Graveyard, regular people working regular jobs and regular hours call it: the time my part of the population operates. It’s something much more disconnecting than punch-in and punch-out times that separates graveyarders from regular-hours folk. Something hard to touch.
I think maybe I understood the first time I took a pull from a beer on the front porch of my apartment, chirping birdsong already piercing the air of a 5:30 a.m. sunrise, the go-getters and Type A’s of the new day shuffling blearily by. I think maybe I understood when I tipped the bottle their direction in greeting, watching them head downtown to begin a work day I’d just finished. The ones who noticed my salutation looked away quickly, even nervously, as though I’d surprised them, personifying a vision that didn’t mix well with the start of the work day – I’d disturbed their Protestant-capitalist work ethic. Everything – changed. The next time I bothered with an exhausted after-work brew on the porch that first night summer, it was a 40-ouncer in a plain, brown bag. For effect, you understand. For distance.
Graveyarders dig in at the opposite end of existence, dark Yang to the regular world’s sunlit Yin. We’re the ones with the worn, end of the day funk about us when everyone else is freshly showered, shaved and scented, hair perfect, people perfumed. We’re the ones who notice when the “CBS This Morning” news show gets off to a bumpy start at 5:30 a.m.
We know when the paper kid’s running late.
Our days end with the heavily pancaked Ken and Barbie of the earliest newscasts beaming out at us, freakish David Lynch-lensed pop-news exaggerations. Our days end clammy, steeping in the weird, wet, weighted cold the air takes on before the sun’s return.
That sense of detachment goes with the territory. To interact with the daylight world, we have to meet it on its own terms: We have to get up in the middle of our sleep cycle – after two or three hours’ rest, say, to go to a bank during business hours – and then make our way back to our shaded chambers for another hour or two of rest. It’s always OK by community standards to do any jack-hammering street work after about 8:00 a.m. – down time for many of us.
It’s kind of surreal. To most folks, sunrise symbolizes energy, vigor – the beginning of a new day. To the graveyarder, it’s the wallpapering of the quieter part of our day – the time to wind down, take a load off. The gorgeous morning chorus of awakening birds becomes a soundscape readily incorporated into the weary, gravelly hallucinations that evolve into dreams.
When the workday ends early, the denizens of the night cycle sometimes beat the sun home. Where people of the waking world see sunrise as a dazzling, beautiful time of day, that same brilliance hurls the most excruciating javelins of pain back through the eyes of graveyarders, whose pupils have been dilated wide nearly since awakening late the previous afternoon. Blasting-shield shades are donned in the morning after work by many of us when cloud cover isn’t dense enough for protection.
Daylight-oriented people call our time third shift. But we know that we’re the ones whose schedules happen in the first hours of the day; that ours is the first shift – the shift that happens first, that is. Most daylight dwellers don’t like thinking that way. It seems to make them sort of … uncomfortable … considering our dusky lives.
And while we’re at work, or banking by ATM at 3:30a.m., we know that the rest of the world is down; out cold; helpless, really.
It’s like you’re sneaking up on it.
That weird, out-of-the-loop feel becomes the state graveyarders identify with. They come to see themselves as the most insidious Trojan Horse troop of outsiders: the ones who are always there, only glimpsed as they retreat into the shadows, seeking shelter from an oppressive morning sun. They’re nocturnal – night creatures enmired in only a few of the entanglements of the waking world.
It’s a tough cycle to break, once you’re into it. A few months to settle into the routine and some never so much as look back. They decide to spend their lives as living metaphors, living analogs of characters from gothic literary traditions, cloistered away in their twilit daily grind, watching from the edges of the waking world’s itinerary, coming out occasionally to tip a 40 in greeting and gaze hazily through a pair of heavy-tint shades at a shocked sunrise passerby.
This essay first appeared in Altar Magazine issue #3 in Spring 2004.