The world is full of questions. Who watches the NBA? What would the power ballad be without Michael Bolton? Is Nicki Minaj for real? Who thought shoulder pads were a good idea? Are Kris Kristofferson and Jeff Bridges really just the same guy?
But at 3:45am, there’s only one question that finds its way to the front of the queue. Namely, why am I awake?
I was on my way to meet my friend Lisa for a run. I looked at the clock on my dashboard. It was just past four. Why am I awake? Headlights appeared in the distance. Seconds later, they passed at a groggy fifty-five miles-per-hour. Why is that guy awake? Another car at an intersection. And that guy. Why is that guy awake? Why are all these people awake?
Needless to say, at four in the morning, my interrogation skills are limited.
To counter the fact that it was still the middle of the night, I was blasting Katy Perry’s “Roar” as loudly as possible, forcing myself to sing along. Now, I consider myself a sort of music snob who sniffs at mainstream hits. Yet I have found that listening to some of my favorite bands—say, The National or Iron and Wine, for instance—in the solitary dark of early morning tends to evoke the sensation that I’m about to be imprisoned or suffer some other equally unpleasant fate. Thus, I resort to the invigorating gambit of blaring the foul but peppy hits of pop radio (heaven help us). This time it was “Roar.” On repeat.
I’m not proud of it. But I got the eye of the tiger.
“This was a terrible idea,” I declared as Lisa and I hopped out of our cars and began clipping on headlamps and blinking lights. It really wasn’t such a bad idea, and I’d run this early before, but it always takes me a while to warm up to the concept of movement before 5:00am.
“Haha… I know. I didn’t think you’d be crazy enough to join me.”
“Yeah, well, I like crazy.”
It didn’t take long before my reluctance melted away. The fresh, brisk air. The utter stillness of nature in winter. The fact that I couldn’t see anything outside of a three-foot radius. I was awake now. Bed was a distant memory. I already felt productive. I was visiting with a friend. And I had started the countdown to coffee. Sure it was early. Sure it was dark. And sure I was probably going to hit that mid-afternoon slump somewhere around 10:00am. But suddenly, I didn’t mind.
There’s just something about ridiculously early hours. Things are… different. The world is different. People are different. Even I’m different. Yes, there is a secret society that exists before 6:00am. And I think I’m in love with it.
Take Bill, for instance. Bill is at Starbucks every morning before the sun comes up. Every. Morning. He orders a five-shot Americano, which the baristas have dubbed the “Pentacano.” He calls his wife “The Chief,” and when he doesn’t have to go to work, he brings her a grande mocha because they both wake up at 3:15 every morning and could use a little caffeine. Bill is officially a business management professor and unofficially the mayor of our little local coffeehouse, greeting people as they walk through the door, asking the baristas how they are this fine morning, and occasionally flipping on the Starbucks sign that hangs in the front window. (He arrives early enough to help the opening crew with their morning tasks.)
“Well, hello there!” he calls cheerily when I emerge from the dark parking lot into the bright, freshly-brewed warmth of the store. “You’re looking extra spiffy this morning! You always look spiffy!”
I’m utterly bedraggled and bundled in a unique assortment of running clothes and hand-knitted winter accessories. My hair is unbrushed and spilling out of a wool hat that has the enviable characteristic of being topped with a yarn pom-pom.
“I wouldn’t go straight to ‘spiffy,’” I laugh.
“Well, everyone has their own kind of spiff!” he assures me as he salutes his statement with a sip of his pentacano. “How many miles are we running today? Eighteen? Twenty?”
In addition to holding me accountable to my running schedule, Bill also checks on the progress of my Friday morning Torah study with my friend Michelle. We meet each week at 6:00am, and Bill is always there to ask if we’re “still Exodus-ing” or to inquire if it has indeed been three years now that we’ve been stuck in Genesis.
“Well, you ladies have a wonderful study. You’re both looking exceptionally spiffy this morning,” he says as he moves to sit with another group of regulars, who proceed to untangle the most recent knot of global issues, usually beginning with the NFL.
And of course there is Lois. Lois brings her own cup and gets an iced drink no matter how cold it is outside. She is a master at crossword puzzles (newspaper) and solitaire (iPad) and surrounds herself with the two, claiming her spot at one of the larger tables (one must have room to think) before the morning rush. Unlike Bill, who is perpetually surrounded by his constituents, Lois always sits by herself, though she greets people between “28 Across” and “3 Down.” Usually, about halfway through her visit, she’ll offer the nearest person a food item—whether it be some fresh strawberries from the farmer’s market or half of a turkey sandwich from anywhere else. Lois has the scoop on all the new foreign films and the “Coffee Concerts” at the Sheldon, which she says “are filled with gray hair but so much fun.”
Then there are the firefighters who change shifts around 5:30am and file through the door one or two at a time until the local firehouses are restocked with fresh crews. There is Allison, who greets me with a hug, sends love to my family, and asks if anyone wants to get margaritas this weekend. There is also Larry, who wears high socks and longs shorts regardless of the weather and orders a coffee both before and after his run. And there is the scowling businessman (I don’t know his name) who wears khaki pants and orders a regular coffee. He terrifies me, even though he is always friendly and asks me how my writing is going.
There is always much chatter, much laughing, and much socializing at our little Starbucks around 6:00am. It is one of the few beacons of light on dark, cold winter mornings.
But as the sun comes up and ages the sky, our little community of early risers dissolves into the day. Bill is always the first to leave. His constituents follow suit, the world’s problems having been adequately solved for the time being. Larry leaves for his run. Lois closes the paper. The daily herds of the corporate world and high schoolers and groggy-eyed stragglers begin to form long lines snaking from the counter. Like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight, my little “early morning” world comes to an end. Sure, it’s less “in a kingdom far, far away” and more The Andy Griffith Show, but still.
Yes, I am most definitely a morning person. It can be hard to force myself out of bed at 3:45am, especially in the winter. And no, the subsequent fifteen minutes aren’t so great either as I stumble into the bathroom only to be waylaid by a gratuitously bright light and the regalia of thermal running apparel, which becomes even more elaborate (read: difficult to put on) in a state of temporary blindness. But once I’m dressed and out the door, once I’ve taken the first few steps of my run, I feel absolutely alive.
And then I get to visit Mayberry, even if it is for only a little while.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.