After 8 p.m., the stores along Peru Street close, and the pedestrian traffic that clogged the sidewalks all day begins to dissipate. By 9 p.m., all the shops and restaurants in Saint-Michael—the reputable ones, anyway—are closed. Except some diners. A few minutes after 9, if you look down the street, it’d be an extraordinary thing if you saw more people than you could count on one hand. Even the street venders will have called it quits. Then, between 10 and 11, the Cleaners come out.All day long, millions of people walking on the sidewalk conspire to trash the city. They go into the Starbucks around the corner and come out with an icy Vente Caramel Frapuccino, slurping it as they walk out. A few blocks down, all they’re sucking is air, and they toss the cup on the ground. Advertising. Sometimes there’s a little coffee left and it splashes out as the cup hits the pavement. Do people really do that, you ask? Yeah, more than you think. Just when “no one is watching.” All day long, they toss their McDonald’s french fry containers and pieces of paper and gum wrappers, without a second thought.It’s like, people, there are garbage cans on the street. They’re on just about every corner. It doesn’t take that much effort to walk over and drop your crap in the trash instead of on the ground. It’s really not that far out of the way. Maybe they do it because everyone else does it, right? There’s already trash on the ground, so what’s one more thing? Well, someone has to be the first one, and he’s the real shithead.So anyway, all day every day, piles of garbage accumulate on the streets of Saint-Michael. The trash blows in the wind like tumbleweeds, and the place really looks like a ghost town after 9 p.m., when there’s no one around. But the trash isn’t the only problem. The sidewalk, made from engraved tiles, all with the same black-and-white pattern, gets caked up with tar from all the traffic. Makes you wonder what these people step in. The paint on the road and curbs gets scuffed up and chips away. It’s like everyone is a little bit of a vandal. Things age fast here.In the past, things got pretty bad. Saint-Michael was damn ugly, of course, but there was more. Tourism fell. People started getting really sick. No one was happy; you could see it in their faces. The garbage men couldn’t keep up, so the people had to wade through trash wherever they went. And the funny thing was, people still threw their crap on the ground, even then. For God’s sake, it was like seeing a cancer patient light up a cigarette.The city knew things were bad, obviously. They weren’t that thick. And they knew they had to do something. So after who knows how many meetings and checks and stamps, lobbies and rallies and brainstorming sessions, whatever, they hired the Cleaners.Really, it was obvious. The city’s dirty, so clean it. Brilliant. But at least they came to that conclusion. Too often the government spends too much money, only to go in the entirely wrong direction. But that’s just the way things are.As the name implies, the Cleaners clean. Every night, starting between 10 and 11, you’ll see them working throughout the city. They divide themselves in groups by the block and get to work. They know they’ve got a long night ahead of them. First they sweep all the trash into piles like hay bales, then they move the piles into carts, which they roll down the block and dump into trucks. The carts go back for more till the trucks are full, then the trucks drive off into oblivion and come back empty. The trash didn’t disappear, of course. It just moved. Someone else’s problem now.Once all the trash is gone—the small stuff, too—the street looks better. But it’s not bright and sparkly like a manicured amusement park quite yet; now they have to work on the real details. For hours, they scrub the tile sidewalks, uprooting and reseating them where necessary. They repaint the markings on the curbs and change any light bulbs that might have broken or gone out. On some nights, they pressure wash the scum from the sides of buildings.All to combat reality. To make everyone think they’re living in a brand-new Disneyland. Well, I guess it’s better than wading through other people’s trash.So do you see what’s going on here? All day long, the streets of Saint-Michael get filthy. All night long, the streets get clean. Meanwhile, in the daytime, you have the little Mexican maid cleaning your house. And in the nighttime, you have Miss Sexy Stripper Maid making your house filthy. There’s this balance, a kind of yin-yang thing. Daytime: filthy out. Nighttime: filthy in.That’s the kind of stuff you think of when you work here on Peru Street, when your joint is open late. Like Zepp’s godforsaken Diner, open all night.My dad, Frank Werdoff, founded this place in the fall of 1980. He called it Zepp’s Diner after some stupid band he used to listen to, and he decorated it with photos of the classic cars he loved. It was always his dream to open a diner, for whatever reason. None of us could figure it out. Sure drove my mom wild when he retired early to “pursue his lifelong ambition,” to use his words. She could put up with the pile of broken down cars in the driveway, but a diner was another thing.My sister and I were just little then; we didn’t really understand it all. But the thing about fights between your parents, is you don’t have to understand all the