Ordinary Nightlife

Picture: NYPL Public Domain Archive

As long as I can think, I’ve been an owl. My natural waking hours, to which I’m always returning if nothing forces me otherwise, are from 11am until 3am, give or take an hour. I’m not at all happy with it, there are so many collective rhythms in society that you are out of tune with, living a life like that. And, especially in winter, you are missing out on a lot of beautiful sunlight. Consequently, we owls are said to have a higher risk for depression, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure…

On the other hand, attempts to re-educate an owl and change it into a lark are not without risk. I explain this to my friends using the story of poor René Descartes. He was an extreme owl like me, normally sleeping well into noon hours. In his 50s, as an already renowned philosopher, he was invited to the court of Queen Christina of Sweden, who was a lark. He was scheduled to meet her for philosophical tutoring three times a week at 5am, in winter. They didn’t get along well. After only a few weeks, Descartes died of pneumonia.

So I’m set to make the best out of my predicament. The quiet of nights has its own charms. There are some ingenious radio programs – one of my favourite stations, the french eclectic Radio FIP, plays the wonderfully weirdest music after midnight. Ideas may come to you like friendly ghosts.

During my university years in the 1980s I used to work as a taxi driver in Hamburg. Driving night shifts I especially loved the early morning hours, around 4 am, when the last night birds from the clubs drifting home met the first early birds on their way to work in the big flower markets or slaughterhouses. The city is at its quietest then, but still there is life and it has a very special quality.

Sometimes, at the end of our shift, we would have an early breakfast in Erika’s Eck in Hamburg’s Schanzenviertel, at that time an all-night pub especially for the slaughterhouse workers, where you’d get steaming-hot coffee and a protein-rich breakfast for very little money, combined with the freshly-printed tabloid newspaper BILD still wet and sticky from the presses.