The Night Light
by Ryder W. Miller
For some reason, while I slept
through the night, he would keep the light in the kitchen on until the morning..
He did not offer an explanation.
Usually he would be taciturn or combative. When I considered approaching my roommate who had seniority in the apartment about
why he kept the light on, I was afraid he would be cross and angry. There was no explanation or rationale, but it did not
matter. I was not paying the electric and gas bill. If he wanted to stay up all night and keep the light on it was his decision.
It had been strange living
with him in the apartment. When I considered moving in earlier I had found him unusual and eccentric. He did seem like the
kind of person who would understand things, and usually he did. He was older and smaller, but he was also wiser. He had studied
things in college that at least were useful in the real world.
But he was also secretive
and judgmental. My big surprise in moving in was how angry he was. He had very negative beliefs about the state of The Union.
Things were so stupid and wrong. The country seemed so misguided. We were in a war in the Middle East that would never end.
He had taken the alternative radical journalism to heart. NPR would wake us up reminding us of the war in the Middle East
with all the suicide bombings and military reprisals.
At the early hours of the
morning: 19 killed in a suicide attack in Bershevah, 27 in Bagdad. We lived in Middle East by The Bay, but every day there
was a meaningless attack in the promised land. The horrific war seemed to go on without end, and then there was the wave of
hysteria which had everyone scared of the children. There were all those priests going to jail in Northern California. My
roommate had also been following this one well enough to win these arguments.
But the city was all the rage
about the new politics and terror. There were sneers for everyone. If you did not tip well at a restaurant or if you did a
better job than a coworker there would be a sneer for you. It was even in the news with newscasters assigning the blame. Maybe
it was unfair to blame the woman or call it hysteria, but they seemed so egged on in the city by the Estuary. They were pronouncing
judgement. We were all to blame. The times had changed.
Since he was smaller my roommate
would over compensate with anger and aggressiveness. I found out after I had moved in that he had been a boxer. Meanwhile
we all worried about child centered reprisals. Priests were going to jail and churches were being sued. There was rage on
the news. But there was something comforting about keeping the light on at night.
We lived in what was mostly
a Spanish neighborhood. We were white, and there were many like us in the hot new dot.com neighborhood, but we were part of
the gentrification. The rent was cheap enough for us to live in the neighborhood, but gang violence had driven people away.
When I had just moved to the city by the Estuary I had been attacked while looking at some murals at a school ground in neighborhood
at night. A few Spanish "gentleman" approached me as I looked at the murals, they were laughing, but one took out a weight
lifting belt and swang it and hit me on the head with the metal buckle. I was not knocked unconscious and after the hit I
ran out of the park. They had chosen not to pursue. I was left with a bump on my head, and lesson. I was shaken up by the
whole incident and was afraid that I could have been killed. I had seen violence in the neighborhood and suffered my share
But the neighborhood abounded
with new people moving into the new hot spot. The neighborhood also had an unremembered past with all sorts of closed movie
theaters in the area. One could walk down the main boulevard and see the remnants of what were movie palaces of the past.
It was like there was a bygone
era with its reminders that now no one remembered. Instead there were the gentrification struggles, and unpremeditated segregation.
The Mexicans would have their bars and the whites had their bars. But neither were very good places to look for woman. For
every ten guys there would only be a few women, and many of the woman were looking for other women, gays, rich people or people
One could live in the midst
of the night scene and still feel alone or not welcome. Crowds of disinterested strangers would gather at the bars. One would
need to pass them by as one made their way home along the same streets. It did not help that the main strip was along 14th
Street or between 14th and 18th. The whole Estuary area would at times frequent the area, but if one
did not know anyone they would be left alone despite all the fun being had.
