Shedding a little light on the night people

IF you speak the words, ``night people,'' most day people think a bit gloomily of Edward Hopper's painting, ``Nighthawks.'' They see a loner brooding over a cup of coffee in a 24-hour diner. They ask themselves: What did the poor fellow do to arrive at this post-midnight rendezvous with himself, hunched over a counter smelling of yesterday's catsup and French fries? What downward spiral led him out of the daylight into the darkness? Night people do not see themselves that way. A night-person friend always maintained that one judged the state of a civilization by the services made available to night people. His minimum requirements included all-night movies, preferably classics, and all-night restaurants -- designed for conversation rather than eating. He would have cherished an all-night library and at least one all-night museum, but they would have to come later.

Friends of this night person would stay up long past their Bostonian bedtime to hear him deliver his ode to the good nightlife as he rose from his table at Albiani's at closing time. The fact that Albiani's closed at all finally drove him to New York, the world's capital of all-night living, where he became a husband and a father who took no pleasure at all in being awakened at 2:30 in the morning by the crooning of his night-person baby.

But his children -- or somebody's children -- have grown up to populate the world with enough night people so that civilization, or what passes for it, caters to them as a substantial minority.

Cable television allows a night person, at 3 o'clock in the morning, to watch a tennis match, played in the Florida sun a couple of noons ago. The all-night movie has become a routine. The nocturnal cinema buff can munch corn chips while viewing everything from ``Piranha II'' to ``Richard III.''

One night person, with no particular passion for being up-to-date, developed a taste for watching 24-hour newscasts. It gave him a heady feeling of power to think that these minions had to roll out of bed at all hours to rip and read the news -- just for him. But radio is, and always has been, the night person's prime public resource. For those who get a little cranky when the sun goes down, there are the call-in shows. But friends, the soul will find no peace there.

Jazz is the sound track of the night, and for that, there are marvelous working night persons like James Isaacs of Boston University's FM station, WBUR. Isaacs not only plays the widest spectrum of jazz any night person could ask for, but also delivers the aphorism of the night, gives a definition of an unusual word, and reviews ``this day in history.'' He also reads the scores for all sports except hockey, which he chooses not to consider a sport. One can indulge such whims in the wee hours. The fact is, Isaacs -- stylishly spinning memories of his drumming youth or stories about his friend Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson between the records -- is too good for the mass audience of day people.

But your total night person finally needs nothing except the night -- and just possibly a book. Night is to the night person what the wilderness is to a nature-lover -- a sanctuary, an oasis. Unstructured time to match unstructured space.

The night person does not love night for night's sake. But in a crowded world, simply buzzing with messages that command and demand from morning to night, where else can a body go for uninterrupted quiet and a little sweetly shadowed peace? A Wednesday and Friday column

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