The first time my wife remembers being aware of the night was when she was a little girl and thought the darkness was a liquid, a flood tide overtaking the world.
“I was afraid I would drown in it,” she says.
If she wasn’t careful, it might seep under the window sash and fill her bedroom while she slept.
My experience was different. I grew up outside New York City, and for me, night was an empty container to fill with light. It wasn’t night that flowed, but rather the lights that were like opened faucets draining into the darkness, to be diluted by it. The view of the Manhattan skyline at night, seen from the New Jersey Palisades, was the most beautiful thing I knew. It glowed like embers.
Either way, night was something poetic, although we would never have used the term. When you are a kid, when everything is new, and everything is poetic, there is no humdrum, no banality, against which the poetic, the beautiful, can be offset. It is just the way things are.
Now, as a grown up, chastened and wary, night is the black velvet on which we place the emerald ring, to show off its brilliance. And night is the time that gives the day its mythic resonance. We do our work during the day, so that night can work on us.
I go walking in Paris at night, because that is when I feel most completely there. Paris becomes itself when the streets are dark, with storefront windows and the streetlamps pour forth their fluid light, diluted on the curbs and parked cars. I am washed in that thin light.
One feels most deeply the difference between Paris and New York. At night, Manhattan seems just as busy as it was earlier. Traffic is dense, pedestrians fill the streets. You can ride the subway at 2 in the morning and still see a car full of faces.
But, Paris at night is oddly empty, and what people you see are clustered around the steamed windows of cafes and bistros, or on the front steps of the opera house as it lets out, or waiting to get into the disco. It is almost as if these were the campfires that draw the bodies turned from the darkness.
You can walk down the streets and peer into the shop windows, with their wares lit and forgotten, as if the Rapture had occurred last week, and left behind the kitchen furnishings, or the bicycles, or books, and behind the glass, there is a humanless simulacrum of the world we know.
Or you follow some old man in a long coat as he turns the corner and walks down a dark street toward the next streetlight.
Paris is made more magical by the night. In October there is the slight bite to the air, and the rain makes pointillist mirrors of the pavement, redoubling all that dissipating light.
You wander into a Turkish souvlaki restaurant, a cheap storefront halfway down the street, and the man behind the counter is on the phone speaking some language you don’t know — it isn’t French — and he smiles at you as you sit on the molded plastic chair with the rocking table between you and your wife. The wall is bright yellow behind the glass counter, with garish purple writing offering the usual fare, lit with a glare. Gyros, souvlaki, pilaf. It is warm inside, and humid and the food is comforting.
Even the sound is different at night. Like the campfire, the sound is huddled, localized. In this restaurant, the sound is held in by the walls and front window. Outside it is silent once again.
There is cheer in the contact, and when you leave, there is an alive aloneness in the night street.
When I think of Paris, I think of it at night. I hear the voices and see the maitre pulling the Stella Artois from the tap. Most of the seat are empty and those filled are on the way home after a night at the cinema or theater. They may stop at the 8 a Huit for a pack of cigarettes. (Say it like “wee-a-wee,” it is the French equivalent of a 7-Eleven, only tighter packed and with one wall covered with wine bottles. The man sitting by the cash register is Algerian and tired after spending 12 hours in his shop.)
Compared to anything American, Paris is small. You can walk almost anywhere inside the Peripherique, and all the familiar signposts of the city are visible — Montmartre lit by floodlights on the hill, the Eiffel Tower turned into a fireworks display, the Palais Garnier pinned down by its own lights in the darkened city.
I love to get out into that night, and walk those streets, nodding to the proprietor of the flower shop as he stands by the door, stopping by the patisserie for the last pain au chocolate of the day, and finally passing the concierge of my hotel as he sits behind the desk, reading an Arab newspaper and drinking a small glass of Kirsch, not noticing me as I go through the lobby. Up the elevator, hardly bigger than a phone booth, and flipping on the timed hall light that busts open the darkness on my way to my room.
Out the window when I draw back the curtain, the city street is black, with highlights drawn by the lamps and the trees beneath my room shimmer in the light.