Westside Story: Adolescence, Night, Late 1980s

by Tim Gilmore, 7/17/2023

Remember how nighttime moved. The streets were sleepy and ours, ranch-style suburbia, the colors of concrete-block houses sagged in the dark. Few cars came. Our world was small. We inhabited so much of it. Our world was magical.

We would not die. Time was too slow and self-contained, especially at night, the moment all the moment. Was that why suddenly we loved night so much? In early adolescence, guilty enough of Original Sin, biblically libidinous, our bodies all spindly and growing against our selves, the night opened up quiet. To us. Somehow to us both impersonally and specifically. Poor kids, we’d inherited the world, for nighttime bequeathed to us all of it.

Remember we walked up streets named for stars and down streets named for the site of the NASA launchpad and the stratosphere. Somehow the dark gave us energy we never felt in the sunlight, days of four inches of rain, 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We opened. The night opened the world to accept our opening.

We loved to scare ourselves, a specifically adolescent magic trick, scaring ourselves in the context of both our exploration and assumptions of safety. One night, remember?, we thought the streetsweeper followed us. That strange automaton surely couldn’t have moved faster than we walked. Around every corner, up and down each dark street in trees, the stalking thing, however, came. We were just afraid enough to giggle, not to scream.

That house on Canaveral, however, I explored alone. Two blocks away, the night fell so quiet and expansive and I’d so never been anywhere, and I snuck out in independence uncalled for and unsuspected, I felt a burglar, innocent, the world my inheritance. The world so small was so big. Mine own interior encompassed the night.

Across the street, someone parked an old hearse, 1970s, on the median between the sidewalk and the road. Into this garage, I’d accidentally faltered. Heaven would have been worse. A strange tall skinny imaginative emotional kid who loved books almost as much as I loved to read, I’d found a house wherein the attached garage had been built five or six narrow aisles of bookshelves, all open to the chirping hot wet shining night. I walked those aisles in a dream, stole books, read them, still have them shelved amidst my thousands. I’m sorry to have been a teenage thief, not to have been an imaginative, curious, screwed-up creative kid. I’m sorry I stole those books; I’m not sorry I have them.

Phone calls on sidewalks. We didn’t have cell phones yet. How did we have those conversations? I can’t picture the erstwhile technology. I told you I’d heard rumors. I’d heard something about Kevin. Didn’t know you were on the phone with the girl’s father. Should never have repeated information I didn’t know was good. Why Pall Mall cigarettes? You watched her father’s face when I named the venereal disease. I was a virgin. What did I know?

And I’d moshed with that kid at the Lions’ Club Building in Orange Park. Chartered 1948. “Helping others, Lions take on roles as organizers, advocates, fund-raisers and hands-on volunteers.” No idea what local punk band played. I swung between the Black boy who spoke of his “crib” and said he had to “creep” and the mohawked white boy the Black boy said “went to hung hisself and the rope broke on his ass.”

Lubbers swarmed early mornings. Cicadas screamed in chorus all day long in the trees. At night, when the rainstorms subsided, when everything was softly white, when various small white blooms glowed and scented sweet the slowed peace of dark, crickets said their name for hours: softly, krik-krik-krik   krik-krikit-krik   krik-krik-krikit.

What I liked most about walking the night was how nothing happened. The world – remember? – was small, and The World happened far away from it. We were dumb. We were ignorant. We were trying not to be. We read Carlos Castaneda and Edgar Allan Poe and books about mysticism and extraterrestrial aliens.

We knew we were small. The world was big. It was endless before us and after us it was endless. When we walked those five or six blocks, when all the world slept about us and bequeathed to us in that moment the world, the endlessness of all the world was both ours, so powerful, and small and womblike, so comforting, even when we scared ourselves with our own nocturnal exploration and expansion.

Dark and heavy and low, like a sky hung down upon treetops, an ancient and endless world as frightening and as comforting as existence considered from the shelter of a womblike childhood blanket; or, a fireplace envied through a window abandoned deep in the dark bewitched woods of the neighborhood.

We were the generation before the generation that began to photograph all things, when, all sibylline, the sibilance of the wind in the trees said sentience.

Remember the first times we stayed awake all night. Brainwaves slowed like theremin music. Windows settled. Night settled against windows. We watched the large black-and-white TV anchored in the panelboard-walled den of my Christian fundamentalist home. Late at night, even local channels occasionally showed an accidental few seconds of breasts. One morning, in that room, I told you my father, with his Bible, was mean to my paralyzed mother.

Still, frequently as I fall asleep, I look deep into specific details of memories of memories of memories, wishing I could step past those extra stairwells and corners and enter directly, as the man I am now, the rooms in which I’m so vulnerable as a child. Paradoxically though, if I could, I’d import the sense of time at night that I experienced variously throughout those years and go walking through it now, seeing what deep truths and loves I might dredge up, completing lost moments that were true even before I ventured into them.