My Secret Life

By Rob Blair '06 / November / December 2004
June 13th, 2007

It’s  4 a.m. on a Thursday and I’m standing, of all places, on the Hegeman B fire escape outside my room. The pastry chefs in the Sharpe Refectory have just turned on their radio—Latin dance music, a syncopated drumbeat under guitars and an occasional trumpet blast—but the morning is otherwise silent. My suitemates are still asleep, and I’ve chosen, as usual, not to disturb them by leaving through the common room. So, like an escaping thief, out the window I’ve crawled. Carrying a blanket and a Thermos full of oatmeal, I climb down the fire-escape ladder and onto George Street.

To a passerby, I might appear to be an escaping thief, but at this hour no one’s in sight. This is my morning routine. I was born with a body clock set, it seems, to Tokyo time. It puts me to bed every night at nine and wakes me up again at three in the morning, a cycle so eerily precise that I never set an alarm clock.

What do I do at 3 or 4 a.m.? Sometimes I read and sometimes I study, but what I love to do is walk. Awake and outside morning after morning, I see a Brown few others get to see. Even students who have spent most of the night studying have retreated to their dorms by now. Before the sun rises, the campus becomes my own private playground, a ghost town, a still life.

Without people to inhabit and define the familiar spaces around me, they can assume disorientingly unfamiliar characteristics. This morning I pause in the middle of George Street and watch the pastry chefs at work in the basement of the Ratty. Through the grid work on the windows, I can’t see exactly what’s going on inside, but from here on the sidewalk, the bakery looks very Rube Goldberg: pulleys, levers, faucets, and what looks like some kind of conveyor belt. They’re baking muffins; they’re assembling Frankenstein’s monster.

Later in the day, the distractions of classes and homework and students buzzing about would make this sight seem unremarkable.

This early in the morning, however, they are mysterious and inviting.

I turn my back on the pastry chefs and duck into the alley between Hegeman and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, heading across Lincoln Field and by the Marcus Aurelius statue toward Faunce House. As I pass the rear of Sayles Hall, I look up at the stained-glass windows, which can seem gray and pointless in the daylight, but which by moonlight glow a fluorescent, almost alien shade of yellow. The main Green looks similarly otherworldly, illuminated by soft lamplight and obscured by fog and sprinkler mist, like the set for a Shakespearean fantasy. I smell charcoal and wet soil; I hear the wind and the sprinklers, which together sound like air being simultaneously let out of a thousand balloons.

I cross the Green to peep through the windows at University Hall, spying into administrative offices in a way that would be impossible at any other time of day. I recognize a Garfield comic strip from yesterday’s newspaper taped to a door; I read the title of a memo that’s been set on the seat of a chair. The objects aren’t startling or scandalous, but still I find a peculiar joy in discovering them, like reading someone else’s daily planner.

I head north on Prospect Street, and from my perch on College Hill, I can see that 4 a.m. transforms the landscape of Providence as well. The moon is low and almost full, and from Prospect Park, it highlights the red of the city: the brick of downtown hotels, the columns of blinking radio tower lights, the neon sign atop the Biltmore. At this time of day Providence seems at once primitive and futuristic, like a clay-and-mud metropolis whose citizens travel by flying car. And set in the middle of all this red sits the capitol building, bottom-lit by a ring of floodlights, appearing an almost ethereal white.

The houses around me, in contrast, seem indistinct and colorless, like a partially developed black-and-white photograph. I retrace my route through the neighborhood and continue toward Wickenden Street and India Point Park. I arrive shortly after five and eat my oatmeal standing on the bridge that overlooks the tip of Narragansett Bay. Providence, I think, has a sort of post-industrial beauty that doesn’t always seem so beautiful during the day. From here the city skyline looks like a natural phenomenon—a glacier, maybe, or a labyrinth of cliffs and fjords.

It looks uninhabited, uninhabitable.

But inhabited it is. Even this early in the morning, I am rarely the only one awake. On my way back to campus I pass a man kneeling on the top step of his porch, detaching a leash from his dog’s collar. Discovering others out and about at such an unusual hour feels oddly invasive. We are shy at 5 a.m., and perhaps vaguely suspicious or ashamed, though I don’t know why. The man and I exchange good mornings, and as we do, I feel as if I just barged in on him in the act of doing something intimate and private.

Only occasionally do I engage in early-morning conversations, and when I do they never last more than a few sentences.

I feel a sense of secrecy, propriety, and vulnerability before sunrise that I rarely feel during other parts of the day. Dialogue would break the mood, as if in the hours before sunrise, we’re not yet ready to be social creatures.

This doesn’t stop me from wondering about others who are awake at this time of day. This morning a security guard watches late-night TV in the CIT building, while a couple eats pizza and drinks coffee—a late dinner or an early breakfast?—on the Sciences Library terrace. Across the street, a student jogs under Soldiers Arch, carrying a duffel bag and an envelope.

I wonder where the couple got their pizza. I wonder what the security guard is watching. I wonder what’s in the jogger’s envelope. This is the peculiar world of the early riser, the insomniac, the sleepwalker. These same people would appear so different during the day that I wonder if I would even recognize them. I want to ask them: What are you doing awake at this hour? When will you go to bed? Or are you just getting up?But I don’t, and they don’t ask me. We are secretive, vulnerable, restrained. I think of us as ghosts or silhouettes: we’re not invisible, exactly, but we’re always about to disappear.

Just before 6, I leave the SciLi behind and head north along Thayer Street before cutting east toward the OMAC. I smell a vaguely unpleasant mishmash of body odor, garbage, patchouli, and coffee. Early mornings are full of pungent smells, and the silence seems to magnify them. Near the Dunkin’ Donuts on Thayer Street, I smell doughnuts cooking, which is unremarkable in itself, but the scent at this time is so overwhelming that I can still smell it as I pass CVS and turn onto Cushing Street.

By 6 a.m. I’ve made my way to the bleachers on the soccer field behind the OMAC. In the parking lot behind me three trucks idle with their headlights turned on. I can’t see who’s there, but I hear their disembodied voices punctuating the stillness. On the horizon beyond the visiting team’s goal, the big show is about to begin.

I choose a different route for my walks every morning, but they always end here. I sit in the bleachers  looking east. My world is about to be transformed. For hours the other night owls and early risers and I have shared the same uninhabited landscape, the same unspoken camaraderie, the special solitude. Now I imagine we share a common urgency at the prospect of daybreak, the same inexplicable impulse to disappear back into our rooms before the rest of the world rises to find us with our blankets and our Thermoses, spying or trespassing or studying or picnicking. The sun is rising, and with it is a vague disappointment as our still life is set in motion, as warm muffins appear in the Ratty and the first students shuffle in.

Rob Blair is an education concentrator from Washington, D.C.

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November / December 2004