The frame is squat and height-constrained, and all of your attention pulls to the right. The soda jerk stoops with a hunched back as the man and woman facing us lean forward. The angles of their spines are like a couple and a man on a subway that has just started moving; the standing man has leaned into the stanchion nearby for support, and the painting is passing you by, just an image that you kept more tightly, for some reason, than others.
The only upright torso is the man with his back to us. The men all keep their hats on, which gentlemen did back then even indoors (though that would change soon). You can’t see what he’s holding in his hand, but I think it is a menu. And he already has a cup of coffee.
The couple facing forward are well-lit and you can see their faces are weighing downwards at the sides. These are people who have just lived through a 14-year Depression, and now have younger family being sent off to the war. The woman is wearing a candy-red dress and lipstick that are probably more appropriate on a younger woman, at least by the patriarchal standards of the time. The man is smoking. The woman is looking at a tiny blot of green in her hand, which might be what? A lucky clover the man found and gave to her? The leaves of a white flower whose petals blend in to the skin of her shoulder? Her right collarbone is visible; she is not a large woman. Her left hand reaches back past her right elbow resting on the bar, and reaches towards the man’s right hand that holds the cigarette. It reaches towards, but it does not touch. Sometimes we reach out and find our companions aren’t our companions, and we look down and wonder how this flower or clover ever came to be where it is.
The man in the couple is focused on the waiter. His fedora’s brim sits haughty on the flat horizontal middle line of the canvas. His disappointment is clear, though whether the waiter actually caused it or is just being punished for it is not. The waiter, meanwhile, reaches beneath the counter — for what? None of the three customers have food in front of them. And the kitchen is outside of the frame.
The diner is warm and lit but we are not: we are out just past where the sidewalk would curb into the street, in the cold of the night.
I said earlier your attention pulls to the right but of course as humans we feel the need to look where we are not pulled. The art historians say we are probably on Greenwich Ave looking across West 11th Street: if so, there’s a Boost Mobile storefront there now. The mixed-use building across West 11th Street stretches as far as we can tell to infinity, though it is probably only 3 or 4 stories tall. But there is no sky. There are no stars. Even if it were a vacant lot where the building is, in 1942 you couldn’t see stars in Manhattan.
What’s really infuriating is that you can’t even see what the storefront across the street is selling: the display window is empty. That was probably common in 1942, like it was in 1991 or so. Entire blocks of Manhattan were vacant in the 1940s as manufacturers sought cheaper labor in the Piedmont. There’s something vaguely evocative about the one storefront not blocked by the diner: a mannequin with a woman’s dress on, maybe? And a cash register farther right.
If the green sprig in the woman’s hand is a piece of plant, it is the only plant matter in the painting. But if this is 1942, they probably didn’t grow up in New York City. They probably grew up in small towns in the Piedmont and Midwest and rural New England, and knew the languages of flowers and grasses and reeds. These are languages we cannot connect with anymore, even if we learn them, because they were effortless to that generation, who still knew what it was to touch with your hands the things that you have made for work, and to name the animals you eat for Thanksgiving.
The man in the couple, the disappointed man, has lost that, I think. He thinks (as I would have) it was a complete waste of time, like all of his life: too young for the First War, and never in the right position to get rich in the boom, and then paying for the rich men’s mistakes in the bust. And now stuck with this woman, who keeps reaching over when he’s just trying to smoke. But this man also knows the language of that one bit of green the woman holds. He may wish he didn’t, but he does.
This diner was apparently a gas station a year after this painting was painted (again, according to some art historians: nobody actually knows). Time in a city like New York or Mumbai or Houston is measured in the loss of spaces. You are a true New Yorker the first time you say “That laundromat used to be my dive bar”. You are a true Mumbaikar the first time you say “that FroYo was the place with the best vada pav in Parel”. You live somewhere when its lost past is more real to you than its present. You live in a city when its lights perform the function that the stars used to for shepherds: guideposts and beacons in your own realm of memory.
But, really, my initial response was right: It was just an image. A flash from a bus or train window. Soon to be replaced by an equally interesting scene. Until you get south of the Amboys. An anonymous world full of stories you’ll never know. I think that’s the real point of “Nighthawks”.