When I woke up and looked out the window in my son's lower Manhattan apartment, there was not a tree or mountain to be seen. His block on the Lower East Side has tenement buildings on both sides, with small shops and stores on the ground level. There are a few clubs and bars, and the nighttime activity does not end until 4 a.m. when the street cleaners and garbage collectors begin their day. This is truly the city that never sleeps. One can see everything up and down the streets all night, even as many shops have safety gates that close up protecting their storefront.
Most, if not all of the tall buildings have lights on all night as well. Streetlights make the streets feel like it is daytime. Varying numbers of pedestrians walk on the sidewalks every hour of the day or night, and trucks are moving through the thoroughfares; fire engines, police sirens, and fast racing cabs are running through the veins and arteries of this city, all night long, every single night of the year.
Smaller is sweeter
By contrast, there are certain times of the day that small towns actually appear sleepy. I've noticed that one of those times in our town is at six o'clock in the morning, just as the first lights pop on. Most of the surrounding environment is dark, with stars visible only sometimes. Naturally, there are some buildings with some lights on in pre-dawn's muted light, but not many. The other day I drove into town pretty early, and was awash in gratitude for the peaceful scene Saranac Lake offered me.
In several houses on the route between Paul Smiths and Saranac Lake early lights had been turned on - a kitchen here, a bathroom there -?I could feel sleepy eyes making their way to whatever they needed to do to start their days. I guessed the coffeepot was on in at least one of these houses. The snow was fresh, and long golden rectangles of light hit the whiteness surrounding each house as individual houses' lights popped on. In the dark as I drove, I could see a beacon of light on top of Mount Pisgah, that yellow light a smile shining over our sleeping village.
From dark to light
As I approached town, civilization appeared: several hospital room lights shone brightly in the dark pre-morning. I could feel the busyness going on inside, as well as a sort of confidence that comes knowing our town has a well staffed hospital available to us 24 hours a day. The parking lot is brightly lit. It looks like a port in a storm, and often it is.
A car or two was out on the road, headlights shining. After driving into town from the dark woods, streetlights appear as soothing markers in the night illuminating our streets, making it feel safer than blackness. Our streetlights are golden globes of welcome, when you stop to appreciate them.
There are a few gas stations with lights on early every day. You can see the attendants inside, tidying up in preparation for the morning rush. Again, the passerby can guess there is coffee being brewed by the gallons, an additional definition of a fill-up for their morning customers.
As I drove on residential streets, I could tell the homes where people had to be at work or school at an early time. I know that our schools begin early - teachers are often climbing the steps to their schools by 7 a.m. Students begin to show up by 7:30 in some cases. And since nobody wakes up in the morning fully dressed and fed, we can guess why some lights at some houses are popping on at 6 a.m.
Some area residents have to drive long distances to get to work. I am no longer startled when I hear of someone who has to be in Plattsburgh by 8 a.m., or Elizabethtown, or Ticonderoga, or Malone. We are often asked to become road warriors as we earn our living up here in the mountains. So driving time, which is not work time, must also be subtracted from the hours we are given to live our lives every day and every week. Often the first minus is felt when the alarm goes off at 5:15 a.m. You are one of those early lights-on homes in the early morning.
We know that our school kids get picked up early, sometimes in the dark, and that reliable citizens are awake and behind the wheel of their own cars way before that early hour in order to get the youngsters to school on time. Their homes have lights on in the early dark hours. And all these homes are bright lights of coziness to the passing driver, wandering the lonely morning roads in the lightening darkness.
Sleepiness wakes up
What else does "sleepy" look like? There's a restfulness in it. Streets with no cars. Parking lots empty. Storefronts dark. Sidewalks with no humanity. And the tickle of small lights popping on in houses on hillsides, lights coming on in gas stations and diners, at the newspaper office, in the schools, and post office.slowly the day rolls in, but just before it does ... it blinks.
Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths, and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book 2007.