I once had a job in the Edmonton Public Library where a rickety old elevator took me down to the archives in the cellar, a sort of sub-basement. That was the year I spent the entire winter in the dark.
From my late afternoon class at the university it was already becoming dark when I boarded the bus for downtown. By the time I disembarked on Jasper, the eyelid on the western edge of the city had closed leaving only a bluish pinkish afterglow, giving my walk down a narrow passageway between tall buildings a surreal dystopian atmosphere. Four hours later, when I left my place of employment, the sky was pitch black, too early for moon or stars.
The book I was writing at the time is a dark book. In it the snow keeps falling. It falls in layers, up to the front step, up to the windowsills, up to the roofs. There is a lot of snow. It turned out to be a book of short stories. The first line is, “Kate went into her father’s room. It was dark there, and cold.” The last words are, “”Maybe she doesn’t notice the darkness because for her it is always dark.” In between is gloom and doom. No wonder. The book never saw the light of day. It could not visualize light.
Every day I would step onto that doubtful elevator, push a button, hold my breath as the door closed on the real world of light and people, as the pulleys creaked, as the box swayed and lurched to a stop. At the bottom I said a prayer that the door would open, which it invariably did. I would step out into a small dim room lined with old books and yellowing paper where I would sit in silence for the next four hours sorting and labeling.
It crossed my mind: no one would hear me if I screamed. No one would notice if I passed out from lack of oxygen, suffocated, if I died down there. I could lie on the floor for several days before someone would stumble down to the archives. No one would think to look for me, no one would miss me until I didn’t pick up my pay envelope at the end of the month. Even then, they might think I had quit and left town in a hurry. No one at home would miss me. They would think I had stayed at the university to work late, that perhaps I had fallen asleep, head on books, in one of the carrels.
Some time during my four hours I was owed a fifteen minute break. Rather than chance that elevator any more than I had to, often I would stay down there, open a thermos of coffee from my knapsack and read. Likely, Mary Poppins would have been a better choice for my mental health but, as it turned out, the book I was reading at the time was Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. That’s the way things go. Being a writer and so wired to apply an underlay of meaning to the most trivial of happenings, I ask myself why? Why did that particular book beckon and seduce me? Those are the details one should pay attention to in this life.
Working the evening or graveyard shift is lonely, an emotional experience in itself. You are going to work when everyone else is going home to dinner, to friends, family, companionship. During those off hours, most work places are on a skeleton staff, there are few patrons or customers, there is little chance for socializing. Check out department stores in the evenings. You could roll a bowling ball through the aisles and not graze a soul.
When you work that shift underground the emotional content magnifies. Solitary confinement. You turn to yourself for strength. You draw it out of yourself like a spider does its web. It becomes a habit.
I think of Stephen King. There’s a man who has spent a lot of time underground. With his extended metaphor of “writing as excavation” and his idea that “stories are found things, like fossils in the ground,” sounds like he’s a frequent traveler on that rickety old elevator.