As they say in the melodramas, the city sleeps. Windows have said good-night to one another. Rooftops have tucked themselvesaway. The pavements are still. People have vanished. The darkness sweeping like a great broom through the streets has emptied them.
The clock in the window of a real estate office says "Two." A few windows down another clock says "Ten minutes after two."
The newspaper man waiting for a Sheffield Avenue owl car walks along to the next corner, listening for the sound of car wheels and looking at the clocks. The clocks all disagree. They all hang ticking with seemingly identical and indisputable precision. Their white faces and their black numbers speak in the dark of the empty stores. "Tick-tock. Time never sleeps. Time keeps moving the hands of the city's clocks around and around."
Alas, when clocks disagree what hope is there for less methodical mechanisms, particularly such humpty-dumpty mechanisms as tick away inside the owners of clocks? The newspaper man must sigh. These clocks in the windows of the empty stores along Sheffield Avenue seem to be arguing. They present their arguments calmly, like meticulous professors. They say: "Eight minutes of two. Three minutes of two. Two. Four minutes after two. Ten minutes after two."
Thus the confusions of the day persist even after the darkness has swept the streets clean of people. There being nobody else to dispute, the clocks take it up and dispute the hour among themselves.
The newspaper man pauses in front of one half-hidden clock. It says "Six." Obviously here is a clock not running. Its hands have stopped and it no longer ticks. But, thinks the newspaper man, it is not to be despised for that. At least it is the only clock in the neighborhood that achieves perfect accuracy. Twice a day while all the other clocks in the street are disputing and arguing, this particular clock says "Six" and of all the clocks it alone is precisely accurate.
In the distance a yellow light swings like an idle lantern over the car tracks. So the newspaper man stops at the corner and waits. This is the owl car. It may not stop. Sometimes cars have a habit of roaring by with an insulting indifference to the people waiting for them to stop at the corner. At such moments one feels a fine rage, as if life itself had insulted one. There have been instances of men throwing bricks through the windows of cars that wouldn't stop and cheerfully going to jail for the crime.
But this car stops. It comes to a squealing halt that must contribute grotesquely to the dreams of the sleepers in Sheffield Avenue. The night is cool. As the car stands silent for a moment it becomes, with its lighted windows and its gay paint, like some modernized version of the barque in which Jason journeyed on his quest.
The seats are half filled. The newspaper man stands on the platform with the conductor and stares at the passengers. The conductor is an elderly man with an unusually mild face.
The people in the car try to sleep. Their heads try to make use of the window panes for pillows. Or they prop their chins up in their palms or they are content to nod. There are several young men whose eyes are reddened. A young woman in a cheap but fancy dress. And several middle-aged men. All of them look bored and tired. And all of them present a bit of mystery.
Who are these passengers through the night? And what has kept them up? And where are they going or coming from? The newspaper man has half a mind to inquire. Instead he picks on the conductor, and as the car bounces gayly through the dark, cavernous streets the mild-faced conductor lends himself to a conversation.
"I been on this line for six years. Always on the owl car," he says. "I like it better than the day shift. I was married, but my wife died and I don't find much to do with my evenings, anyway.
"No, I don't know any of these people, except there's a couple of workingmen who I take home on the next trip. Mostly they're always strangers. They've been out having a good time, I suppose. It's funny about them. I always feel sorry for 'em. Yes, sir, you can't help it. "There's some that's been out drinking or hanging around with women and when they get on the car they sort of slide down in their seats and you feel like there was nothing much to what they'd been doing. Pessimistic? No, I ain't pessimistic. If you was ridin' this car like I you'd see what I mean.
"It's like watchin' people afterwards. I mean after they've done things. They always seem worse off then. I suppose it's because they're all sleepy. But standin' here of nights I feel that it's more than that. They're tired sure enough but they're also feeling that things ain't what they're cracked up to be.
I seldom put anybody off. The drunks are pretty sad and I feel sorry for them. They just flop over and I wake them up when it comes their time. Sometimes there's girls and they look pretty sad. And sometimes something really interestin' comes off. Once there was a lady who was cryin' and holdin' a baby. On the third run it was. I could see she'd up and left her house all of a sudden on account of a quarrel with her husband, because she was only half buttoned together.
"And once there was a man whose pictures I see in the papers the next day as having committed suicide. I remembered him in a minute. Well, no, he didn't look like he was going to commit suicide. He looked just about like all the other passengers—tired and sleepy and sort of down."
The mild-faced conductor helped one of his passengers off. "Don't you ever wonder what keeps these people out or where they're going at this time of night?" the newspaper man pursued as the car started up again.
"Well," said the conductor, "not exactly. I've got it figured out there's nothing much to that and that they're all kind of alike. They've been to parties or callin' on their girls or just got restless or somethin'. What's the difference? All I can say about 'em is that you get so after years you feel sorry for 'em all. And they're all alike—people as ride on the night run cars are just more tired than the people I remember used to ride on the day run cars I was on before my wife died."
The clock in a candy store window says "Three-twelve." A few windows down, another clock says "Three-five." The newspaper man walks to his home studying the clocks. They all disagree as before. And yet their faces are all identical—as identical as the faces of the owl car passengers seem to the conductor. And here is a clock that has stopped. It says "Twenty after four." And the newspaper man thinks of the picture the conductor identified in the papers the next morning. The picture said something like "Twenty after four" at the wrong time. It's all a bit mixed up.