The alarm hisses static at me at 4:45 a.m., inexplicably never waking Kate or Piper, but sending my arm out frantically groping for the button to swat it on the nose and send it slinking back to its crate. A moment of silence in the cool darkness as my arms and legs fall back to the same warm chalk outline in which I’d just been asleep, but I am wary of too much stillness, knowing that the countdown to my morning has been resumed, and Mission Control will be watching.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed and throw myself out and onto them as confidently as any trapeze artist, wincing only a little as my weight lands with a thud on my feet and ankles. They ache, especially in the mornings, and the few steps as I cross the bedroom and quietly mostly-close the door behind me are rough, some days. Carlos, always interested in being on the other side of the bedroom door, paws it open and steps through. I mostly-close it again. Closed would be worse: There would be scratching.
It is what passes for “dark” in New York City, but that only means that I might have to stand right by the window if I wanted to read some fine print. The accumulated sodium vapor lights and the spotlights on the angel across from our windows give me enough light to see the kitchen island, and on it, my laptop. I close my eyes and open the cover, wincing for the second time in the morning as the screen lights my eyelids a fluorescent orange, at least until I reach out and turn the brightness down as low as it’ll go, by feel. Crack one eye open to look at the news. Crack the other open to check the overnight mail, at work. If there’s big news already or some on the way, it’s best if I know about it soon, so as to be brainstorming how to get at it.
There’s usually nothing. Or rather, there’s nothing worth diverting us from the news plan set late last evening. I pull the arm on the slot machine once called the World Wide Web and blearily look at a few more places. Nothing of note. A sports event; an international conference; a fire; a press conference. America’s Unfunniest Domestic Happenings.
If I am not careful, however, I will spend my remaining 15 minutes pulling the slot machine’s arm and not putting my pants on, so I close the laptop lid. My eyes, now adjusted to the LED backlighting, go blind. I stumble into the bathroom, do what needs to be done, and climb into the shower. On days when there are new headlines to consider, here is where I consider them. I am alone in the world, climbing through an endless sluicing of warm water. I am Sham-Pu, the hermit with the clean hair. I am lathering my shaving brush and scraping my face, glancing down at the clock/nightlight in the bathroom.
The night before, I set my clothes out on a chair to foreshadow the next day: Here it is, tomorrow, and I’m ready. Rather than open the bedroom door and waft light, noise and the humid scent of Trader Joe’s Mango Shaving Cream across my sleeping wife and child, I politely leave my underwear just outside, crumpled as only Sham-Pu can appreciate. My belt clinks as I put it on, and Carlos opens the bedroom door again. I mostly-close it.
If there are leftovers, I gather a lunch of them; if not, it’s sandwich-time. Why don’t I assemble my lunch the evening before? If you find out, let me know. By now it is 5:17 a.m., and the car service is undoubtedly waiting for me, since I ask them to arrive at 5:15. My pace quickens. I do not have time to re-sync my phone. I do not have time to feed the cats or put the knife I just used in the dishwasher. I am convinced that I will someday forget some member of the trifecta – keys, wallet, cellphone – and so I cross myself, multiple times, before I grab my backpack and head out, closing the apartment door as quietly as I can.
And then it’s straight down the elevator shaft from the 15th floor, plunging south down the strangely deserted island of Manhattan, the few people alert and awake at 5:25 as strange to my eyes as the tubeworms that live under the sea near volcanic vents, though I’m sure I’m just as strange to them. Who needs to be awake at this hour? The particular injustices of my life and work require me to be, of course, but why these people? 24-hour diners and prostitutes and garbage collectors and business people and nannies and me, all of us moving through the same streets that will, in only an hour or two, be filled with the morning cattle drive. All dust clouds and whooping cowboys, but not just yet. The guy driving the car I’m in can hit 50 mph down Columbus, if he times the stoplights just right. I close my eyes and bite my tongue, or, with those who drive slower, I practice my Spanish. I have lost nearly every tense but present and the odd gerund, but we get by.
At work, I badge my way in through the turnstiles, guarding the building from … we’re not sure what, exactly, but the building security people are as officious as can be about them. I have my backpack, my lunch, and the trifecta. I use the same hand I used to swat the alarm clock to summon the elevator. It is 5:35. I have been awake for 50 minutes.