The bars would close at 2am,
and the trains into the neighborhood earlier. There were times when one could smell all the alcohol on the streets. There
would even be the occasional beer pint glass left on the sidewalk. There were a few places where music played, but once one
was older it was usually more fun just to wait at home for a phone call with a good book. There was an age limit of sorts
in the neighborhood. Those hanging our until the trains stopped were usually younger than thirty. There was a separation line
in the neighborhood between the old and the young, especially the much older who were moving in the neighborhood due to social
living programs in the area. The strip was for those who had enough money to afford the bars.
There was a lot of life on
the streets for those who belonged. There was food, art, alcohol and music. Women were now wearing night gowns out, but I
realized that I no longer belonged. Walking down the streets I wished that I may bump into someone I knew or hoped for the
phone call to meet somewhere nearby, but for some that did not happen very often.
But there was fun to be had
at art openings or drinking on one's own. It cost a lot less money to drink alone than drink at a bar. One could find a bottle
of wine for less than five dollars or a strong beer for less than two dollars. If one mixed they were more likely to get wasted
earlier. Since different alcohols affected one differently, a combination could effect one in a number of different ways.
There was something about the world spinning that seemed to connect one with the larger cosmos out there.
One could sit at the bar alone
and experiment by drinking a few different drinks. If one was not paying for others one could afford to experiment by drinking
a few odd ones and see what would happen. It was only a short walk from the bars to the apartment, and I would love the feeling
of watching the room revolve as I laid down to sleep. I would usually be wasted early having taken advantage of the happy
hours in the neighborhood, but I would usually drink where white people drank, even if I would not find women there. The odds
of meeting a women at Spanish bar would be even worse.
I would come home smashed
and go to sleep at an early hour so I would be ready to work the next day. My roommate would usually be awake reading in the
next room. He was usually a quiet guy except when he wanted to play inspirational radical music in the afternoons or if he
was angry. I did not understand his anger most of the time. He expected me to understand things, but I preferred to zone out
with my reading, alcohol experiences, and my need for sleep. While I slept he would be awake reading into the early hours.
Most of the building was quiet at night.
We did not know a lot of people
in the building. There was a lot of turnover with people moving in and out of the apartments below. Often we would never meet
them. There would be the occasional party that we were usually by default invited to, but some parties were closed to the
neighbors and their friends. There was also a place to sit outside at street level, but the area was usually empty. It was
near where we threw out the garbage, and the few seats were dusty. There had been no building parties in the back yard unfortunately.
Meanwhile the prices were going up in the neighborhood. The gentrification was driving a lot of hispanics out of the city
and across the bay. There was something strange about the segregation in the neighborhood. It was almost as if there were
two separate communities in the neighborhood. There were the whites who were students, wannabies, artists, bohemians and working
class. There were also the Spanish. Only at the stores in the neighborhood would there be interaction. There was probably
some interaction in City Hall, but if one did not want to speak a second language one could co-exist with little interaction
in the neighborhood.
Our building was neighbored
by other buildings with residents we never met. In the courtyard we shared with the building to the east we could see the
few floors of neighbors and their inside windows and back doors. Rarely would there ever be an opportunity to meet our neighbors,
except maybe at the occasional garage sale, but it was usually white people who had garage sales. There was also street violence
in the area. At night one could hear fireworks and occasionally gun fire. During the weekends I would be far gone and sleeping
through such occurrences. Though we had very little to do with our neighbors to the east our roof was connected and only a
yard higher than theirs. There was a wonderful view of the downtown area from the roof. One could see the view during the
day despite the fog approaching from the west. The view from the roof was part of the reason why I moved into the apartment.
There was the city in all
its glory, but one could feel isolated here. I usually would talk to family on the portable phone on the roof not wanting
my roommate to hear all my conversations. It was not like I had anything to hide, I just wanted privacy, especially since
he was so competitive. I had decided to leave him alone and not interfere with his private life. He was not always angry.
He had helped me go through the transition from appreciating science to becoming part of the activist scene in the city. I
had learned how to find out about the protests and demonstrations going on in the city. That was one of the fun things about
being in the city. From the roof I could look out at the city, the wonderful city that people were willing to pay so much
money to live in. If one lost an apartment they would be priced out of the city.
