Four a.m. died a slow death over the past two decades. It was buried, virtually unnoticed, in an unmarked grave. The last of its breed, 4 a.m. was many, many eras old.
Other hours were just cat shadows of 4 a.m.
Five a.m.? It never had 4 a.m.’s mystique. As I recall, 5 a.m. was discovered 30 years ago by three 20-year-old college students in a Birmingham hotel, trying to learn to not drop the shot glass halfway through the whiskey bottle. We couldn’t go swimming because a dead rat was floating in the pool. Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner were moaning up and down the radio dial, so we turned on the TV, and here was a guy reading hog prices for the early rising farmers. Hog prices.
We watched. It got us to the morning, and that is the point when you’re in Birmingham.
Three a.m.? It was 4 a.m.’s waiting room. The bars closed, and the drunks were still staggering home, trying to fit their keys in the door lock. The 24-hour restaurants were too brightly lit, humming like a sickly fluorescent tube. So we’d return to the apartment and watch the latest of the late-night talk hosts, Tom Snyder, fade into a cloud of nicotine. And then found ourselves watching the U.S. Marine Corps Band play the national anthem, night after night, until we could recite the serial numbers on the jets on the sign-off fly-by.
Sign-off. Remember when TV would quit for the night?
It was the same time I discovered 5 a.m. that I found 4 a.m., but that was sometime after 3 a.m. I didn’t know at the time that 4 a.m. was dying. Heck, none of us even knew it was sick.
Late at night, I’d bang the crust out of the old percolator, set it to work, and sit down to some college-type activities. Cramming for a test, or writing a paper without notes or outline. Just feed the typewriter and hammer away. Deadline prods the adrenal glands, and produces better results. Another miracle, please, Mr. Underwood.
The radio stations signed off as the night hummed on. All that could be found were those strange guys on the far left of the FM dial. The ones who couldn’t get a human time slot because they didn’t want to play hit songs. They didn’t talk much, they just showed up every half hour and read a list of what they had been playing. Like a guy reading hog prices. I learned about jazz this way, from 4 a.m.
Four a.m. was a spiked and creative thing. One of Tom Waits’ earlier albums, Heart of Saturday Night, was probably written at 4 a.m. “Never saw the sunrise till I stayed out all night,” he says. Waits’ music made more sense at 4 a.m. It was its theme music.
If two people were awake at 4 a.m., the conversation tended to wander and wane, but in an agreeable, unforced way.
At 4 a.m., people once either entertained themselves or thought some really heavy thoughts. If you wrote yourself a note at 4 a.m., at 2 p.m. the next day it didn’t make any sense.
When 4 a.m. was alive, most of the people who were awake were either insomniac widows lying in bed reading murder mysteries or weary factory workers sitting at the kitchen table, cracking open a second six pack. It was too late for everyone else, too early for farmers.
Four a.m. was always a sparsely populated thing, like living in Idaho.
Four a.m. was the hump day of the night. Once you got through it, you knew you would make it to morning. And morning came in on bat wings. The horizon would lighten slightly, then a light crack opened. You saw uncertain blues and purples, then that first brilliant bar of orange. In a few moments, the picture had changed. It was a worldwide makeover.
You can see what killed 4 a.m. if you take your dog for a walk around the neighborhood where 4 a.m. once lived, looking in people’s windows from the sidewalk. That’s probably not illegal; It’s nothing you couldn’t see from a car, although it might get you shot. So be careful. Usually what you’ll see is a flickering glow. It’s not a friendly glow. It looks downright diabolical. Like a weird experiment.
Cable TV, and the Internet, killed 4 a.m. They chatter endlessly and mindlessly through the night, like getting caught sitting next to someone on the bus who won’t shut up. Now it smells of cheap, kitchen-utensil, miracle-cleaner salesmanship. The fellow intoning hog prices has been replaced by Vince the ShamWow Guy, and Facebook friends you’ve never met.
Now, when you write a note to yourself in the early hours, it’s usually a toll-free number on the back of an envelope.
Since we’ve become wired 24 hours a day, we miss too many sunrises. One minute it’s dark, then you look out the window on the way to the bathroom and it’s light.
Some folks do not realize 4 a.m. is gone. You can still see them on the streets, last-chance hookers sagging with time like an aging Miss Haversham in her wedding dress, waiting for her groom to walk in the door.
Sometimes, I hear 4 a.m. may be living in foreign lands, under an assumed name.
But it’s gone, gone, gone, and it’s never, ever coming back.
Four a.m. left no survivors.