Insomniac City

Insomniac City
(Originally published in the NY Times)

I moved to New York a year ago and felt at once at home. In the haggard buildings and bloodshot skies, in trains that never stopped running, like my racing mind at night, I recognized my insomniac self. If New York were a patient, it would be diagnosed withagrypnia excitata, a rare genetic condition characterized by insomnia, nervous energy, constant twitching, and dream enactment. An apt description of a city that never sleeps, a place where one comes to reinvent himself.

I brought very little with me, in part because I wished to leave behind reminders of the life I’d had, but also for more practical reasons. My new home was a virtual treehouse, a tiny top-floor walk-up apartment at eye-level with the Ailanthus boughs. There was not room for more than a desk, a chair, a mattress. Nor, a need: You see, the place came furnished with spectacular views of Manhattan.

What I didn’t know when I rented the place was that the French restaurant located straight below my apartment had outdoor seating till 2 a.m. Lying awake in bed, I could literally hear glasses clinking, toasts being made, six stories down. This was irritating at first. But it wasn’t long before I discovered a phenomenon heretofore unknown to me: Laughter rises. Hearing happy laughing people is no cure for insomnia but has an ameliorative effect on broken-heartedness.

Sometimes I’d sit in the kitchen in the dark and gaze out at the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. Such a beautiful pair, so impeccably dressed, he in his boxy suit, every night a different hue, and she, an arm’s length away, in her filigreed skirt the color of the moon. I regarded them as an old married couple, calmly, unblinkingly, keeping watch over one of their newest sons. And I returned the favor. I would be there the moment the Empire State turned off its lights for the night, as if getting a little shut-eye before sunrise.

Here’s another wonder I discovered about life here: In the summertime, late into the night, some leave behind their sweat-dampened sheets to read in the coolness of a park under streetlights. Not Kindles, mind you, nor i-Phones. But books. Newspapers. Novels. Poetry. Completely absorbed, as if in their own worlds. As indeed, they are. I had never seen anything like this until I took a shortcut through Abingdon Square Park one night while walking off my own mild agrypnia.

First I saw an old man reading a newspaper from which someone (his wife?) had snipped numerous articles; it looked like a badly botched doily. I tiptoed past, as if wearing slippers, and he, as if at home in his La-Z-Boy, did not glance up.

Next I spotted a young man reading a paperback with a distinctive brick-red cover. I was pretty certain I knew what classic he had in hand but had to make sure. I fake-dropped my keys nearby and crouched down for a better look. Just then, the young man shifted in his seat, denying me absolute proof. That’s O.K. I was left to imagine him imagining himself as Holden Caulfield.

At the far end of the park, I found a middle-aged woman bathed in light Vermeer would have loved, reading what looked like a textbook. Was she a teacher preparing for tomorrow’s class, a student cramming last-minute, or neither of these? Perhaps she was simply teaching herself.

Of course, not everyone awake at this hour is an insomniac. The city is alive with doormen, delivery boys on bikes, street sweepers, homeless people, hustlers, prep cooks popping up out of trap doors in the sidewalk. I make a point of waving or nodding hello when I can. I have come to believe that kindness is repaid in unexpected ways and that if you are lonely or bone-tired or blue, you need only come down from your perch and step outside. New York — which is to say, New Yorkers — will take care of you.

One night not long ago I was walking down Hudson Street when I spotted a dollar bill on the sidewalk. Even at my age, 49, such a find seems magical. Free money! I leaned down to pick it up just as a woman opposite me was doing the same thing: “A dollar,” I heard her murmur, and our heads practically bumped. We both laughed. I happened to reach it first, but it seemed ungentlemanly to take it. “Here, it’s yours,” I said, offering it to the woman.

“No! No, it’s yours, you got it first.”

“No, I insist, you take it,” I said, but by this point, she was walking away, arm in arm with a handsome man; she already had her prize. Suddenly, inspiration struck: “I’m going to leave it for someone else!” I called back to her.

“Perfect!” she said, over her shoulder. “Good night!”

I dropped the dollar back onto the sidewalk. It was liberating: To throw money away or, more accurately, throw it to the fates, as I had with my life by moving to New York City.

I walked a few steps and, I kid you not, hid behind a tree to watch what would take place. One couple passed by without noticing the dollar, then another. Finally, a man about my age came walking in my direction. Hunched shoulders, troubled look, pulling on a cigarette. Definitely an insomniac, I thought. I want you to have it. It’s yours. You deserve it.

From my secluded vantage point, I watched as the fellow spotted the dollar. He stopped, looked around to see if anyone was in the vicinity. Perhaps someone in front of him had dropped it? No, the sidewalk was empty. He picked up the dollar and pocketed it with a small smile then went on his way. As did I, back to my treehouse.

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