Humans have always dealt with the fear of darkness, much in the same way every child fears a birthday party in which no one shows up. There is something primitive in the anxiety that grows as shadows lengthen. Yet darkness cloaks as much as it may stifle, and in a city where light lasts well after the sun has set, it may liberate or encourage practices that may not have the freedom to exist in daylight.
Keep in mind that not all such practices are bad. As Joachim Schlör discusses in his essay “Night Walking,” “the street has been the theatre in which conflicts between order and disorder, between security and insecurity, morality and immorality have been played out. In all those debates it was also the metaphorical place to which the images and ideas of freedom and control, the dissolution and demarcation of boundaries referred” (Schlör 235). In other words, people at night are essentially freer to be themselves. They can be drunk and get silly or be loud without the harsh daylight exhibiting them to the world, reveling in such ambiguity as the only night may allow. This happens most prevalently in modern-day bars and clubs, as one must only walk a few blocks in the East Village on a Saturday night (or early morning) to see this. But throwing off your daylight best and donning your nightly shades is not reserved solely for the bacchanal youth. It can take place for anyone who suffers from the stress of the daylight hours, and one has to look no further than John’s Restaurant.
Located on directly on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 12th street, John’s of 12th is home to the finest, home-cooked Italian cuisine. During the day, the spot is relatively silent; the restaurant isn’t even officially open until 4:00 pm, when the day starts to hint at ending, particularly during the winter. If one were to go to John’s during one of the off-hours, one would see this: an empty hall dotted with stiff tables, immaculately covered in white linen, not a soul to be seen within. In the back, the famous candle which was erected in celebration in the demolition of the 18th Amendment sits patiently, bland. In the light one would not think that John’s would be a very exciting if not welcoming place. Then again, the events which led to John’s on 12th’s fame could be said to have been founded in nightly activities, its most attractive hour being those after four o’clock.
The majority of the restaurant’s history stems from the fact that it was not only a speakeasy that sold and distilled illegal whiskey, but a favorite gathering ground for the most prominent (and soon-to-be infamous) New York gangsters of the time. It makes sense, then, that this lingering comfort in dark dealings left its mark on the restaurant’s appearance up until today. It’s “‘suivant les heures de la journéé ‘; [its] appearance and reputation change with the daylight hours” (Schlör 236). During the day couples who may not even know the establishment’s past (or, as is so typical of people walking in New York, realize its existence) still manage to walk in a prim fashion, aware of the tasks to be done and completed before the night takes its shift. Then, as soon as four o’clock starts and the doors open, the change begins.
There is something about the act of eating that has remained strictly communal throughout the millennia, and John’s restaurant embodies this perfectly. The once-empty tables are slowly filled, then emptied, then re-filled up until closing time with hungry people eager to eat a good meal and catch up with the people sitting around them. And eating dinner– the meal that takes place during the night– is far different from the meals of breakfast and lunch. People may make the claim that either are the most important meal of the day, but neither are as much fun or looked forward towards as dinner is. And the sheer extravagance that goes behind the planning of the ingredients, particularly the large plates of carbs and meats that John’s serves, along with slices of warm bread in wicker baskets. It is at night, during dinnertime, where people can reward themselves with a glass of wine and maybe even a late desert for working so hard during the morning, an energetic liveliness that is rarely found while eating cold breakfast cereal. John’s of 12th wakes up in the night, the old candle in the back flickering in delight as it watches patrons and decades pass through.
The fear of the night, such as the fear of most things, stems from ignorance and imagination. When a person experiences the night, lives on its streets, he or she may find it is not so riddled with crime and discord as previously thought. Sometimes there’s plates of chicken parmagiana ready to be eaten and glasses filled with wine to be drunk, all in the graces of good company and a very wise candle at the back of the room.