Nighthawks, & Loneliness
If you want to know what animals roam your land after sunset, you’ll need to build a drift fence, a sampling technique biologists favor. They use drift fences to determine what amphibians and reptiles live in an area, all too often an area about to succumb to development.
A drift fence is essentially a wall—a barrier of canvas or aluminum flashing, 18 inches or so high and as long as you like. It’s the animal world’s version of the Berlin Wall. Along the fence’s length, every fifteen feet, biologists sink five-gallon buckets flush with the ground. When animals, “soft eyes open,” make their moves through the forest pursuing their habitual animal quests, the fence herds them along its edge. Suddenly, they drop into a bucket, surprised to meet other animals unlike and alike themselves.
Every morning the biologist checks his buckets. He identifies and records what animals live in the woods. Do this enough and he can survey the area quite nicely. There are drift fences for people too. People wander throughout the evening and drop in them all the time.
We call them bars.
Many a night, I’ve headed out into the night checking the buckets to see what, exactly, has dropped in for the evening.
Quite a cast of characters drifts into bars, each with a story to tell. Some are raconteurs—great storytellers. Others, especially women, prove reticent, but upon learning their newest neighbor at the bar writes for a living, the veil lifts. There’s something about being a writer that leads people to confide in you. James Dickey talked to me about this phenomenon, how writers “get real involved in people, their personalities, and troubles. God knows,” he said, “a writer has got to be a sort of lay psychiatrist, a legal counselor, and everything you could possibly imagine.”
Confessions pour as freely as the drinks in bars late at night. Mostly these night drifters are fighting off an affliction called loneliness, and they’re eager to talk … “sharing a drink they call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone” … here “to forget about life for a while.” They come to practice the art of conversation and now and then—when the stars align—to be plucked from the bucket.
People open up in bars like no other place. That’s why they come: to talk about life and to hear about yours. And they’ll talk to you like they’ve known you for years. An instant rapport takes place. You’ll hear confessions, you’ll hear of tremendous defeats and losses. As trite as it is, “He left me for his secretary” is an all-too-familiar sadness counterbalanced by fascinating events far beyond your small world.
One night I was having dinner with a woman at a nightspot when a man who looked like Jack Nicklaus sat next to us. Like Nicklaus, he was from Ohio. We began to talk. Turns out he was a diver, and what tales he told.
He and a co-worker had dove deep into the North Sea and were working on an oil production platform when a distant-but-deep, thundering rumble began. The volume grew, and the men didn’t know what to make of it. This crescendo unnerved them. Was it an undersea earthquake? Whatever it was, they knew it wasn’t good. On it came, closer and closer and louder until their heavy diving suits trembled. Then, materializing from the cold, dense seawater, an apparition glided by mere yards beyond their lifelines: a Russian nuclear sub, its red star unmistakable on the conning tower.
“Fast Eddie,” as I came to call him, then turned to treasure hunting in the Caribbean. He had salvaged Spanish doubloons, swords, and cannon balls. “I’d love to see some Spanish doubloons,” I said, thinking he was a phony after that wild submarine tale. In a flash, he was out the door. A few minutes later he came back and spread doubloons, a sea-encrusted sword, and cannon balls on the counter.
One evening, I met Paolo, a native of Milan, in a neighborhood pub. It was a chance meeting while we each were having dinner. We became friends. We began to meet and talk about life here and life in Italy, and our conversations revealed new worlds to each of us. We made it a habit to meet often.
Urbane, Paolo loves discussing his adoration for women. One night he told me that he especially liked women with generous derrières—he held his hands apart a good distance. As he talked, I spied a large-bottomed woman across the restaurant talking to a couple in a booth. Leaning over, she fit Paolo’s criterion.
“So, Paolo,” I said, “how about that lady? Is she your type?”
Paolo put down his glass to study the woman. He cocked his head side to side, much as a curious dog does, as he continued to examine her. Then, in his heavy accent, he said, as earnest as a preacher, “Noooooooo, eet does not have the prop-er ten-sion.”
Of course, not all moments in the human drift fences are so adventurous or humorous. There’s an iconic painting by Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, one of American art’s most recognizable paintings, a painting of a couple and a man sitting at the bar of an all-night diner. One man sits alone. The people have spent a long night out on the town. It’s late. Very late. Something about that painting portrays loneliness and if you’ve never seen it, you should. Hopper admitted that “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”
Whenever I look at Nighthawks (and I do so often), I think of lonely people I’ve met. Of course, you meet people who are happy in pubs, sports bars, the old speakeasies of years gone by, but you meet sad people too, hapless souls, emotional drifters. The saddest are the ill-starred, women in their 40s and early 50s who woke up one day to discover themselves stranded like shipwrecked sailors. Their husbands abandoned them in the prime of their life. For one, it was a heart attack. For another, a stroke, and another, a car wreck. Some take other women. It’s life’s longest-running soap opera.
A pleasant desperation cloaks these women. Life has forced them to begin anew, but alas, time is short. They try too hard. Carol told me, “I never thought, at my age, that I’d be alone. I’m scared and I don’t know what to do. I really don’t want to date again but I don’t want to be alone.” Tears welled up in her blue eyes, and all I could do was to tell her she was beautiful.
Like autumn leaves, some of these women are stunning but soon to fall, coming down to earth in more ways than one, and they know all too well that someday, like fallen leaves, they’ll wither. For these women jolted by love’s sudden loss, life is like walking through a city razed by war. Their world is unrecognizable, but they are survivors, hopeful of another chance, sharing a drink they call loneliness.
Of course, the puritanical types label people that go to bars as bums, losers, alcoholics even, but that’s unkind and naive. These same people go to church and hold professional positions. They have children, grandchildren even, and their number? It’s legion.
To be human is to need the company of other humans, and life alone night after night extracts a toll. “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty,” said Mother Teresa. If you live alone, you know what she meant. If you live and work alone you know for sure.
Drift fences … some of us need to be surveyed now and then. Some of us need to go where conversations flow like wine, where lonely souls find a tonic for their loneliness. Some of us need to be picked up from the bucket’s bottom. Loners, drifters, those abandoned, and nighthawks need a haven … a place to drop in and make the evening shorter, more interesting. Among the moody tables, along the clamorous barstools and in the cozy booths what matters are the spirits, not those in the glittering, beautiful bottles, but those in wandering souls.