It started in my earliest memories, with walks around the town I grew up in. On humid summer nights, or after December snowfalls, I'd walk the 15 minutes down to the windswept Main Street, a line of brick storefronts anchored at one end by the power plant that forever belched out white steam. Each dimly lit shop window held a certain mystery. Cheap leatherette couches and diabetic footwear for the elderly Middle Westerners. Model train and car displays-- my favorite as a boy, a little scene of the Iowa Highway Patrol pulling over the General Lee, Bo and Daisy Duke with their hands on the asphalt. Dusty posters advertising all-inclusive resort packages on a sun-drenched islands, a faraway and carefree wonderland of graceful palm trees and velvet-soft surf.
And just as compellingly there were what seemed to be the outer fringes of the adult world. The dingy biker bars with front doors reeking of stale beer, the clack of a pool balls, Appetite for Destruction playing from a jukebox, the loud noises of house parties with people in the half-light out by a keg on chilly autumn evenings, blowing exhalations of smoke out across garage lights. One bar had an always-shut black door... a topless place, a strip club, never was sure what it was, but there were a million rumors about it in the 5th grade. And at the end of the street, there was the tattoo parlor at the end of the street with a hand-written sign reading “We have the right to refuse service to assholes,” and I thought... my god... you're allowed to use words like that on signs!
When I saw like the cowboy-looking dudes I saw drinking coffee at all-night diners, their inner thoughts seemed to synchronize with the wail of the Chicago Northwestern freight trains that barreled through town. And in my room, I would look at Edward Hopper figures, and knew that the term “Nighthawks” captured something I wanted to be a part of.
The small child grew into the awkward adolescent, and his walks became longer. He knew more of the realities that he'd seen in neon colors when he was younger. The clerk behind the gas station counter no longer seemed knowing, but like a dropout with a stringy goatee and a couple prison tats. The old man waiting for the train to pass was no longer an old sage, but a burned out case, reliant on a dwindling pension, a couple illegitimate children in another town he barely remembers the name of. And in retrospect, I try to think how I must have looked, a hulking, tall, fat, solitary teenager, walking rapidly down late-night alleys, seemingly disoriented from the world, lost in the Radiohead CD I was listening to, someone best avoided.
Now, it would seem that the streets of a city at night have lost all mystery. I can go into the bars whenever I damn well please, can stay out until sunrise. In other words, to fully engage with the adult world.
But a fragment of the mystery remains. All it takes is the mosquito-swarmed light of a noodle shop, or a second-floor room not entirely hidden by drapes, to remind me of the image of a city by night, that photonegative image that haunts my early memories.