Sad story: lonely sleepless man thinks dark thoughts

Column: 05.07.21

For years I have put myself to sleep at night by standing at the rail of the Queen Mary 2 as she slips across New York Harbor past Miss Liberty and inches under the Verrazano Bridge and out to sea toward England. We sailed on the Queen Mary 2 to celebrate my 70th birthday years ago and my wife was wary of the extravagance but it has more than paid for itself by giving me thousands of nights of sleep. My sweetie lies in bed worrying about COVID variants and about all of her loved ones in turn and I stand at the rail with a glass of champagne but there you have it: life is unfair.

We have led a penurious life during the pandemic. “There is no point in wasting money,” she keeps telling me. So our refrigerator is full of tiny plastic bowls holding small portions of leftovers such as would sustain a Chihuahua and she has accused me of wasting laundry soap and I have to hide the books I buy: she only reads e-books she borrows from the library. She sleeps with two windows open so it’s cold when I wake up and I crank up the thermostat and she turns it back down. I ask if the stock market crashed during the night. No, she says, but you can put on a sweater if you’re cold. She says I use too much coffee. We are liberals so the coffee is a locally ground free-trade organic coffee, not made by child slave labor, so I don’t feel bad about generous portions, but I follow her instructions.

Last week she flew to Connecticut to visit family and I went to the store and bought half-and-half for my coffee and a New York strip steak for breakfast. I turned up the heat and closed the windows. I made the coffee strong. A man needs what he needs.

I was awakened at 2 a.m. by the roar of big dragster engines revving on I-94 nearby, drivers who love the bottleneck tunnel for the sheer reverberation. It sounds like a B-52 landing on the lawn. Pure adolescence of the Nobody-can-tell-me-what-to-do approach to life. There’s a lot of it around these days. Four hundred adolescents are likely to pay a price for storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, encouraged by members of Congress who then fled from the mob. It was all about noisemaking.

I tried to imagine myself aboard the Queen Mary 2 but it was gone to sea and I was wide awake. The apartment was still. I turned on the bedside lamp. My sweetie, who handles all the anxiety for the both of us, leaving me free to write a comic novel, an adolescent enterprise if the truth be told, was gone. I thought about Connecticut, I thought about Lyme disease.

I tried reading Henry James who’s put me to sleep many times over the years. No luck. I turned on the radio, a call-in festival of people in agreement that the U.S. government had covered up the landing of aliens in New Mexico in 1947 — alien beings who have spread a virus that causes people to think collectively instead of individually, and the COVID vaccine is actually boosting that virus.

I went to the kitchen and put the coffee on. I looked out the window and saw other lighted windows nearby. The insomniac brigade, sentries of the sleeping world, thinking our 4 a.m. thoughts. I opened up the Times and read that Verizon is selling AOL to an equity firm and I remembered the love letters I wrote to my sweetie on AOL. We were both traveling back then, she with an orchestra in Asia, I with a radio show in the Midwest, and our love was urgent since I was fifty at the time. She wrote me about a steep hike to a Buddhist temple in Burma, the strange tourists, the wild monkeys in the trees, her exhilaration at being alone in a foreign land, and I wrote: “When your happiness makes me happy, even at a distance, independent of me, that means I’m the right man for you.” A profound thought and I turned off the coffee, opened two windows, crawled into bed in the chill, and the Queen was on course on the open Atlantic, not far from where the Titanic had gone down but there wasn’t an iceberg in sight and I am still here to tell the story.

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Every time I go to the ballpark, I go past the Orpheum in Minneapolis and think back to the early Eighties when Jean Redpath, Lisa Neustadt, and Helen Schneyer sang on the show and sold out the theater three times. Helen was a sight. She was a big strong lady in a flowing white dress with several pounds of turquoise jewelry on her and her hair tied up high and she sang in a powerful Jewish Baptist voice, gospel songs and tragic ballads. She’d been a social worker and psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., and a major force in traditional music and she was funny as could be, but not onstage. Onstage she was all business. She sat down and walloped out the songs and you could feel it up in the balcony.