My thoughts on Nighthawks


OK, be prepared to be annoyed and frustrated. And to think I’m the most pretentious person you have ever encountered.

As I warned in my recent post, this is a picture that has haunted me for years, and I have tried without success to create short stories or a novella based on it. The problem I have is that there is both too much information, too much to speculate on, and too little. I’ll explain in more detail, to desperately boring length.

Not much in it, is there? Four figures in a diner? Big deal. But…

Last warning. I’m going to get pretentious here. Stop now if you’re easily annoyed.

Where is it, this diner?

It’s the US, no question. It looks and feels US. Then the price of the cigars on the diner’s sign is given in cents. Point proven.

But where is it? Not much hard information, but the buildings and pavements (sorry, sidewalks) look substantial. Could be a small town, but to me it feels like a city, perhaps somewhere a bit impersonal.

When is it?

Clearly at night (there’s a clue in the title!), but what era? The price of the cigars might give Statesiders some clues, but I don’t know. But let’s think about the clothes. All the men customers are wearing hats, so that takes out anything later than the fifties or early sixties, pretty much. The woman’s dress, and the style of the men’s suits, suggested the thirties to me at first, but I’m not totally sure. Men’s suits tended to be big in the thirties, and the men’s clothes are pared down.

Perhaps the woman’s dress gives us some clues. When was her dress fashionable? We come back to the thirties or fifties again, but I’m betting late fifties, or possibly early sixties. I could be wrong, and that isn’t helping me.

So, whatever the era, when is it? It’s late, or early depending on how you look at it. The counter man is working single handed, so he’s probably all that’s needed for low demand. There’s no litter outside, the streets look clean, suggesting they’ve been swept after the day’s end. No traffic, not even a cab. So maybe two, three in the morning?

Time of year? No coats anywhere in sight, so late summer, maybe.

Who are they and what are they doing there? The man behind the counter

Well, he’s serving. He looks as if he’s washing dishes; again that suggests it’s late; he’s single handed at this time of night.

He’s also clearly talking to the male half of the couple. I guess that it’s about some sporting fixture – ‘How about them Knicks then?’ sort of thing. More about this later. So a lone man working late into the night.

Is he married? He might be. This might be what is called a ‘mom and pop’ operation; certainly the exterior looks as if it hasn’t seen much TLC in a while, so maybe they just concentrate on what they offer. Perhaps his wife is upstairs asleep, resting for the morning onslaught of workers wanting eggs, and bacon, and hash browns, and pancakes. Grits maybe? Depends how far south we are, doesn’t it? But Phillies doesn’t sound too southern, not very Dixie. Unless the guy is called Phil. It’s possible.

Maybe not married. Maybe one of those whom love has sadly passed by. Or an ex-convict, doesn’t mind the hours, any job is welcome.

You’ll have noticed the abundance of ‘mights’ and ‘maybes.’ That’s what’s so frustrating.

Who are they and what are they doing there? The couple

First question. Are they a couple, or just together? Two people who have been working late, desperate for caffeine? No, I think not. She’s far too dressed up to have come from an office. They’ve been out. A bar? A dancehall? A night on the lash? (Sorry, that’s a Brit term for having an evening getting hammered drunk.) I think not the latter. Both look under control, his tie is still knotted, his hat still square on his head; she looks pretty fresh, her hair still well tended, makeup still in place. So I’m guessing a nightclub, maybe a little dancing.

He’s gassing with the counter man. ‘How about them Knicks then?’ Shooting the breeze as they say. She is bored; looking at her fingernails, detached. Could be the man has blown his chances, though her left hand is still extended towards him. Maybe he’s on a winner.

Are they married? Dunno. I can’t see a ring on her finger. First date? No, she’s far too uninterested. Unless, unless… she’s thinking she made a mistake. But why is she still there? Perhaps they’ve been together for a while, and she knows what he’s like. Who knows?

Who are they and what are they doing there? The man on his own

For me, he is the most intriguing figure of all. You can’t see his face, but he’s still alert, not slumped. He’s not drunk, he’s definitely sober. Again his hat is on square, his body language yells ‘Awake.’ Why is he alone? A stranger in town, unable to sleep, wanting somewhere to be till he is tired enough? He’s clearly listening to the Knicks conversation, but not joining in. He’s not ogling the woman. Is he married? Had a row with his wife, just wanted to get out? Has his business gone down the pan and he’s trying to work out where he goes from here? A man on a train or bus going somewhere, killing some time until he can move on again?

I even toyed with the idea he might be a hitman. Probably not. Would he sit at the counter, easily identified? Probably not, he’d head for a booth. But there don’t seem to be any booths. So he’s at the counter. My personal theory is he’s had a row with his wife or girlfriend, and has done the whole That’s-it-I’m-off-slam-the-door thing

Here’s something interesting. Well, I was interested. I was mucking about with this image in Photoshop, and if you try to crop it you find that the lone man is bang slap in the middle of the picture. So maybe Hopper found him the most intriguing too.

The End

I told you it might infuriate you. If it did, don’t blame me. And I didn’t even scratch the surface. There’s a lot more going on.

But that guy on his own really gets to me. I know what he was feeling. I’ve spent a lot of time in the US, often hanging round diners and coffee bars, unable to sleep, intrigued by others.

BTW, I know Hopper is one of the most popular painters in the US. So if you like Nighthawks, have a look at some of his other stuff. I can recommend Chop Suey, New York Office, Room in New York.

Given the New York vibe, perhaps Phillies diner is in New York I’m not sure. Whatever, just look at his stuff and try to write stories about his pictures. It’s impossible. Too much going on, too many imponderables.

Pretentious? Moi?

9 thoughts on “My thoughts on Nighthawks”

  1. But I like your curiosity. You have already constructed so many stories right here.

    • Hey, it’s my favourite painting of all time.

      Can I ask a favour? check out the page Bella.
      I posted this a couple of weeks ago, and it went dwon like a lead balloon, since it’s not my usual swashbuckling nonsense
      It’s flawed, I know that, but I reckon there’s a germ of an idea

  2. Shards Of DuBois said:

    My guess would be as follows:

    I didn’t post it all here, because it’s a short story…. just thought it would be fun. 🙂

  3. I love this painting too. Did you know that the woman in the diner is modelled by Hopper’s Wife, Jo?

    Very interesting post. I wouldn’t know where to start, writing the story of this room. It reminds me of Raymond Chandler. American Noir.

    My favourite quote from Chandler is …”…It can be so quiet on a Sunday in Beverly Hills, you can hear the scratching of a pen signing a new film contract three mansions away”

    I too have spent time in American diners and delis. You might like this – when you have time to read it.

    • I’m a big fan of Hopper. He’s a master at creating images of alienation and occasional quiet despair. And the header photo I use, and my gravatar, have pulled in the punters on occasion.

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