words. You get the emotions just fine. Even a baby knows what a raised voice means. At first they fought because my mom thought my dad was nuts, that they couldn’t make any money and they’d go broke and couldn’t send Sis and me to school. Well, Mom was right about that.But as history was written, the fights changed. By that time, Mom was more frustrated that he paid too much attention to the diner, that he was forgetting he had a family. Hell, he hadn’t touched his cars in so long it was like he’d forgotten he had them, too. Enough broken dates and disappointments later, and she’d had enough. So Mom took Sis and me, and we moved away. I was just starting high school around that time.Mom took a lot of jobs, whatever she could get, to make enough money to give us a normal life. We deserved that much, she used to say. We got along fine at our new schools; we made friends and whatever. We didn’t hear from my dad. I don’t know if he tried to contact us or not. Mom just said he wasn’t interested in us when we lived in the same house, so why would he be interested in us now? I always kind of thought he knew he messed up after we moved out and he’d do anything he could to reverse what he’d done. Mom didn’t think so, or maybe she didn’t want to admit it to herself. Or maybe she had her own reasons. We were close, Mom and me, but there were still things we kept from each other. Not exactly intentionally, but it’s like that old saying: Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies. You know?Years passed and I graduated high school. Never went to college. That was because we didn’t have the money. Didn’t go into the army, either. I think that was a generational thing: It wasn’t cool. I took on random jobs, trying to find my niche. It’s funny: At one point, I worked at a diner in town.It was the 90’s and I did it all. Delivery, retail stock, restaurant service, painting... I was living on my own by then, and Sis was off doing her own thing, too. It’s not like we didn’t see each other—Sis and Mom and I got together often enough—but independence was important. Who are you if you can’t stand on your own feet?So life went on. My dad and mom and my sister and I, all living in our own little capsules. I presumed my dad was happy—or at least busy—enough, still living the dream—and fixing his cars when he got bored with it. My mom, well, I could tell by how she held herself that there was some piece of her missing, some sorrow in her. But she was okay. Never remarried, or even dated, but she did have a lot of girlfriends that kept her company. My sis met some guy and they dated for a while. Eventually got married. They’re doing great, talking about kids. I gave my brother-in-law a piece of advice before their wedding: Don’t open a goddamn diner, no matter how bad you want to. And me, no ladies in my life. Never hardly were, probably never will be.Anyway, it was early in the 21st century when a few things happened with uncanny timing. I was a full grown adult man, starting to gray and go bald and everything, and I got the news one day, from my mother, that my dad had died. In a car accident, of all things. Live by the sword, die by the sword, right? And it just so happened that I had lost my job with the school cleaning company, and I was desperate for work. So what did my dad leave me in his will, but the diner, and what was essentially an instruction manual. All the dates, account numbers, names and phone numbers I needed. And before he died, he added my name to all the diner’s credentials, to make the logistics a little easier. For being so shortsighted, he was incredibly proactive. I guess that’s what he learned managing the diner. I didn’t want to accept it, to become the don of the thing that drove my family apart, but I couldn’t throw away the opportunity for work when I needed it most.So that’s how I got this job, and why I’m up now at this godforsaken hour in Zepp’s godforsaken Diner, watching bums walk by in the otherwise vacant streets. I don’t usually work the night shift—actually, I don’t usually work outside the office—but I’m here till morning because one of those damn good-for-nothing kids that works here didn’t show up. Not that I blame him.I’m Les, by the way. Alexander Frank Werdoff, in the flesh.The good part about working the night shift is there’s really nothing to do. That’s the bad part, too, but at least it gives me some time to think. There’s really nothing like it. It’s just me and the cook here, but he’s kind of reserved and we don’t talk much. He’s in the kitchen reading a book right now. So it’s just me and this cup of coffee, black and bitter as the night, and the scenes outside the window playing like a silent movie, only in color. I’m not colorblind.I watch the Cleaners methodically heal Peru Street as they do every night. One of them comes in every once in a while and we talk, trying to keep each other company in our dreary jobs. “A lot of crap out there tonight?” I say. And he replies, “Yep. Just as much as every other night. But a least I still have a job, right?” The Cleaners all wear the same blue jumpsuit, making their faces stand out more, as if they were pudgy blue aliens wearing masks. Their faces are kind and bright.Around midnight, a familiar limousine rolls up and stops across the street. Some of the Cleaners are still milling about, finishing up, and none of them