Sunday, January 11, 2009


Night-crawlers was the name given to the large worms that appeared only on certain summer nights. The long bulbous worms stretched themselves across a particular moist green lawn under a street light in our neighborhood. They were prized by the older guys as bait for fishing and we learned how to catch the worms from them. It involved grabbing the worm's exploratory end before it could rapidly retract itself back into the earth. Once grabbed you had to ease out the rest of its length or risk snapping it in two. It was marvelous game for a young boy and for once the somewhat cruel treatment of small creatures had a redeeming purpose.

The worms only came out later in the evening when it finally gets dark. Although any boy would have loved to take part, really only those of us with cool enough parents could be out that late. My Mother was among the coolest and my brothers and I gained the status of kids who could stay out late in the summertime. By association we were ourselves night-crawlers, and I have always remained one.
In this column allow me to ramble around in musing and anecdote on the subject of night-life. Perhaps I should confess right away that, although I on occasion still night-crawl, as I have matured I have evolved into something more aptly called a night-owl.

From quite a young age I was in competition with brothers two and four years older than I was, to postpone having to go to bed. As they conquered new later hours, I griped that I should be allowed to stay up late as well. As a last resort, I would sneak out from my darkened bedroom to watch TV from the threshold behind a chair. Because it was almost always television, that great opponent of wholesome bed times, that was the crux of the matter.
I remember the wild style of Friday night horror movie showcases on TV when my Mother would bail out early and my brother and I would stay up until midnight, the breakthrough of staying up that late. This naturally led to the nocturnal sybarite's other requirement-- sleeping late the next day.

And of course many more of the night's thrills would follow.

The stars and the planets were closer in those days, before night-time illumination pushed us into a mole-like existence, into a tunnel of ambient light pollution through particulate mist. One night we looked up at a designated time and saw a tiny traveling blip that was Sputnik or a maybe it was Telestar, the data flickers in the mists of time. This all took place in the common back yard of a housing development where a floating community of kids flourished. We were united in the egalitarian order of the night world, maybe after a game of hide-and-go-seek.
Sunday night when Walt Disney came on one or another kid's Mom would call him for it and all the kids would disperse to very similar home lives.

Trick-or-treating was a gas, a lot of home-made costumes in those days. The Hallowe'en archetypes frequently encountered included gypsy fortune tellers that could be boys in drag, hobos with burnt cork beards that could be girls, and candy-driven pirates, as well as the witches and ghosts. I remember my particular delight in seeing a backyard kid in perfect a beatnik get-up--striped boat neck shirt, fake goatee, sunglasses, sandals, and a black beret. "Hey, Daddy-o" he yelled to me. I suspect there was some sort of foreshadowing of my destiny in my immediate fondness for the Beat generation--their art-loving laziness, their kohl-eyed women pale as vampires, their rejection of the square life so full of tedium.

Just beyond the dark end of the street was a rough-hewn lot known as "the rocks" where Xmas-tree snowball forts were built and untold illicit kid rituals took place out of sight of parents. Alongside was an old New England estate with stone walls and a tall stand-alone wooden tower where actual bats were seen swiveling about. This was locus of our most haunted nocturnal imaginings. I can still feel the frisson I felt at the time while regarding the Goodrum house under a bright moon with its great trees newly bereft of leaves in the expressionism of the vast nights of childhood.

Once a week, on summer nights for a few years, block dances were held in the next yard. I stood still for a hair-combing and gleefully donned my Sunday pants to make the scene. I remember a friend getting red chino slacks and all my Mom scored for me was a black pair, being miffed about it-- what was I thinking?
These affairs consisted of light bulbs on wires strung between clothesline fences to create an enclosed "dance floor." The people running it hauled a record player outside and spun 45 rpm singles--""I Want to Walk You Home" by Fats Domino was huge. They operated a concession table next to it selling bags of potato chips and small bottles of coca cola.
I loved everything about it. I loved the suspension of everyday dullness and the great American pop and rock'n'roll music of the period. I enjoyed observing the ardent teen-age couples dancing and the bonhomie of the older, less steamy couples. And I wasn't one of the boys who watched shyly and did nothing--I got out there with a little girl and tried to learn to dance myself. An incipient Dionysian, I was again setting a pattern for life.

(more to come soon)