Back in my salad days when I was young and tender- green, I used to love to sit on my windowsill and stare at the moon caught in the branches of the big old maple tree that grew in the small square of our front yard. It was so big and sprawling and the roots went so deep that it was hard for my mother to get anything to grow in front of the house. But it never seemed to block the sunlight from my room, and it had the most wonderful iron- gray smooth bark and waxy red leaves so it was forgiven. This is not about that tree however but about being up at night. I’d perch in the window and watch raccoons come out and rifle through the garbage cans, or my neighbors bustling behind the curtains, and in the summer I’d climb out onto the roof with a notebook and record all my deepest thoughts which were mostly sentimental and much too self-involved. And on the nights I didn’t write I was snuggled under my duvet with a book and a flashlight. I think my favorite pair of pajamas was a red, brushed cotton pair with feet attached but for some reason when I cast my mind back to those days I always picture myself in long, billowy, cotton night gowns and my hair falls in loose, glossy curls to my shoulders.
And then when I was older but still leafy- green though blunted a little by twelve years of school, I hardly slept at all. College, and afterwards, sleep didn’t enter into the picture much. My friends and I would ask ourselves crucial questions like, “Buy food or train fare to get to the city?” and “Good night’s sleep or killer party?”The City and Party always won out over the mundane. We were young. We were burning the candle at both ends. And basically from the age of 18 until about 25 that was the story, morning glory.
I lived with three guys in a punk warehouse. We built sleep lofts and we didn’t use them except for hanging out. These guys were like my fairy godmothers. One taught me how to make Spanish rice; one how to talk about art, and the other, the joys of FunYuns- those onion chips. And so it went.
And then I did the craziest thing ever. I started boxing. I’ve blogged about the joy and pain of sparring with someone so much your superior that you have to cry for twenty minutes in your car afterwards before you can drive back home. What I didn’t mention before (unless I did and I’ve forgotten because I’ m sleep deprived) is that my wonderful trainer, Eric “The Prince” Martin (ESPN middleweight champ) had a day job working for the city and it started at 6 am. So to get the one- on- one attention I had to meet him three days a week before 6. At 3 am precisely.
My record company was in a warehouse in west Oakland down the railroad tracks from Jack London Square. There were other offices but they mostly had to do with shipping and packing. Although in the last year we were there an upscale cafe moved in which was incredibly weird, but great for a cappuccino and an almond croissant.
The floors were concrete. It had high beamed ceilings and a cool echo effect- the sound of my sparring gloves thumping against the mitts, my sneakers squeaking on the floor, the jump rope slapping out a complicated tempo, my attempts to control the rate of my breathing, all magnified and tripled. And I remember that after the first couple of times my hands were so shaky I couldn’t hold a pen. It was sort of surreal and a few months in some of the loading dock guys on the early shift would stop by to watch me, leaning with their arms crossed, and that made me dance a bit harder. And once I scored a one two punch on Eric’s nose (he told me to try and hit him) and blood spattered against the wall in a great arc. Most of the time he slipped my punches like a greased weasel though so that was the only reminder I ever had of a direct hit.
It was hard getting up at 2. Forcing myself to do my crunches and sit-ups and push-ups while groggy and hungry, and then climbing into the car and driving through the desolate, badly lit streets of Dogtown. It was so quiet it felt as if most of the world was asleep and those of us who weren’t were privileged in some way, like part of a special club.
I learned to love it and even to embrace the feeling of being constantly tired and almost catatonic by 9 pm, or maybe a better word is weary because this was that good muscle ache, that stretchy feeling you get when you’ve really worked. And I liked being up when the world was slumbering and getting most of my day’s work done before 9am.
And now that I’ve pulled some marathon all-nighters writing or more often looking after a sick child, I still feel that thrill of being awake and hyper-alert even though I’m about as far as I could be from that youngster in the window and the streets of west Oakland.