After Dark After Dark

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After a year of largely non-chaperoned adolescent late-night partying in the streets of Spains third largest city, I found myself back in suburban Texas, a teenager faced with a firm 11 p.m. curfew. Repeated and increasingly confrontational pesterings regarding this reversal of fortune finally elicited what was my fathers Last Word on the subject:

"Because nothing good ever happens after midnight."

Its a popular notion with children of safer times, a gospel preached by parents coalitions and innumerable horror films, and one thats gaining credence as crime statistics continue to rise.

However, you cant tell that to a kid already entranced by the night, one in whom an affinity for after-dark roaming has long been nurtured. Trick-or-treating and flashlight tag had given way to ducking out of the school dance and escaping the backyard tent to wander and indulge an overactive, night-fired imagination.

As an adult, of course, I can appreciate my fathers fear of the nights unpredictability, of a million things beyond his, or my, control.

The trouble I wanted to get into was infinitesimal compared to the trouble that could happen.

But I had to see what was out there.

Countless sneak-outs, phoned-in excuses and incidents of outright defiance convinced me that my father was wrong. Midnight was when the weird shit happened, stuff that would never transpire in daylight's plain view, and weird could definitely be good. The distance between standing in front of your school at 3 p.m., and staring up at it at 3 a.m., is roughly the distance between Phoenix and the dark side of the moon. Everything from the acceptably mundane to the staggeringly boring becomes exotic, the same old pieces suddenly fitting together in an intriguing new way. Naturally, my nocturnal sojourns included the usual coming-of-age stuff. Getting dropped off at the liquor-free youth dance, and getting picked up five minutes later by my ride to the real party; trying to get girls of reputedly greater romantic experience to go into graveyards and abandoned houses.

There were also the occasional acts of vandalism, more a result of boredom than any real malice. I tossed my share of toilet paper. I injured my share of mailboxes, some critically. I shoe-polished my share of windshields.

But I also spent a lot of nights just, you know, walking around, rediscovering my environment in a new light, or more appropriately, a new lack of it. Checking out the differences, feeling the expansive joy of illicit freedom and an endless curiosity.

The earliest hours render the most familiar landscapes strange, from a neighbor's front yard to the open-air amphitheater where you would later be your best friend's best man. Long before I was old enough to drive, I knew I wasn't ever going to visit the moon or raid an Incan temple for a golden idol. But I could slither out my window after my folks were asleep and always find an intriguing new stage for small adventure, watching the shadows carefully and willing a plot to unwind out of the dark and stretch its legs.

Sometimes it was with a friend or two, maybe passing a tallboy back and forth, talking about things we never would, were it not four in the morning. About religion, about the future, about our folks, about embarrassments we had endured that had been clamoring for release. Open sky, open-ended schedule, open mouth.

We'd often head for places where other night-freaks congregated, convenience store parking lots, all-night restaurants, fishing piers, every town's ubiquitous version of Stoner Park.

We'd walk for miles, and hours. Pointing out the homes of people we knew and talking outrageous shit about their occupants. Standing outside pitch-black elementary school playgrounds and freaking ourselves out to the sound of the swing-chains in the wind. Daring each other to walk through culverts or a particularly menacing stretch of woods. Peering inside darkened windows at nothing, for the thrill of possibly being caught.

With the last years of my teens came a much more social kind of nightlife, and a certain goal-oriented pragmatism. I went out to find something to do, to hang out with a bunch of other people my age looking for something to do, to have organized fun, to get laid. Introspection grudgingly lent time to the emerging extrovert, the one looking for a connection to those for whom accompanied and well-lighted was vastly preferable to alone in the dark. The monster didn't get me. Cool. It's Miller time.

Still, there's always a little defeat in stepping out of the night into the brightly lighted throng, then into the night again, now boxed in, pumped full of activity, made wholly manageable. A feeling of embracing some atavistic dread, of volunteering to huddle with the herd near the fire that keeps the unknown at bay. There's nothing wrong with Seventh Avenue, if that's all you want out of the night.

Adulthood doesn't kill the imagination. Fear does. Fear is the deadweight that eventually pulls all of the fantastic improbabilities down to where worry eclipses hope: Sheila's not late because she got hung up at the DMV; Sheila's late because she was carjacked by zombies who have surely devoured her brain by now.

If imagination is a motivator — and it is, it's the thing that got us from flinging poo and worshipping lightning to iced drinks and cyber-sex — then fear is paralysis. We live at a time when events beyond our control find us ever more numb to positive possibilities rather than to negative ones. Homes in little burgs like San Antonio, Fla., and Minot, N.D., have "this residence protected by" signs in their yards, and the action news at 11 is always ready to show us what can happen when somebody steps beyond the glow of the streetlights.

The shadows beyond those streetlights might be a dangerous place. However, it's also a place where inspiration and epiphany are to be found, where good things certainly can happen. It just takes curiosity and imagination. You can't just look down at the end of Seventh Avenue and wonder what else is going on out there — you gotta go see for yourself.

With the last years of my teens came a much more social kind of nightlife, and a certain goal-oriented pragmatism. I went out to find something to do, to hang out with a bunch of other people my age looking for something to do, to have organized fun, to get laid. Introspection grudgingly lent time to the emerging extrovert, the one looking for a connection to those for whom accompanied and well-lighted was vastly preferable to alone in the dark. The monster didn't get me. Cool. It's Miller time.

Still, there's always a little defeat in stepping out of the night into the brightly lighted throng, then into the night again, now boxed in, pumped full of activity, made wholly manageable. A feeling of embracing some atavistic dread, of volunteering to huddle with the herd near the fire that keeps the unknown at bay. There's nothing wrong with Seventh Avenue, if that's all you want out of the night.

Adulthood doesn't kill the imagination. Fear does. Fear is the deadweight that eventually pulls all of the fantastic improbabilities down to where worry eclipses hope: Sheila's not late because she got hung up at the DMV; Sheila's late because she was carjacked by zombies who have surely devoured her brain by now.

If imagination is a motivator — and it is, it's the thing that got us from flinging poo and worshipping lightning to iced drinks and cyber-sex — then fear is paralysis. We live at a time when events beyond our control find us ever more numb to positive possibilities rather than to negative ones. Homes in little burgs like San Antonio, Fla., and Minot, N.D., have "this residence protected by" signs in their yards, and the action news at 11 is always ready to show us what can happen when somebody steps beyond the glow of the streetlights.

The shadows beyond those streetlights might be a dangerous place. However, it's also a place where inspiration and epiphany are to be found, where good things certainly can happen. It just takes curiosity and imagination. You can't just look down at the end of Seventh Avenue and wonder what else is going on out there — you gotta go see for yourself.

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