Monday, September 25, 2006

Night light

THE MAJOR difference between walking by day and by night is you don’t see the dust.

Day-people, accustomed to carrying on with their business according to the sun’s appearance, presume that to walk in the dark means to rely more than ever on the eyes.

Not at all.

The eyes do have some use at night. For instance, I peer and squint at the traffic rushing towards me. To be caught, frozen like an animal, in the path of a speeding ten-wheeler wouldn’t do. The consequences would render moot the very purpose for walking at night: to escape dehydration, sleep better, live longer, and so on.

However, unlike daytime, when light drenches everything and walking becomes an unequivocal negotiation from point A to point B, night light is less reliable. It has a nonspecific quality that sight alone cannot decipher, let alone impose on any order.

Like animals, people navigate the night by adapting all their senses, not just a feeble pair of eyes.

Beginners choose to walk in well-lighted places where they can “see” the path. Why do I feel unsettled then when I step into the sea of light flooding a gas depot or refilling station? Blazing away in the night, these are bizarre oases, devoid of life.

It is the wells of darkness—huge chunks gouged out in the urban landscape by shadows and the beings subsisting on them—that give me relief: I am not alone; there are Others.

Ignored and avoided by day, skywalks are chokepoints at night. Anticipating the cardiovascular points I score each time I ascend the steep stairs, I sometimes nearly step on someone squatting in the way, enjoying the air, taking a call on her mobile phone, eyeing this interloper with the watchful silence of creatures set off from the dark by gradations of intensity.

Sight fails me then. Smell takes over. Freshly shampooed hair, cigarette smoke, gel on hair, vomit, urine, feces—wafted in by the night wind, these signal that even the dark is a densely settled place in the city.

At night, proof of life is interpreted in the reverse, the way a positive print emerges from a negative. Doorways lit up by colored baubles of light are screened by opaque shadows. Only occasionally is a shock of flesh bared when a bored worker steps out, enjoying a breather from the slow pace at the tables inside.

It is the dark that sets off best the lighted screens and keypads of the mobile phones held in many hands. A street vendor heats water, breaks an egg, scoops out noodles for roadside diners without taking her eyes off her phone. Is this a city of people or one of phones with human carriers?

It is false to think that cities never sleep. Certain night lights are turned off as the night deepens. Stores close. Eateries douse the last ember. If this city sleeps, another one wakes up and takes its place.

Sidewalks covered in fruit, gadgets and street food by day metamorphose with different offerings at night, here and there broken by the carton-wrapped sleeping forms of the homeless.

In the yellow glare of street lamps, I walk towards a man swinging a plastic bag containing a pair of shoes. Another person walks by with the same package, and then another.

I pause before a whole block covered from end to end with men’s shoes. A child squats nearby. Hunched from either the cold or hunger, she watches her tray of balut (delicacy of day-old chicks).

In the glare of the sodium lamp, we are a jaundiced lot, shoes, girl, eggs and I. When night turns into day, where will we disappear to: shoes, girl, eggs and I?

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