It’s only 8 p.m., but this night is already starting to feel like a bad idea. Every time I’ve told a friend or colleague about the story I’ll be writing, it’s elicited either pity or mirthful glee at my naïveté, followed by the same dreaded question: What are you going to do all night? No doubt there will be stuff happening until 1 a.m. or so, sure, but then?
My plan—trying to capture the essence of Stanford at night—was ambitious in concept, although admittedly a bit scarce on logistics: Stay on campus from sundown to sunup, see what there is to see, and talk to whoever will talk.
I fought off each doubter with what I hoped resembled confidence, trying to convince both of us that yes, there are almost certainly people up all night; you just have to be up and about yourself to see them. But now that I’m here, the terrible possibility that I’ll hit 3 a.m. and have nothing to do and nowhere to go is daunting. Without some serious caffeine, it will be all but impossible. Off to CoHo.
In contrast to the usual dark and earthy state of the Stanford Coffee House by day, track lights illuminate every corner. Students lounge on couches, hunch over tables and rest at the bar. Those with books and packets of papers, once the materials of serious scholarship, are the odd ones out tonight. Nearly every face glows with the off-white LED hue of a computer screen, as they tap and type away at papers and problem sets.
A short line waits at the counter; it never seems to grow any shorter. Workers scurry around back, pouring drinks, arranging salads, calling out, “Forty-SIX! Fat Tire pitcher! Fat Tire? Thank you.”
As 9 o’clock nears, the café slows down some. There’s hardly a place to sit, but the dinner rush has subsided. At the table next to me, two students are holding interviews for a developer position in their club. A young man in a V-neck, exuding the classic freshman cocktail of nerves and unrestrained enthusiasm, explains in great detail the collaborative software he tried to develop in high school to accelerate cancer research. The interviewers nod along with calculated looks of interest. Once he’s through with his spiel and their questions, he thanks them and excuses himself for a full night of studying.
Although it’s midweek mid-quarter, not everyone is studying tonight. Over on the Row, some Sigma Nu brothers are yelling and banging about in their house.
Their neighbors across the street in La Casa Italiana are having a get-together of their own. They’re crowded onto the house’s balcony, drinking Natty Light and singing along to a playlist of ’90s hits—NSYNC, Will Smith, all the greats. Decked out in Goodwill track suits reminiscent of the era, they wrap their arms around one another and belt out “Wonderwall.” It’s happy and hilarious but also a little sad, because it’s senior year for some, and it seems they can already feel early-onset nostalgia.
Their iPhone clocks strike 10, time to leave for one of the staples of campus social life: Kairos Wine and Cheese. A greasy-haired guy checks IDs at the door to the house, and inside, it’s chaos. Siberian Front, a poppy student band that dominates the campus music scene, blasts out riff-heavy rock in the purplish dark. The guitarist rips out distorted licks on a beautiful Gibson, while the vocalist bounces around the stage like a Super Ball. The room throbs with people and noise; the windows fog from air made tropical by body heat and sweat. There’s no cheese to speak of, but they certainly have wine. People mill around swigging from bottles of Charles Shaw pinot like they were extra-long longnecks.
If you wanted a representative one-room cross section of the Stanford student body, this might be it. Some people still have backpacks and look like they just popped in to check out the show; some are dressed in full party attire and strut around with dubious-looking cigarettes behind their ears. The whole room jumps and cheers and screams as Front closes with a cover of the Strokes’s first hit, “Last Nite,” and when the lights come on, no one is ready to go home.
“You going to Happy Hour?” The question floats from every corner of the crowd.
Out behind Lake Lag, people are flocking to Enchanted Broccoli Forest, stumbling in the half-dark along Campus Drive. They move in packs of five and ten like some kind of great weekly animal migration, attracted by all the lasers and flashing lights. The DJs have started their sets for Happy Hour, EBF’s signature social gathering, and the house is, as they say, bumpin’. Any concerns I had about keeping myself occupied have pretty much disappeared, at least for now.
Midnight comes and goes. Up until this point, I’ve managed to sustain the delusion that I don’t look that much different from the students, that I’m doing a reasonable job of blending in. “Who is that guy? An errant grad student, maybe? Ah, well, he looks harmless,” I’d imagined them saying.
But in the tangled mob of EBF’s dance floor, warm dorm beer in hand, that comforting thought evaporates. Reality check: The room is all one mass of grinding, sweating bodies; the music sounds like a steel-drum quintet on meth; I have a backpack and notebook, and stick out like a Cal fan at a Cardinal tailgate.
“YOU HAVE TO LET GO! YOU’VE GOTTA GET INTO IT!” yells a gigantic 20-year-old as he shakes me by my shoulders. I soon decamp to a different part of the house.