There were different chapters
in my relationship with my roommate. We had met at work and he told me about the empty room in the one room apartment before
I moved in. His previous roommate had died. I was now living in the living room. But we did not get along well most of the
time. I enjoyed my sleep which was often escapist, and he would like to stay up late, sometimes waiting for phone calls.
I complained about the bill,
but he did not listen because he was paying it. But things would change between us. Now he was not around that much. He would
pay the rent and the Gas and Electric, but he had met a woman and was now living with her. We shared a phone and we could
leave each other messages, but I was not hearing from him very often. I would check my phone messages daily, but I would only
hear from him late in the month when it was rent time.
It was strange living in the
apartment alone. It was eerie because he with his anger could show up at anytime, but he had been on good behavior for a long
time now. He would still do what he needed to do, but he was very economical in his speech. He would complain about hearing
things he had already heard. He would also say only a few words and expect you to understand what he was saying. At times
he was not "really" there, and the apartment seemed less safe without his anger.
I remembered him saying that
he could hear people walking on the roof at night, but I did not think much about it. I did not understand what he meant,
but since he was no longer around I had to decide whether to keep the light on at night. Since he was no longer around I would
no longer go the roof as often to have a conversation on the portable with my family long distance. It was hard living in
the city alone. I would feel compelled to talk with family, but I was happy to take the cordless up to the roof. I would revel
being within in the view of the city skyline. I needed the privacy, but now he was gone and I could talk in the apartment.
The cordless had also died and now we, actually I, was stuck with a phone on a cord which was fine because I had the privacy
because he was gone.
I would talk less, because
with the apartment all to myself I felt less threatened. I was less often on the defensive because I was now alone.
I decided to turn the light
off at night to save money on the Gas and Electric bill for my roommate, but from my dark kitchen I could look out on the
courtyard we shared with the neighbors to the east and see their lights on. For a while I still wondered about the night light.
It was a way of saying someone was in the apartment, even if the light was left on all night. I still wanted our neighbors
to know that there was someone in the apartment so I would turn the light on sometimes when I got home, but I would also turn
it off before I went to sleep.
The neighbors would therefore
know that there would probably be someone in the apartment even if the lights were off. I decided to keep a weapon near my
bed in case I needed to protect myself. I had a wall hanger with a screw top that could screw into the wall or someone's flesh.
I had never been bothered by our neighbors, but it had been a while since my night owl roommate had slept in the apartment.
Then the landlord showed up
one Sunday and asked me to make a police report if I heard any noise on the roof.
"Catch them in the act," he
"But why?" I said deciding
not to make a police report.
The landlord was annoyed that
they would not listen to him and left to make the police report himself. I was not worried, but I occasionally heard people
on the roof. There were also fire escapes that led from the roof past my window down to the street.
I decided to visit the roof
which I now missed having not walked up there over the last six months. It was no longer empty. Someone had left bottles of
Mexican beer all over the roof. I could have been people in our building enjoying the roof or the neighbors in the building
to the east. The landlord said the drinkers were from next door. I suggested that he just remove the bottles rather than calling
I decided to sleep with the
wall hanger near my bed. I also closed the windows which led to the fire escape. I could keep the light on at night, to send
a warning, but then they would know when I was not there. My angry roommate who would stay up and read all night was no longer
home very often. If he was there he could turn on the light if he wanted to. I was surprised that I missed him. I needed my
sleep. If the light was off the neighbors, if they were also burglars, would have to figure out if I was there or not. There
had been something comforting about keeping the night light on, but now it would be off.
My roommate had suggested
that I read Proust and I came across a quote recently in a science fiction book that reminded me of T.S. Elliot's famous quote.
Proust had written: "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
Maybe we had been in danger
of our neighbors all along?
a light switch near my bed, also a weapon nearby if I needed it. I would be very angry if I was woken
from my sleep.
W. Miller 2007