cement sidewalk in front of the bus stop or that are piled in the newspaper box at the front of the Safeway, entangling fingers and pocketbooks and ATM cards in the spiderweb of a Shelob from The Lord of the Rings. You know those fantasy novels where the furthest city lights hover at the edge of adventure and danger and goblins. And the occasional stupid troll, speaking in page 20 burbles and swinging a digital club.

Do they even call them watchmen anymore? Wasn't that a Marvel Comics super-hero? Or one of those semi-tragic heroes who was often villainous, and prone to rages that turned him or her green with envy and trashing every pawn shop and sports bar in sight?

No, it's security guard now. Same job, I believe. Nothing much different. Walk around all night long with some type of weapon or not. Video cameras right and left, of course. Massive surveillance systems. But what kind of shoes?

Old running shoes on my feet. The array of outlets spread along the avenue mock me. They speak in a consumer code, like the hieroglyphics of ancient civilizations, the pictographs on rocks in the Australian Outback or deep in the mazed recesses of an Egyptian pyramid where explorers mummify forever with their curiosity.

Or, at least one can imagine these outlets and box stores evoking such a response a thousand years from now. What purpose could this site possibly have had, they may wonder? Why did millions make the trek to such places, filled with countless totems or tokens or idols or sacrifices or whatever the hell they were, and then just leave again?

More likely they'll just curse the stupidity and piss on the graves of that stupidity. Assuming, of course, that these places aren't just underwater.

Security guards. Worn out running shoes. The night is tangential even as this avenue is not. It remains its eight lanes wide, riding the neon glow, buttressed with the expanses of paved parking lots and corralled plots of ornamental shrubs with the grass forever an inch and a half high.

It's well past midnight. If there are security guards, they aren't walking the beat anywhere in sight, but sequestered in those leviathan complexes, oblivious to old "Twilight Zone" episodes or "Night of the Living Dead" sequels where men's wear or kitchen appliance departments become last refuges of civilization or Krispy Kreme donuts the final suppers of nuclear holocaust scenarios and cockroach migrations. Instead, there are the occasional patrol cars bisecting the northbound lane one minute, then cruising down the southbound lanes a while later.

Time passes. A while. Not sure if it's the same patrol car or what a "while" is. The night remains the same pitch, the digital clocks clogged with the inertia, the neon pulsations, the bland uniformity. One block and a Wells Fargo clock indicates 1:10 a.m. And then....

....and then a patrol car passes northward, followed a while later by an SUV shaking with rap music and then some van with a corporate logo comes out of the mall entrance and the faces of the drivers are indistinct features chiseled into black. The dull haze envelopes the damp bench where I sit next to the manicured plot of grass near the planted and pruned trees with the wood chips neat in a circle below.

I'm 17 and it's a hot summer night in Boulder, Colorado, and my head swivels through the murk and it's a cool autumn night in Seattle, and a sprinkler goes off and it's an icy December night in Denver with strange people filing out of bars, or I'm in college again and leaving my janitorial gig at a pizza chain and then the rain stops and I'm here, the seat of my pants is wet, the chill air seeps through the tattered, woolen jacket, my feet are aching, but I have yet to walk past the furthest city light.

And a patrol car passes southward, so I get up, not knowing if I'm suspicious or if a watchman would be wary of my figure if one even existed or if we would nod or not or if the policeman in the vehicle nodded at me and moved onward.

At some time or other I wonder why there seem to be no bars along this stretch. The chain restaurants, muffler shops, gas station, hardware stores, big box stores, big malls, and little retail strips are clearly geared towards the day people, the weekend people, the after-work-run-to-the-store people, the people exiting the interstate for a quick fix of fat- and salt-laden fast food or to fill their tanks and buy a Diet Coke and Snickers bar for the road.

A quick beer might give me some respite from this trek from one streetlight to the next, from one Walk/Don't Walk pedestrian sign to another; might urge the murk further forward, dissolve the vantage points in my head until a walk in Boston becomes a walk in San Francisco becomes a walk in Tacoma.

I think that a quick beer might dull things more so that the night becomes even more of a dream and I can emerge afterward to a sunny day or a waiting car to take me to my comfortable little home on the hill or to the supermarket to pick up the bottle of fine wine that my partner requested to celebrate a new job or another degree or an acceptance letter for a novel that's bound to be on The New York Times best seller list.

But after a couple of miles, or some distance measured in back aches and shoe tyings, it strikes me that no one would ever consider such a non-descript stretch of mind-numbing sameness as a destination point, even as a place to drown sorrows with a local microbrew, big-screen TV blaring whatever major league game is in season, and the click of pool balls and clink of bartenders cleaning glasses in the background.

In fact, with the avenue of job rejections papering the boulevard behind me, and lead articles in The New York Times squelching all hope on a daily basis, and spewing of politicians and Wall Street sycophants laying down more immobilizing asphalt over the victims of their perverted assaults on humanity, it seems fitting that there will be no relief in this one-way stretch, this...

...broken jaw of lost kingdoms

No, that's Tom. My apologies, Bob, though you two may have met on a lonely street somewhere.

With this thought, I turn around, a sprinkle of rain tapping my shoulders. A while later a homeless young man seated on the curb on the approach to a bridge over the Skagit River offers me a donut. Another fated bridge is in eyesight to the west. Part of me can still smile at this offering.

The furthest city light has won again. Or maybe not.


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About the Author

Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art20/glennr36.html
Published May 5, 2014