In the heavily muraled wings of the building, smaller groups gather in their rooms, playing music, vegging out on couches. The Cheshire Cat and other characters from Alice’s Acid Trip smile down with approval through the vaguely pine-scented haze in the hallways. For those without midterms, this, I’m told, is the quintessential way to spend a night at Stanford.
Somewhere out there in the dark, Deputy Stephen Perkins cruises around in his black and white Dodge Charger—he doesn’t get off work until 2 a.m. Campus, on the whole, is a pretty cushy beat compared with what city cops deal with, but there’s still plenty to do. He stops several cars for a variety of lighting infractions: an Accord with its headlights off, an SUV with faulty license plate lights, a Jetta with a busted taillight.
Perkins flips on the reds-and-blues, and the Jetta quickly pulls to the shoulder. He focuses twin spotlights on its back window.
Perkins is maybe 6 feet tall, but with the added bulk of a bulletproof vest and a tactical belt stuffed with a sidearm, flashlight and other gear, he looks huge. The driver grows increasingly red-faced and flustered when she can’t find her current proof of insurance. But after a brief lecture, he cuts her a break and writes her a fix-it ticket for the light.
“Drive safely now, OK?” he says with concern. He pats the top of the car and saunters back to the cruiser, where he cranks up both the heat and the Dvorák.
Years back, Perkins studied music composition at Humboldt State and tried to make it in Hollywood. “I worked in L.A. for a little bit. Not like I did anything major, film-score-wise.” That’s about all he’ll reveal on the subject, except that he’d like to get back to music someday, for fun. Maybe once the kids are older. “You know, I gotta make sure they’re fed and clothed, and so I had to look for something a little bit more stable,” he says. At least he gets to listen to his favorite music while he works.
The only other drivers routinely out as late as Perkins are on the Marguerites, which float around Stanford’s perimeter like silent whales. On the O line, which runs until 2:35 a.m., it’s quiet on the inside, too. There is no radio, and every seat in the dimly lit bus is empty. The only sounds to accompany Ermias, the driver, are the high-pitched hum of the electric motor and the occasional squeaking of hydraulics. But he doesn’t seem to mind; he likes driving.
“Eh Charlie, I’ve been in transportation all my life,” he says.
In fact, he seems a little thrown that anyone wants to chat at this godforsaken hour. I ask if it’s always this quiet.
“Well, eh Charlie, you never know,” he says. “Sometimes the 2:11 has people, but us-u-ally it’s empty. Usually.” It’s not until sometime later that I realize he was saying “actually.” Although he had an accent, it’s surely a sign of my delirium that I thought he was calling me Charlie.
The closer you get to having been awake for a full 24 hours, the stranger the way your mind begins to work, or perhaps malfunction. The students in the Huang Engineering Center at 2:21 in the morning probably know this.
In the building’s white-walled study rooms, one group sketches out theoretical computer science diagrams, while another pair is working on a physics problem so complex that it is practically mind-numbing, if their outbursts are any indication:
“It’s less than.”
“OK, but . . . if the static friction . . . is less. . . .” Pause. Frown. Paper shuffle.
“No, but it can be equal!”
Their counterparts in the main hall say nothing. They squint at screens crawling with strings of green and white code, mirrored by abstract symbols splattered on the walls of the room. In the main lobby, ghostly visages of the Stanford family look on; I wonder what they might think of their university if they could see it today.
Although the students sit mostly in silence, upstairs another group of people hard at work can’t help but make noise. Here, as in buildings all around campus, the sound of their vacuum cleaners and rolling trash bins echo through the empty hallways. There are about 130 of these workers. They have until 4 a.m. to vacuum, mop and wipe down about 145 buildings, as one of them tells me between relaying orders in rapid bursts of Spanish into her several radios. Before I can get her name, she excuses herself and vanishes into a darkened classroom building.
On the Quad, flooded with cyclists at midday, just a few pedal through now, handlebar in one hand, phone in the other. A man in a lime-green jacket jogs by. Shouts ring out occasionally. They come from in front of MemChu, where a few alumni are visiting their old stomping grounds after a night out in Palo Alto.
“Don’t be shy, come say hi!” yells one of them, who introduces herself as Wendy. She gestures offhandedly as she names the others: “Grant, and Robert. We’re alumni. And this is—”
“Scott,” he says, extending a hand and making more eye contact than is comfortable or necessary at 3:30 a.m. “I’m from San Diego. I’m just here to have fun!”
“Right,” Wendy continues. “And he’s . . . the Italian.” She points to a guy on the steps of the church, who visibly has all his effort focused on remaining upright. “They followed us,” she whispers, wide-eyed.
Robert and Grant are deep in a discussion about symbolism in the Catholic mass when Wendy interrupts and says she wants Grant to take her on a date. Ideally now.
