Open All Night
Late nights, sleeplessness, and stories have always gone together for me. I was reminded of this recently as I accompanied a photographer on overnight shoots at Kenyon, listening to students' stories and recalling my youthful nocturnal ramblings. As a twentysomething student living in New York City, I read Persuasion in a twenty-four-hour coffee shop and finished the last two hundred pages of Moby-Dick on the Staten Island ferry, which in those years you could ride all night for a quarter as long as you didn't get off when the ferry docked. A long winding bus route like the M5 was ideal for parsing the intricacies of Donne's prose. Shakespeare I read on the subway, where the rhythm of the rumbling express swooped the iambic pentameter into its race. When the hurtling train reached full speed, the lines thundered in my head and I could no longer say which was transporting me.
Other people's stories found their way to me in small lighted outposts surrounded by urban darkness. Like the coffee shops, people stay open late at night, and their unexpected tales tumbled forth like gifts. A Holocaust survivor seated next to me at a coffee counter told me of her childhood home in Germany, its parquet floors, the gleaming wooden staircase, a beloved piano. First the home and the piano were taken by the Nazis, then her family. When she reached out for her cup, I saw the blue numerals on her arm. "I tell you this because you need to know these things," she said. We embraced. Later that spring, I saw her sitting on a bench in the park one afternoon. We were both different in the daylight.
On the Friday night of a Thanksgiving weekend, past midnight, a friend and I were walking through Union Square as a figure came toward us. The man was unshaven and walked quickly, bent forward, with his eyes cast down like he was scanning for pennies. Momentarily, however, he looked up and caught our glance. As though this brief eye contact were a signal, he stopped in his tracks and started to talk.
His tale began in Europe during World War II when he served in "the A.A., anti-aircraft, y'know." He had made a pact with his closest buddy that if one died and the other lived, the survivor would visit the family of his friend when he got back to the States. It had fallen to his lot to honor the pact. He traveled to Indiana on Thanksgiving weekend, where he gave his friend's grieving family a diary kept by their son and preserved by the faithful comrade who now presented it to them. The family invited him to share their mournful Thanksgiving feast. Every subsequent return of the holiday revived the memory.
He fixed us with his eye and said he'd figured out that yesterday must have been Thanksgiving, because "the kind ladies" had come around to the underpass near the Con Edison building where he lived homeless with some others. The women gave them plates loaded with turkey, potatoes, dinner rolls, so he knew it was Thanksgiving. The meal was wonderful, tasted almost as good as the one he'd had in Indiana, those many years before.
"Well, I'll take no more of your time," he said, having unburdened himself of this tale. He thanked us for listening and started back off into the night, a man who had served his country and now had nothing but a piece of cardboard between himself and the ground to call home. He spoke with neither bitterness nor self-pity.
It has been thirty years, but a Thanksgiving does not go by that I do not remember his story. And perhaps that's why he told it. As listeners, as readers, we enter into a kind of pact with the tellers of tales. We become the stories' keepers, extending their lives and memories. And when we relate them in turn, it is as though we had passed along the diary of a fallen soldier, preserved the losses of a bereft daughter, or once again brought to life in our imaginations the rantings of a mad captain or the soliloquy of a deposed king. All it requires is for us to stay open all night.
--Amy Blumenthal is the associate editor of the Bulletin. She no longer reads on the subway, but she still enjoys Shakespeare in her Columbus, Ohio, home with her husband, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, who teaches Shakespeare at Kenyon.
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