All Hallow's Eve-eve back in the early 1960's was always known as Mischief Night. While you slept, your house or parents' car might be egged, tagged, covered with toilet paper and goop, smashed pumpkin meat or worse. You hoped for the best. When we were teenagers, we went out and witnessed the terror, sometimes participated in a little naughtiness-- no serious damage but some spray paint and mess. There was a woman on the block behind us who was reputed to be a witch. She came home at 7 AM after God-knows-what with a black kerchief tied around her head, and her shades were drawn all day while presumably she slept along with the vampires and goblins of our neighborhood. A broom was frequently leaning against the front door-- most likely for sweeping her stoop, but allegedly among us kids this was her night transportation. I looked inside her mailbox many times-- mostly the same catalogues we all got in those days; her name was Eunice B. Harrison. We addressed her this way when we made prank phone calls during the day… we spied on her and left dead bugs and cut fingernails and animal fur in shoeboxes on her windowsill.
Years later my Mom told me Mrs. Harrison was a nurse and she worked nights. That's what you think, I told her. I'd never seen her face-- didn't know if she was black or white… but she was our only local flesh-and-blood designated ghoul and we nourished her mythology with tales and conjecture. Ironically, a few short years later we'd all be obsessing over Edgar Allen Poe, dying our hair and dressing up to hang out at Rocky Horror showings. So much for the withered legend of Eunice B.
I sometimes wonder whether my neighbors' daughters perceive me as a kind of witch. I dress in black, leave my apartment late at night wearing a hat and carrying a strange looking case; often returning at dawn, my blinds drawn against the sun so I can get some daytime sleep. Then again, they have a multitude of horror apps at their fingertips, all-Vampire TV, the Twilight series in HD 24/7, etc. We had to invent our own entertainment in those days; the Wizard of Oz was shown once a year and it was an event. In New York City, every night is Mischief Night… and in most neighborhoods, watchful parents accompany their kids while they trick-or-treat; we were on our own. Fear was personal.
Anyone who has kept watch over a sick child or relative knows that night-workers have a different mindset. I spent a week in an intensive care ward when my son was six and had a dangerous pneumonia. His roommate was a young woman who had lived her whole life on a respirator; she was virtually non-responsive, but her Mom chose to keep her alive this way. Days were peaceful; the shift nurses chatted and ate sandwiches, watched TV and socialized with staff. But the overnight nurse sat quietly in semi-dark. She read to the girl-- sang to her at times. There were 2 emergencies that week-- panicky alarming episodes which required huge x-ray machines to be moved in and used. These both happened at night, when patients who are not sleeping are maybe anxious and frightened… when death feels a little nearer and the human mind is that much more vulnerable.
Coming home late nights on the subway, I am surrounded by day-sleepers, by this culture of people who are all a little pale, a little subdued, who are used to walking the streets with black shadows, who brush shoulders with the hunted and haunted who either do not or cannot sleep during these hours-- who plot and plan, create, think, suffer, drink, take drugs… stalk, worry, grieve, search and avoid. We understand one another, we feel a certain kinship. Most of us are on our way home; there are few destinations at these hours-- there is a sense of denouement, we are without rush, we rely on the unreliable timetables of night trains which travel with delays and issues; very few of us protest and fret. We are tired and insulated, surrounded by our own thoughts and fears-- some of us have had a nightcap or two and know that little will be resolved before tomorrow. There is a small sense of relief. We often share jokes and smiles. There is entertainment and there are beggars, but most of these have given up by 4 AM. We eat, we dream, we nap a little. I read and think; we grumble less at the frequent disruptions and detours. We feel relatively safe in this state of transition. We are going home.
When I was a sophomore in college I had some small health issue that required a few days in the hospital while they analyzed some organ or other. It was nothing serious, and I was so young I had to stay in the pediatric ward. They treated me like a princess. One night I woke up to find a really handsome young resident sitting by my bed reading volume 2 of Remembrance of Things Past which I had to finish for European Lit. I pretended to be asleep-- was so surprised and charmed by this; and can remember so well the passage he read: about love and instability and the fact that happiness neutralizes the suffering necessary to sustaining the instability which is at the core of passion-- something like this, in the Proustian universe. I remember these pastel-colored paperback books which I loved and cherished and carried for a year, and still, despite the fact I have 4 versions of this novel-- I keep these, to remind me of where I have been and whom I have touched while I read, and how this world-view changed my life and taught me to dissect and observe and feel these tiny moments.
I think this doctor had a kind of crush on me; I was lovely then and so young I couldn't reciprocate any kind of mature emotion. But I remember well feeling so embraced by the night-- even in a hospital-- this sense of being watched and understood and cared for… the opposite of fear.
Tonight I had to take my friend to an emergency room. Medicine for her is state-provided and uncaring and callous. She is in the excruciating indescribable pain of late-stage cancer and the hopelessness of her case only seems to provoke hostility in staff because they are reminded of their ineffectuality.
She begged me to take her back home; anywhere but there, at night. There are no handsome interns to watch over her and read her Proust. There is no one. I am helpless and annoying because anyone who is suffering less reminds her that she is quite alone. She wants to die and yet I feel she holds some tiny thread of hope that this is all a nightmare, and she will wake up calm and pain-free. I realize tonight that she, like all those about to die, must first bury their own dreams and that is tough. I walked home across town in this pre-Halloween unsettled weather and thought about the souls which supposedly fly around freely for this one night. They outnumber the living by myriads-- they and their memories, and their parents and children and lovers… and for my friend-- her dreams of being a great actress have dissipated into medicated dreams of swimming and floating and nightmarish twinges.
I am sure this October 31 that my Eunice B. Harrison is among these souls and rather than spending her nights making wicked mischief on a broomstick, she sat by the bedsides of tired patients and gave her life for their comfort and solace, and never defended her honor to a bunch of clueless, mean teenagers. So in my modern Gothic lexicon, she is the ultimate Halloween saint; I salute her and wear her black cape of goodness as my costume and only pray she will in some version watch over my friend and weave a spell of sleep and carry her through to some better moment.