Strange Times

3 a.m. on a Sunday night when sleep is elusive. I've gotten to bed a bit later than usual and have tossed and turned for an hour or more. But finally, finally I manage to drift into the early stages of slumber, only to have a rapid scuffing sound, outside the window next to my bed, begin to peck its way into my consciousness. In my dreamy state, I imagine that someone is rhythmically scraping at the building's bricks, that perhaps my super is making some inexplicably ill-timed repairs to the outer wall of the building.

But why, I ask myself in my still-submerged state, would Alex do such work at this ungodly hour? What masonry emergency could be so dire as to require patching in the wee hours of the morning? But wait -- as I continue to ascend toward wakefulness, the sound now strikes me as more closely resembling the bouncing of a basketball on the sidewalk outside my second-floor apartment -- but by an especially adept dribbler. So why, I wonder, would the Harlem Globetrotters be running drills outside my building at 3 a.m. on a Monday morning? Don't they have a gym somewhere they could use?

As I grow even more alert, I realize, of course, that it's likely not the Globetrotters who are the culprits but rather some neighborhood kids, who ought to be home in bed, working on their ballhandling skills. I roll over, wrapping my pillow around my head in an attempt to muffle the noise of their dribbling, but it's no use.

And the more I listen, the less likely it seems that the noise is the sound of a basketball on concrete. If it is, this kid is one helluva ball handler; he's laying down beats that would do Tito Puente proud. Throwing in the towel on a quick return to slumber and quite agitated at having my sleep disturbed, I sit up and kneel on the bed so that I can look out the window.

My anger quickly subsides as I view, on this crystal clear night, in the warm glow of a nearly full moon, four men who stand facing each other in a tight circle beneath my window. They are tap dancers -- soft shoe dancers, really -- trading eights, each in turn strutting his stuff, creating enchantingly syncopated rhythms with only their feet.

As I watch, the youngest of the group, a man of perhaps 22 years, is taking his turn. He is in baggy jeans and a white T-shirt and the intent expression on his face stands in stark contrast to the easy joy revealed in the faces of the other men, who are each his elder and by some years. They, it seems, have learned to relax and let it go, to trust that their feet will not fail them. But the young man earnestly endeavors to perform the very steps he may well have spent the entire day conjuring. It may be that his teacher is among this group; perhaps they are all his teachers. But he is clearly relieved when his turn, his eight bars, has passed. It shows in the sudden, relaxed droop of his shoulders and in the gentle arc of his fingers as his hands hang at his sides.

As he stops, the man to his right picks up the rhythm. He is a portly fellow in his fifties and though his moves are subtler, less flashy than the younger man who preceded him, his sheer delight in the internal rhythms that are guiding his feet is obvious. The moonlight reflects off his shiny, coffee-colored pate and as he reaches the end of his routine, he throws back his head, laughing, reveling in the exultation of the moment.

He turns and, like a relay racer passing off a baton, slaps five with the third dancer who, though probably his contemporary, stands well over six feet tall and is rail thin. This dancer wears a sly, knowing grin as he shuffles his feet, stepping back just a bit from the circle so that he might raise his long, thin arms -- first his right and then his left -- straight out to his sides as if to balance himself. He is a bit showier than were the dancers preceding him; he bends forward at the waist, swings his outstretched arms to and fro, and finally removes the baseball cap that sits upon his head, bowing deep to an audience only he can hear.

As he bows, the elder of the group, a man who must be at least sixty-five and, judging by his shock of white hair, may be as old as eighty, is already dancing. His steps are almost imperceptible -- I can't even hear the shuffling of his shoes against the pavement -- but he clearly lives for moments like this, relishing the opportunity to surrender, even in his limited fashion, to those same rhythms that the three younger men had marked with their feet, to perpetuate, in the pale glow of a late spring moon, what surely must now be, for him, several decades of dancing. His are slow and steady movements, long, scraping sweeps of the foot, like a drummer using brushes instead of sticks, but they seem wonderfully economical after the feverish steps of the younger men.

I watch, captivated, for two or three laps around this circle of dancers. There is nowhere I'd rather be at this moment and the thought of rolling over and trying to will myself to sleep is now singularly unappealing. I find myself cursing my 9-to-5 job and longing for my bartending days, when my schedule was my own and if I wanted to stay up all night, I did. I toy with the notion of arriving late at the office and blaming it on a broken alarm clock or even calling in sick and not going in at all, but it's a busy time of the year and I have a stack of work awaiting me. So it is with a deep sigh of regret that I reach up and rap three or four times on the windowpane. The four men pause as one and look up. Their gentle faces show just a hint of surprised alarm and one of them says, "Sorry! Sorry, buddy; don't call the cops on us."

I give them a wave of reassurance, and they gather their bags and jackets before moving on. I watch as they wander down the street to the east. After they drift out of sight, I lay back in my bed and marvel at the gifts a night in the city can yield.

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