The Now of Nighthawks

Nighthawks (1942)  by Edward Hopper. Currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper. Currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

I spent the last weeks of my summer doing practically nothing. My high school friends and I milled around our old haunts with no particular agenda besides being together. We were all home in Chicago for the summer, biding our time until heading to college, either returning to a familiar school or setting out for the first time. On our last Friday night together, I sat in Lincoln Park with Henry and Deon, and we eventually settled in for a late meal at Nookies diner. Right by our old school, we frequented Nookies in the days of yore after tech rehearsals or before improv shows. That night, however, we ended up there because the wait was too long anywhere else. The place is cozy and warm, but everyone there seemed to have given up in some way, like we all wished we had somewhere better to be as we chowed down breakfast food.

We stated our regret of not sitting at the counter—it would’ve been more quintessential 20th-century Americana. Deon offered, “I’d have to order coffee if we did that.”

Our discussion immediately brought us to recall Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting, Nighthawks, a late-night scene at the counter of a cheap restaurant. The painting shows four figures through the window of “Phillies” as they quietly bathe in the fluorescent light while the world sleeps around them. We all smiled at the thought, three overly nostalgic teens emulating a painting far beyond our time. Deon then posited that the piece is “all about what happens next.” He argued that Hopper forces us to ask where the couple will go after leaving, what will happen to the man sitting alone, when the waiter will close up shop.

The next step in our night was my taking an Uber to my best friend’s house. She was leaving for college for the first time the next morning. After dinner, I had plans to go to her house to say so long. We did our best to keep it normal, not saying a true “goodbye” because it really wasn’t.

Days later I couldn’t get Nighthawks out of my head. I started to speculate that my night bore more resemblance to the painting than we had broached in our dinner discussion. They both had overwhelming sense of dwelling in the melancholy of moment before departure. In my imagination, the couple in the painting exists in the moment between a night on the town and the return home to face the grind of daily life the next morning. We, that night, existed in between a raucous and sunshiny summer and the sobering but hopeful departure back to school.

Although we have some idea of what the next couple years have in store for us (East coast colleges, Chicago for the holidays, our annual “Friendsgiving”), there is a bit of fog over what really lies ahead. Who knows when and if we’ll all be back in Chicago for another summer? We didn’t really discuss that this is probably the last time we’ll all have a long stretch of time together in the same city. I think we’ll keep acting like nothing is hugely different for as long as we’re able to. Perhaps that’s the only way to move along and not get too sad about all the changes. Not that the changes are bad, in fact they’re mostly positive, but it’s hard to shake the feeling of giving something up.  

The Phillies patrons exist behind glass, sitting almost like static models, and their future is just as nebulous as ours. In fact, it will only ever exist in our imaginations. Though instead of worrying over it, they seem resigned to their uncertainty. Rather than caring about “what comes next,” they simply are. They sit, eat, smoke, and exist exactly where they are. They don’t know what the rest of their lives, or even the rest of their nights has in store, but they’re not fazed by it.

A few days after saying goodbye, I settled into my new room on campus. My mom and I hung up my posters, trying to smooth out the curls and rips left by years of sticking and unsticking. I tacked up polaroids of my high school friends above my desk. That night in my new bed I curled up with my childhood stuffed bear and tried not to think too hard about what comes next. -J.R. Atkinson

Nighthawks is currently on display at the Art Institute in Chicago.

JR Atkinson is a sophomore at Wesleyan University, from Chicago, IL. She is planning on majoring in English and Film.