King of Night
by Bill Broun
I walk the night. It’s a place of wonder and moonshine and animal eyeshine. When I’m out there in it, in a world rippling with headlight beams and glittering lawns swept by fogs of pure noir, there’s a mighty feeling. Planes of obsidian seem to take off in all directions, and walking is like inhabiting the dark, shimmering laws of physics itself. It’s a place blessedly free of interruptions, too. When they do come, they can be exhilarating and scary, and almost always anodyne.
Of course, I’m a Caucasian man, and that underpins everything. I walk without any real fear, and in the early summer, here in suburban eastern Pennsylvania, I freely suck in the scents of lilac and viburnum. When a police officer drives by, he might wave at me, even smile. If I were black, would he do the same? Or would he slow down, circle the block, and, if I were lucky, merely shine a light in my face?
Would my life be in danger? Tragically, that’s a question we no longer even need to ask, for we know the answer. Like so many sacred rights that outdoors and nature writers can take for granted in America, walking at night — as opposed to running in terror — is a restricted act. And that isn’t just disturbing, it’s obscene. When I talk to my environmental literature students about Thoreau’s great essay “Walking,” I always need to situate it in history. Thoreau walked in a nimbus of freedom at a time when such freedom didn’t apply to millions of other Americans. Much has not changed.
I often try to forget my privilege as the king of night, but it’s inescapable — and thank God for that. At least three times while walking, I have encountered women who balked at my mere presence. I’m a big, fat man, and I wear a big, fat light on my head. One time, a woman headed my way on the side actually seemed paralyzed. I turned down my light and stepped onto the street. “Hi,” I said. “Hi.” I wanted to sound friendly — just another night stroller. I ended up circling way around her on the street. Sometimes, women will cross the street. There is one woman I’ve met who walks with an aggressive dog. We’re night-friends now. I’ve met her husband. We all exchange platitudes. But those easy relations are all based on the power she borrows from a little Akita mix.
Even the ‘burbs at night offer many natural treasures. White-tail deer sometimes clatter down streets. By day I’ve seen wild turkey and bald eagles, but at night, hundreds of darting bunnies and those shambling and uniquely North American nocturna — raccoons, skunks, and possums — abound. Around here, even the occasional black bear may lumber by.
When a hard rain falls at night, it’s like the sky is a smashed iPad with a million splintery black slivers that sting your fingers, and it’s a special prize to experience. A few nights ago, during one of those rains, a large coyote bolted in front me. I saw bits and pieces of purest animal — the shaggy haunch, the coarse jawline, the tenacious look that almost defines doggedness. Seeing this wild canid — and they’re getting commonplace in Pennsylvania — felt like a kind of blessing.
But how blessed can such reverie be if it’s not available to all?
Indeed, this gorgeous public night is the realm where the injustice of white male privilege and power seems in sharpest relief. There may be legal freedom of movement for adults, but it contains as many asterisks as stars.
We must reopen the night and dismantle the “stars,” before it’s too late. There are whole generations at stake. The rewards of perambulating in the darkness grow richer and deeper as you age. I’m not sure why. It may be something about getting older, or needing more silence, or not having to see things that distract. There are practical reasons for me, too. I feel a little embarrassed by exercise, and a little annoyed, and those two things and the present rhythms of my family life mean that I find myself doing my 4 mph “brisk” daily walk anywhere from 10 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. The night is my joy — but why should it be a joy denied others? How can I ever walk unencumbered, knowing that so many others in America can’t do the same?
Yet while writing my novel, Night of the Animals, I lived in a very different neighborhood, with frequent muggings and routine shootings, where walking at night could be dangerous. I recall three cases where poor people in that borough, walking to minimum-wage shift work or on innocent errands, were run over and killed due to inadequate streetlights. Where I live now, which is less racially and economically diverse, there are dozens of redundant reminders to drivers to keep an eye out for pedestrians. The tax base isn’t much larger than in my old neighborhood’s, but the will and the means to make the night a safe and walkable place are much stronger.
Often, as I ramble the night, I have thought of the widely anthologized essay “Black Men and Public Space,” by the New York Times’s Brent Staples. It’s an essay I teach in my composition classes because of its ingenious blending of personal experience with a social issue, but it’s also a piece that feels printed into my heart and mind more and more. In it, Staples, who is black, remembers how walking in the night in Chicago as a graduate student in the 1970s demonstrated to him how terrified white people are of black men. They will cross the street. They will run away. They will, as the Trayvon Martin tragedy showed us, kill you.
This is a night I never experience.
At night, gender difference can be an interesting refracting prism where racial difference can perhaps be dimly visualized. But I know I can never experience, with the full burden of history and lingering cultural injustices, what Staples felt.
As much as being a man walking at night alone can be interpreted as a menace, I know that being a black man in my community walking at night would be downright risky and possibly deadly. My community teems with lawyers, writers, public servants, teachers, social activists, even a wonderful woman cop next door. My wife and son are safe here. But there are also just too many stupid people around this country, and too much fear and ignorance.
I’ve been an involuntary night owl since I was a small child, never blessed with the gift of an easy drowsiness. My wife once fell asleep on a 400-mile bus trip across a rutted dirt road near Uganda. My son will sleep through a tornado. But I never want to sleep. Never. I feel empowered — super-powered, actually. I want to get up, move around, and chop down maple trees. I want to shake the secrets from their tenebrous leaves and say, “Show me. Wake up. I am the king of night.”
But until every man and woman in America can walk as kings and queens at night, we’re all paupers.
Bill Broun has worked as a newspaper and magazine journalist in both the U.S. and the U.K. He was appointed a resident fellow at Yale University in 2002, where he lectured in English and journalism, and currently serves as associate professor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Born in Los Angeles to an English father and an American mother, he now lives in Hellertown, Pennsylvania. Night of the Animals is his first novel.