“Where’s he going to take you, the Axe and Palm?” Robert asks.
“I could take her to Late Night,” Grant suggests.
“Late Night!” Wendy and Robert chorus, disappearing down a rabbit hole of memories.
Unfortunately for them, each of the main after-hours eating hubs—Late Night, Axe and Palm, and Arrillaga Nights—closed more than an hour ago. Even the staff is probably gone. The shifts for the six crew members who run Arrillaga Nights end at 3:30 a.m.; if any of them are still cleaning up, they’ll be going home soon, and the kitchen will be closed and dark until 6:00, when the breakfast crew arrives.
Stanford will have awakened in earnest by then, with the first Caltrain that rolls through Palo Alto at 5:01 a.m. Its lonesome whistle sounds out in the dark like an alarm clock.
At the same time, PSSI’s white garbage trucks barrel through campus, emptying the Dumpsters before the streets get clogged again. One roars down toward the GSB, where a squat white street sweeper crawls along the road. It’s a small contraption, no bigger than a forklift, and the driver concentrates on keeping its bristles in line as it swishes away at the asphalt. As he goes one way down Galvez Street, a man in a Toyota sedan putters along in the other direction, his car stuffed full with the Stanford Daily. He grabs a stack, wrapped in blue plastic, and leaves the car idling as he hustles to the front door of the Arrillaga Alumni Center. He passes a sandy-haired woman on one of the benches outside. She clutches several overstuffed Neiman Marcus bags to her body and looks like she hasn’t slept much; not just tonight, but maybe for weeks.
Across the street, a few lights shine down on the track, and a woman in camo pants smacks the rubber pavement with a jump rope. The people who exercise at this hour have always struck me as slightly fanatical, but she’s far from alone. A few minutes after the Avery Aquatic Center opens at 5, the water claps at the pool’s sides with the rhythmic movement of 30 or more swimmers, and the overhead lights have the place lit up like a late summer night. The swimmers kick and paddle until the very first hints of dawn creep over the hills.
There’s a certain stillness to the air before any of the joggers or swimmers arrive, before the sky turns its early morning gray. It feels like a pause.
It happens at different times every night—sometimes close to 3, sometimes closer to 4. It’s 3:02 the first time I notice it, sitting on a bench outside the Quad. I’m fighting off boredom and sleep, listening to the whisper of the sprinklers, when they abruptly shut off. The silence that follows has a kind of tonality of its own; not so much a lack of sound as it is a sound of quiet. One or two people pass through the Quad on their bikes, bleary-eyed and eager to get to their beds.
Your mind can play tricks on you this late at night, but it seems like there’s something different about campus. I sit on the bench for what feels like a long time, trying to work it out. Another person bikes past. I watch him pedal in long, slow waves across the bricks in front of MemChu, until he’s clear out the other side, and I am alone again. The moment strikes me as meaningful.
Some people will be here for four years, others two, others seven. But no matter how long that period is, we’re all just passing through. Stanford outlasts all the people who make it, and I realize that’s why campus feels so special now in this brief span in the middle of the night: It’s empty.
In this pause, at its emptiest and quietest, this place seems somehow at its essence—the sandstone and tile realization of a dream some 130 years old. What I’d feared would be a moment of defeat begins to feel like a moment of clarity, of understanding what it means to be a part of this place.
At some point, I leave my post at the bench and get on my bike, with no particular destination in mind. I meander out from the heart of campus, past the Hoover complex, back over toward Palm Drive. There are no cars on the road, no other bikes out, no people. This hour of night belongs to the jackrabbits, who occasionally spook at the sight of me and bound away in long, swooping arcs. The main campus buildings glitter in the distance.
Without realizing it, I’ve biked to the corner of Palm and Campus, the entrance to the Mausoleum. The path through the trees is pitch black, and I hesitate for a moment before pedaling in.
The Mausoleum stands resolute out among the eucalyptus groves, just as it has since the university’s earliest days. There are no lights back here, and its pale face is hardly visible. This is perhaps the darkest part of campus; it takes a good bit of courage to shut off my bike light. The night that rushes in to fill the void is overwhelming.
But then, I think, it’s also peaceful. This is what it must have been like before 1908, when the university installed its first outdoor electric lights along Palm Drive and around the Quad. Before darkness and quiet became things that required seeking out. This is the place that connects them, where the Stanford of the present meets Frederick Law Olmsted’s campus plan.
After a minute, the idea of being alone in the dark near a grave gets to me. I turn around to go back to the light, to Palm Drive and eventually home, but not before looking up to the sky and noting that, of everywhere I’ve been on campus, this place affords the clearest view of the stars.
Mike Vangel is a writer in Minnesota.