Tuesday, January 21, 2014
I have always had trouble sleeping. It is not uncommon for me to be up until three, four or five o’clock in the morning. For some reason, no matter how tired I am, my brain turns on at ten and doesn’t shut down until I am so exhausted that I am ready to fall on my face or I force it to. One would think with all of the pills I take before I go to sleep I would be comatose, but it doesn’t ever happen that way. I sit up all night writing or thinking.about things. There have been many mornings when my wife, Karen, has come downstairs and found me working at the kitchen table or doing the dishes, and she says, “Why are you up so early?” I usually say, “I just woke up today. I guess I wanted to get a quick start on what I have to do.” The reality is I never went to bed in the first place. The tip-off of when I do this is that I am still wearing the same clothes I had on the day before.
When I used to travel on business, after dinner and drinks, I would either wander the lobby of the hotel I was staying in, or if we were in a warm climate and the streets around us were safe, I would walk the nearby sidewalks. I would find a late night diner or bar. If I happened to remember my notebook, I would scribble down ideas that floated into my head. If not, I would borrow a pen from the person behind the counter and write on napkins. On these nights I saw a lot of things.
In San Francisco, around Union Square, you can’t walk two feet without being assaulted by homeless people. Some are the stereotype of what you think and can be aggressive; some just look like backpackers who went out in the world trying to find themselves and got lost along the way. If it is late enough, and you have enough money, you can always find a date. You don’t even have to ask for one. They come to you, even if you walk on a cane. Although you vehemently say no to one, a few doors later another one will put her arm in yours and try to make a good case.
One night I encountered a man sitting on the street on a blanket making cool things out of thick framing wire. He had all his wares out for sale. I saw a motorcycle he made and asked how much for it. It was $10, so I bought it. This is it.
While I talked to him, people came and bought other things from off the blanket, or he made them for them on request. People also brought him food. During a lull in the crowd, while he was eating some given pizza, we started talking. His name was David. We talked about a lot of things and I mentioned that my son, Ben, was a film student. As we continued our conversation he took a strand of wire and made it into an amazing old time film camera, which he gave me for free. When I was getting ready to continue my walk I asked if I could do anything for him. He laughed and shook his head. He said, “T.S., everyone thinks I’m homeless because I have a shaggy beard and dress like a vet, which I am. The truth is though is I have a wife, children and a studio across the bay. But, hey, if people want to bring me pizza, who am I to stop them?” About that time a man pulled up in a nice luxury car and said to David, “Is it ready?” David nodded his head and handed him a beautiful abstract sculpture that was sitting under a large cloth. The man said, “Oh, this is perfect. She will love it.” He handed David a check and got back in his car. David looked at me and winked. “I like commissions.”
Another time earlier on in my career I was out walking through the French Quarter of New Orleans. NOLA is a city, like New York, and like me, that rarely sleeps. I was walking down Bourbon Street and getting ready to head over to Decatur Street to an Irish place I know called the Kerry, when I passed a gentleman’s club called the Maiden Voyage. I knew the establishment because on another trip an actor friend of mine dragged me in there. Call me shy but I’m not good with those kinds of spots. One time I got so nervous with a girl dancing in front of me, all I could do was offer her some pez I had in my pocket. She burst out laughing but she took it. Saved myself a buck.
Anyways, I went to the Kerry, got a Harp and started scribbling in my notebook. I like what they call reporter’s notebooks because they are slim and fit neatly inside your jacket or the back pocket of your pants. A young girl with a black page cut came in and sat down next to me. She got a drink and dug into a book. It was “The Frogs” by Aristophanes. I said to her, “That’s pretty serious reading this late at night. Are you a student?” She nodded her head, “Yes, at Tulane. I’m just grabbing a drink before I go to work.” I laughed and said, “You sure do it differently here than we do up in Chicago. We usually do all our drinking after work.” She smiled and said, “It’s what gets me through the night.” We talked a little bit more and she asked me if I was a journalist. I said, “Sort of. I’m in publishing; I’m an editor.” She said “Would you mind looking at this?” She reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of notebook paper with handwriting on it. “My boyfriend wrote this and I’d be interested to know what you thought.” I read the poem. She asked, “What do you think?” I paused. I hemmed and hawed. “Well, it has interesting elements, images…” She sighed. “You can be honest.” I sighed, ran my hand through my hair. “Well then, I think it is juvenile suicidal bullshit.” She laughed out loud. “Good, so then I’m not the only one who thinks that.” She took a sip of her drink and said,”Now how do I tell him that? I said “You don’t. You just say, ‘good start, keep at it.’ He’s young. He’ll learn.” She smiled, looked at her watch and then said “Ooh, I have to finish this and go to work.” I asked her where she worked. She said, “Over at the Maiden Voyage.” I said, "Are you a server there?” She smiled, shyly, “No. I am a server but not a waitress if that’s what you mean.” I got all flustered and red in the face. I said, “I’m sorry I just assumed…” She put on her jacket. She kissed me on the cheek. “I’m just an intellectual exhibitionist, and it keeps me in school.” Then she left.
When I was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s I told the counselor that I was referred to I had trouble sleeping, actually didn’t sleep most nights. He asked me when it started. I told him I didn’t really remember. It was sometime around seventh grade. He asked me what I thought might have caused it. I said that at first I thought it might be that I was afraid of missing what was happening in the world if I went to sleep, but after awhile that didn’t make sense because I didn’t care. He asked “Did you have nightmares when you were a kid?” I hedged a bit and then I said “Yeah, I did.” “What were they about?” I knew the answer but I didn’t want to say. “Maybe it’s best if you talk about it.” I told him there was someone who I cared very much about, who was sick, and who I was desperately afraid of losing. I told him I used to have terrible dreams about that. He said, “Maybe you didn’t sleep because of those dreams; you didn’t want to experience them.” I said, “Yes and no, but what I think what really happened is somewhere I got it in my mind that nothing would happen to him if I stayed awake and watched over him. That’s all irrelevant now because he did get well. The nightmares all stopped although the not sleeping remained. From that point on I couldn’t sleep. I don't know why.” "Maybe you still think you have to keep watch over the things and people you care about? Maybe you're afraid that if you go to sleep they will be gone when you wake up? Maybe you're even more afraid that if you go to sleep you won't wake up?" I had to think about all that.
He said, “You say that you only go to sleep when you can’t physically stay awake anymore or you force yourself to go to sleep. Tell me how do you force yourself to go to sleep?” I sighed and smiled. I was embarrassed to tell him. I finally said, “When I am alone and I’m not going to bother anyone, I sing myself to sleep.” He chuckled good naturedly. “Is it different songs or just one song?” I told him it was just one song. “It is from the movie ‘White Christmas’.” He cocked his head and looked confused. “Which one?” I started to sing, “When you’re tired and you can’t sleep, count your blessings instead of sheep...and then you’ll go to sleep counting your blessings…It’s silly but it works.” He smiled. “I don’t think it is silly at all. I think it says a lot."