In the early hours of Saturday, May 18, two young gay men were walking north along Sixth Avenue in the West Village when they encountered three other young men, one of whom, Elliot Morales, accosted the first two, voiced antigay slurs, and asked one of them, Mark Carson, an openly gay man, "What are you, a gay wrestler?" Carson and his companion then turned into West Eighth Street and walked east, but Morales followed them and asked Carson if the friend with him was his partner, and when Carson answered yes, Morales drew out a revolver and shot Carson at point-blank range in the face. Emergency workers came, tried to revive Carson, then took him to Beth Israel Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Morales fled, but a description went out over the police radio, and an officer on foot patrol nearby recognized the suspect and arrested him; he is now being held without bail on a charge of second-degree murder as a hate crime, and illegal possession of a weapon. Morales, it turned out, had already threatened a bartender in a nearby bar with antigay slurs, showing him a silver revolver in a shoulder holster and threatening to kill him if he called 911. State correction records indicate that he has served more than ten years in prison for a robbery conviction. The police immediately labeled the killing a hate crime. A photograph of Carson shows a black man in his early thirties with a thin mustache and short, closely cropped beard, and a partly shaved head with a thick tuft of hair on top: nothing eye-catching in the West Village, but an appearance that might attract the attention of a homophobe. Morales's sister has said that he told her he was drunk that night and remembers nothing.
The whole West Village community, gay and straight, was shocked by this crime, which took place in a gay-friendly neighborhood not far from the Stonewall Inn, where gay liberation first began, and only a short ten-minute walk from my apartment. Residents immediately brought candles and flowers to create a makeshift memorial for the victim on the site of the killing, and on Monday, May 20, thousands marched through the streets to denounce the murder, chanting "We're here! We're queer! We won't live in fear!" Carson's murder was the first in the West Village precinct this year, but through the first week in May there have been 57 assaults, a sharp increase over the 33 reported in 2012. Just hours after the Monday march the police received reports of two other antigay bias attacks in downtown Manhattan, unrelated to the West Village attack or to each other. Others, of course, go unreported.
Crimes of violence seem to be especially frequent at night. The West Village march brings readily to mind the Take Back the Night campaign that began in Belgium in 1976 and has since spread worldwide, as women in many different cities march together at night holding candles to protest the violence that often threatens women walking alone at night. But that such demonstrations are held is in itself an indication of the power of night and the fear it can inspire.
When I ask myself what the word night suggests to me, I immediately think of darkness, danger, crime, and violence. If you live in a big city and hear the news, it can hardly be otherwise. Next, I think of nightmares, pain, insomnia, but also the irrational, the unconscious, the unknown. And, to be sure, mystery and adventure. But always, night suggests something wild and primal, something to guard against, something to fear.
Wait a minute, you may say, New York is the city that never sleeps, a fun city, a place full of night life; at night people flock to night clubs and restaurants and bars, to theater and opera, to parties, to all kinds of amusement, licit and illicit. And think of Times Square at night -- an amazing light-filled spectacle. And seen from a distance -- from Brooklyn, for instance, or from the air -- isn't the city, with all its buildings and avenues and bridges, a brilliant, almost magical display of light?
| A feast of light in the heart of darkness.|
Yes, of course, but this is light surrounded by darkness, triumphing over it through modern technology and wholly dependent on that technology. Darkness is primal; light in darkness is a marvelous human invention, a contrivance, a defense against menacing, all-encompassing night.
Some politicians are not above appealing to our fear of night to win votes. Years ago a candidate for mayor ran an ad on the radio where you heard a lone pedestrian's footsteps on pavement, and then a voice asking if that pedestrian would get to his (or more likely her) destination safely; to guarantee such safety, vote for Candidate X. I resented that ad then and still resent it now, since Candidate X was not going to appear like Superman to protect the lone walker from whatever threat might materialize. I detest the politics of fear and will not vote for any candidate who resorts to it.
City dwellers have little awareness of what night really is. When, long ago, Bob and I discovered Monhegan Island off midcoast Maine and began vacationing there in the spring and fall, we rediscovered the reality of darkness, the very essence of night. On Monhegan there are no paved streets and no streetlights, so if you go out at night, you carry a flashlight and slowly grope your way. The darkness envelops you, and with it a silence unknown in the city, and overhead on cloudless nights there is a feast of stars. But the night there doesn't threaten; it is vast and awesome.
|What we miss in the city.|
Be that as it may, in the city many people venture out at night. Yes, but not everyone. When I go out in the daytime, I see the very old and the very young. The elderly are often going about with an aide, or with a walker or in a wheelchair, and the very young, well escorted, including even toddlers linked together by a rope, turn up in the greenmarkets, where they are instructed in the mysteries of food and its origins. But these are the most vulnerable of the city's residents and by evening, if not long before, they vanish from the streets. Evening and night belong to the young and adventurous; they above all are the ones who patronize the bars and restaurants and movie theaters, the ones who revel in the city's infinite offerings of entertainment and adventure, and its opportunities for mating. Bob and I were among them once, but no more.
|The Nightmare, by the German artist Johann Heinrich|
As the derivation of nightmare makes clear, night has always been associated with the forces of evil, with witches and demons and evil spirits of every kind, and in Christianity with Satan, their lord and master. In the Middle Ages people believed quite literally in the Witches' Sabbath, a gathering from midnight to dawn in some desolate place of witches and demons and their master, who was often present in the form of a goat or satyr, for a feast, wild dancing, and a Black Mass, followed by a sexual orgy of male and female demons. Whether they believed in it literally or not, many artists from the Renaissance on have portrayed it, including Dürer, Hans Baldung, and Goya. The same subject is conveyed musically in Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, and literarily in the Walpurgisnacht scene of Goethe's Faust. The problem for all writers and artists, I suspect, has been to make the Sabbath fascinating but not too enticing; evil always has its attractions.
