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Maximilian in the basement watched TV every night. I lay on a mattress on the floor in the apartment above him. He’d turn on the news around ten, fall asleep, and leave it going all night.

Once, I visited a couple who lived next door to a circus. It was loud, but even so, a whole circus — animals, ringleader, crowd — was quieter than Maximilian’s thundering TV. And yet, his apartment had no electricity. This was Albany Park, Chicago, 1999: broken windows, broken doorbells, balky hot water, apartments partitioned in two, apartments formed in unfinished, unwired spaces. Maximilian powered his TV by an extension cord that ran up the basement stairs into the entryway and attached to a light. When I’d had enough, I’d go down and unplug it. He’d wake, shout in confusion, then fall back asleep. If this is the worst it gets, I thought, well, I can handle it. Then Maximilian’s girlfriend came back, and it got much, much worse.

I went down to unplug the TV and the cord was gone. After that, the TV roared on all night, every night.

I’d moved back to Chicago that year full of hope, but nothing was working out. I was broke and tired all the time. I had several part-time jobs that I hated. My family told me over and over that I was wasting my life. I couldn’t understand where Dorothy and Maximilian were getting electricity all of a sudden.

Then they started fighting. I understood pretty quickly that they’d been through this before, because when you fight with someone you’ve never fought with, you start small — a bang on the table, a single shout, a slammed door. You have to work up to sustained screaming.

Sleeplessness can do a number on you: it’s not just the agony and boredom of lying there all night. It’s the daytime weariness that follows, that self-protective, energy-conserving posture you assume in daylight. It goes on too long and that posture becomes your personality.

I don’t know if I can even describe the sound of Dorothy’s screaming. She sounded like a black-metal band with no band, just the shrieking lead singer, that awful, throat-tearing, exorcist scream; a scream that opens a hole in your brain that seems to fill and overflow with a white liquid, and you can feel it spreading and coating and killing. She could scream like that for hours, while Maximilian whined and pleaded. I tugged my mattress from one end of the apartment to the other — they never fought in the day — trying to get away.

I saw Maximilian on the stairs.

“Maximilian,” I said, “that was too much noise last night.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

I don’t know why he called me ma’am. I hated it, and I hated him: scrawny fellow, strung out, misspent, shaking.

“Maximilian,” I said, “do you think you are making good choices or bad choices?”

“Bad choices, ma’am,” he said.

I’m not talking about noise. Think of the rackets you’ve slept through — the all-night diner you lived over one summer, the artists’ welding outfit that opened up next door, the boys downstairs when you first moved to New York, the cocktail waitress upstairs, the salsa club on the other side of the wall. Anyone who has lived in an apartment knows what I’m talking about — but that’s not what I’m talking about. Those are proof of human exuberance, industry, joy, not sheer suffering, not crippling rage. You may lose sleep over them, but you won’t lose sleep over them.

The fighting became a regular thing. Dorothy was a monster that Maximilian spent nights placating. Dorothy was his nightmare come to life. Above me lived another unhappy couple. They had their own weekly fights, though theirs were soothingly ordinary: his booming voice, her shrill one, revving up before dinner and winding down by nine, a guilty, sulky silence at bedtime.

You never know what’s going to keep you up. Last year I taught a class at the Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut, a high-security prison. The first few weeks I had the students do a series of warm-up exercises: recount exact dialogue you hear, tell me about the quality of light in the room, describe the ceiling, and so on. They wrote about the cells they lived in, about the guards who came by at night and said things to them in their beds. They described the pattern of steel on the ceiling as they lay looking up. They talked about how each cell had a “dim” switch the guards could press in the middle of the night to check that the prisoners were in their beds. Each night the sudden haze woke them. The students handed in pages and pages documenting their sleeplessness. One inmate said his light was stuck on dim twenty-four hours a day, so his cell was in perpetual gloom, never dark enough for sleep. Outside his small barred window he could see true darkness, and he longed for it.

I begged the evil slumlord to evict them. I called at reasonable hours, at two in the afternoon. Later I called him during the fights, in the middle of the night. “Can you hear that?” I held the phone out. “She’s going to kill him!”

“He’s all right,” the slumlord said.

I called over and over, then switched to calling the police. The first time they came, they pulled Dorothy away struggling, put her in a squad car, and drove off, but I couldn’t sleep after that. She was back in the morning.

I was so tired. I did aerobics in my apartment at three in the morning, ran in place on the floor while they fought below. I had a book my mother had given me that was designed to help you improve your life’s lot. In the middle of the night I worked through the book’s exercises, which had you make increasingly large and complex charts meant to direct you to better outcomes. I wrote long, incoherent emails all night, forty, fifty at a time. Some people stopped speaking to me.

It went on and on. They fought again, I called the police again, the police showed up again, and we went through it all over again.

Months passed. The landlord stopped taking my calls, the cops took longer and longer to arrive. Then they stopped showing up at all.

One’s life is full of sleepless people. My brother, when he was alive, was more or less nocturnal. I remember him prowling the dark house of my childhood. I once had a job at a homeless shelter where the women slept on mats on the floor, the sleepless mixed in with the sleeping, a self-defeating operation that kept everyone up all night. We staggered out in a group in the morning and fanned out over the city. I knew a woman who had for years kept a running tally of the number of hours of sleep she’d missed. The tally now ran into the hundreds. She told me that one day she was going to stop, lie down on (in?) the ground, and “catch up.”

Child rearing doesn’t count. Consider the obvious element of hope and happiness involved. That’s not the kind of sleeplessness I’m talking about. I’m talking about Albany Park insomnia. Think of Noah, Abraham, and Moses and their jealous, pesky God, who had them up all night worrying about doing the works of the insane. Jesus couldn’t sleep. According to Matthew, late at night, hours before his arrest, he stood in a garden and prayed, “O my father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” while his disciples kept falling asleep. Think of Flannery O’Connor: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place.”

The sleeplessness of the exiled, the expat, the atheist, the existentialist, the incarcerated.

Why do you keep coming back here?” I heard a cop ask Dorothy one night. He had her handcuffed on the stairs.

“When I was in prison,” she said, “Maximilian, he called me up and he said, ‘Baby, why don’t you come on home?’ ”

I didn’t like her any more for it, but this little speech — the sole calm sentence I ever heard from her — struck me. In fact I’d thought I was coming home. I’d grown up a few miles away. Every time I left, swearing never to step into the godforsaken shadow of Chicago again, there I was a few years later, prodigal and poorer — because where else was I going to go?

No one in Albany Park was home. That whole neighborhood was like the fall of the Tower of Babel. Women strolling in saris, shirtless Romanian men playing soccer in the park, men in long robes. All these people from distant lands probably had the same sleepless mantra: This is a strange, unpleasant place and I want to go home.

The landlord finally evicted them. I watched Maximilian load up and leave.

One of my final afternoons at the prison, I arrived just as a blizzard was descending. It was a big one, predicted to be the worst of the year. I pulled in to the parking lot, and the snow was like hanging a white sheet over your windshield, but I’d come anyway. I joked to the first set of guards, “Guess I’ll have to spend the night!” The guards laughed, so I tried it on the next set of guards I had to get through, and they laughed, too, and so on down the line — layers and layers of guards and metal detectors and doors and gates and hallways — everyone smiling and kidding around. When I pulled out my joke at last for the students, they roared with delight.

is the author, most recently, of the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Henry Holt).

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January 2011

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