I wrote this short piece for Grapevine in 1991. One of my many joys has always been exploring our town after dark. Anyone who ventures out after dark will certainly find another, more fascinating layer to the city they live in than they can possibly imagine if they just stay inside at night.
This essay is included in my book, Ozark Mosaic.
Footsteps in the Dark
“With all history to contradict us, it is hardly worthwhile to speak of city life as entailing ‘spiritual loss,’ because it is out of touch with Nature. It is in touch with humanity, and humanity is Nature's heaviest asset.” - Agnes Repplier, Times and Tendencies
I've always preferred bustling city streets over quiet country lanes; put me down alone in the middle of a rustic meadow and I'd go mad. For me, the most beautiful scene in Spike Lee's film Mo' Better Blues is when the lead character plays a mournful tune on his saxophone on the bridge over the city. If I could play the sax, that's what I would do.
Suffering as I do from frequent bouts of insomnia, I often find myself walking the dark streets of Fayetteville, long after the clubs have shut down, and most people have gone to bed. At this time of night the city's heart beats more calmly, undisturbed by traffic and the discordance of a thousand different emotional vibrations. The city sleeps, as much as any city can, in preparation for the next day's onslaught, healing its wounds under cover of darkness.
The streets are peopled with ghosts, those spirits who represent Fayetteville's past.
My route (which I take several times a month) takes in the square, Dickson Street, the U of A campus, and assorted neighborhoods. Most of the time I am alone, though at times I may have a companion. Sometimes I see others out in the night, walking as I do; we pass on the sidewalk without exchanging greetings.
Even at night, Dickson Street is overshadowed by the shell of the Walton Arts Center. In almost twenty years of living in Fayetteville, I think that Dickson Street has changed the most. On foggy nights (if you look hard enough) the ghosts of past revelers can be seen on dimly lit street corners, shaking their heads in bemusement over the changes the years have wrought. Even the Dream Merchant is now known merely as The Merchant, half the size of its former self. On the day that the Arts Center officially opens, I think the name “Dickson Street” should be retired, and the street signs all changed to reflect the new era. Tyson Boulevard, perhaps?
Occasionally, young skateboarders sail by, their faces grim and determined. There seems to be almost no joy in these night travelers. I find myself wondering about their parents. The number of homeless people on our streets has been increasing over the past few months. With the financial crunch the city is experiencing, can our charitable institutions handle the increased load?
Even after the clubs have shut down, a few cars may remain on the street. Some are empty, others contain couples kissing passionately. Some couples sit apart, their bitter voices sailing out into the night, to be caught by any passerby, if he'd only choose to listen. I always walk swiftly past them; I don't want to be a witness to someone's emotional pain.
At the top of Dickson Street, of course, is the University of Arkansas. I always like to walk around the campus when the sky is heavy with black thunderclouds and the wind bends the trees. I believe that if you stand in the open on a very windy night and whisper "I love you," the wind will carry your words back to the object of your desire. I’ve no hard evidence to back this up, but some things you have to take on faith. I'd stake my heart on it.
On rare occasions I find myself near Wilson Park, the reputed sight of midnight drug deals, and where some meet to carry on their social life. A warm, friendly place in the sunlight, the dark plunders the humanity from Wilson Park. The sprites who inhabit the park’s castle during the day retreat, and humpbacked; sharp-toothed gnomes with heavy eyelids stand at each entrance, their invisible blades keeping the innocent from entering until daylight.
It is almost dawn when I wind up outside the Old Post Office restaurant, once again hearing Free Camman playing her violin to the plants on the square. Death stilled Free's song in mid-note, but her friends remember her still. Possibly the plants her music nurtured remember, as well, in their own fashion.
Finally, I return to my bed, my body surrendering to sleep. I know that when next I wander the streets of Fayetteville, the familiar ghosts will walk with me.
Grapevine - May 31, 1991