|A Witches' Sabbath, an engraving by the Dutch artist Andries Jacobsz Stock, circa 1610.|
Many myths and religions have described a cosmic battle between the forces of light and darkness, heaven and hell, good and evil, a struggle that the forces of good are by no means destined to win. Norse mythology presents Ragnarok, meaning Destiny or Twilight of the Gods, when three winters come without summer, brothers kill brothers, the stars disappear, mountains topple, and the wolf Fenrir, long bound by the gods, bursts loose and swallows the sun and then in battle devours Odin, the ruler of the gods, while the thunderer Thor and other gods are slain by other monsters, and the whole world burns and sinks into the sea. This cosmic cataclysm, followed by the earth's rising beautiful and green again, and the survival of two humans whose progeny will repopulate the earth, influenced Wagner in the composition of his Ring cycle.
|Hell, a mosaic by Coppo di Marcovaldo in the baptistery of the cathedral of Florence.|
The Christian hell was never meant to be fun. Installed circa 1301, for me this work
seems surprisingly modern.
In traditional Christianity the underworld of darkness is hell, where demons torment the damned, a subject that medieval painters and sculptors have rendered in vivid detail. Milton, at the beginning of Paradise Lost, tells how Satan and his followers, having revolted against God in heaven, are hurled down into a "dismal Situation waste and wilde, / A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round / As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible ..." But if Satan and his cohorts are banished from the realm of light, their bleak new abode proves rather fascinating for the reader, and they themselves far more interesting that the light-bedizened denizens of heaven.
|Satan and his cohorts are cast down into hell. Illustration for |
Paradise Lost by Gustave Doré, 1866.
In mythology the darkness of night also characterizes the underworld, the land of the dead, usually a gloomy place contrasting sharply with the celestial realm of the gods. It also characterizes the chaos preceding cosmos, a formless, fluid realm out of which the Creator God, often a god of the sun or of light, brings forth the created world where humans live. Sometimes chaos is a she-monster or sea serpent or dragon that the hero of light slays and then, from her body, creates the world. (Big Mama again; see post #59). In Genesis, darkness is on the face of the deep, until God initiates Creation with the command, "Let there be light!" So night can suggest both death and the potential for life.
But it suggests other things, too. It inspires in some of us a wild freedom, a feeling that no one is watching, that we can get away with things. My own participation in this has been mild enough: in high school, occasional mindless hollering when out with the guys on Friday night. And once, when a student in Besançon, France, I joined with other students in an impromptu all-night rural promenade by moonlight, almost noiseless, but just disturbing enough that watchdogs barked, and peasants turned the lights on to ward off these mysterious intruders. More sinister was my return to the city by train during the blackout of 1977, when I was a target, not a doer. As the train crept slowly toward the 125th Street station in Harlem, I and the other passengers, all white, could see bonfires in the streets, and suddenly heard two male voices screaming insults and obscenities at us from buildings near the track -- only two, but it seemed like a chorus of hate. Yes, a wild freedom, a release of fierce passions kept in check by day.
|Beautiful at night. But if those lights go out ...|
A triple invasion of New York: This week New York has been invaded thrice, twice in Manhattan and once in Staten Island and the suburbs.
1. The Left Forum, an annual gathering of socialists, Marxists, libertarians, radicals, and progressives of every stripe and hue, is taking place at Pace University June 7-9. There are more than a thousand speakers, prominent among them Noam Chomsky, filmmaker Oliver Stone, and Garcia Linera, the vice-president of Bolivia. This year's theme: Mobilizing for Ecological/Economic Transformation, verbiage that in my opinion shows how far the Left still has to go, in order to appeal to a wide spectrum of voters in this country.
2. Also visiting the city are members of Pussy Riot, the Moscow-based activist group whose 2012 performance of an anti-Kremlin song inside the main Orthodox cathedral in Moscow got three of them convictions for hooliganism and a stay in prison, where two are still confined. They are here to promote an HBO documentary, "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer." They continue to wear masks in public and use pseudonyms, to avoid further trouble with authorities in Russia. I confess that I have reservations about their disrupting a religious service; they could have demonstrated outside. I had the same reservation about gay activists who some years ago rushed into Saint Patrick's Cathedral to disrupt a Mass.
3. Seventeen-year locusts have now awakened from their lengthy slumber so as to spawn, and are now sounding their cacophonous rasp high in the trees, smashing against windshields, mating on plants and porches, infesting suburban lawns, and crawling up the pant legs of Staten Islanders, under whose feet they perish with a crunch. Mercifully, they will be gone in about two weeks.
The newspaper of record gave ample space to Pussy Riot and the locusts, but as of Saturday, none whatsoever to the Left Forum. In their judgment, I presume, not "news that's fit to print."
Coming next: Who is a hero? My definition, who it includes, and who it excludes. Bradley Manning? Julian Assange? Obama? Martin Luther King? John Brown? Ralph Nader? The Dalai Lama? And so on. Feel free to add your own choices, especially if different from mine. Also, since heroes traditionally slay monsters, what monsters would you like to slay today? Not people (I don't encourage murder or mayhem), but monstrous laws, customs, institutions, corporations, and such. Newly in the works: Secrets of New York (Browder version), presenting mystery houses, a hidden meadow, Moses' Folly, the groin of summer, and other overlooked or hidden locales.
(c) 2013 Clifford Browder