raises an eyebrow. It’s the same limo that rolls up and stops there around midnight every night. After a minute, someone steps out, and the limo drives away. The man standing there is a twerpy hotshot in a tailored suit, the owner of Museum, the night club he’s standing in front of. I don’t remember his name, even though he’s on the news every now and then.He comes into the diner every once in a while and gets a grilled turkey club, with swiss, to go. Even the first time he came in, he knew what he wanted. Didn’t even check the menu to see if we had it. He’s decisive. I guess that’s how he got so high up in the underground business world.He keeps a low profile, despite all the rumors. He tips big, but I wouldn’t trust him to water my plants when I’m on vacation. I mean, he seems shady. You hear things, you know, being at the diner at night every once in a while. Or you’ll hear stories from the punk kids you pay to be at the diner at night instead of you. Museum patrons come in when they get hungry or need a break from the club scene. They talk freely. Everyone who goes there knows the guy. Predictably, sometimes they mention him. “The Boss,” they call him. I see they don’t know his name, either.The things they say... Of course he has money, so he does pretty much whatever he wants. I guess he throws these parties, where he lives his own Islamic afterlife. However many virgins at his leisure, you know. And he doesn’t have to crash a plane to get them. Other days he prowls around his own club, looking for the hottest cougar in the place. Flashes some Benjamins, whatever, doesn’t even talk to her, and next thing you know they’re upstairs in his private suite. You can bet they need a maid in there the next day. This is all hearsay, mind you, but why not believe it?Then there are the stories that don’t revolve around sex. You guessed it: drugs. They say you can get anything you’ve got a fix for at Museum, just talk to the Boss. Animal crackers and Cheez-Its of all variations, trafficked directly from Venezuela. Just make sure you know what the hell you’re asking for, because they’re not the names you read in the dictionary.Anyway, the guy keeps a low profile, like I said, and he runs a clean business. Drugs or not, there are never any cops at Museum. And as quiet as he is, so is Museum. I mean when the place is closed, you wouldn’t know it’s a club. There’s no sign or anything. When it’s open, you get the picture. I mean, there’s a burly guy in a suit manning the velvet rope, letting certain people in with invisible discrimination. And I’m here the whole time, just watching. There are apartments above Museum. I wonder if the people inside do the same thing. Just watch, I mean.Every night it’s the same thing, all night. I wonder if these people sleep, or work. Even without setting foot in the place, I can see the debauchery inside. There’s violence. People get thrown out with blood and black eyes, at least a few every week. There’s sex. Couples emerge that went in separately, their arms around each other sloppily. I see the guys copping feels, little samples of what they’re about to get. It’s disgusting. If only these people could see themselves after the alcohol wears off. It’s a wonder that these people get all dressed up just to make a mess of themselves. Like a kid playing in the mud in his church clothes.All that goes on inside, right across the street, while the blue-suit Martians are busy cleaning up outside, saving our environment from Starbucks and McDonald’s.A group of kids comes in; I recognize them immediately as stoners. And not just because the smell of marijuana wafts in along with them. It’s funny: People say you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but there are a damn lot of books about pot out there that dress exactly the same. It’s the thrift store look. Old plaid patterns, awkward fits, lots of black. It’s as if they spent all their money on drugs so they didn’t have any left for proper clothes. Or shampoo, I guess. Their hair is mangy and greasy; I wouldn’t want to touch it. Their eyes are red.They yell as they come in. Not intentionally—they don’t seem to realize how loud they are. It’s entertaining, I admit. How they argue about nothing, in slow motion, unable to form a cogent sentence. Yet they understand each other perfectly and seem to respond appropriately, continuing the conversation.As I give them menus, they light up cigarettes. I don’t care if they smoke in here. Cigarettes, that is. None of them looks 18, but I don’t ask for ID’s. I figure if you’re old enough to want to kill yourself, or naïve enough to think it’s cool, then be my guest. I’m not your goddamn mother. And I don’t care that they come in here baked like turkeys, as long as they pay. Another plus is they eat a lot.I mean, I won’t do it myself, but I’m no narc.After they order, more or less in English, I send their ticket to the kitchen and listen to them talk, their brains in the oven while their food’s on the grill. They resume their discussion. One of them mentions that they smoke inside, at one of their houses, because they’d get caught otherwise. They do it at night, of course, because that’s when they can all meet up and when their parents are asleep or just ignorant. I wonder how their parents can be so stupid, or if they just don’t care.They complain that the food’s taking too long, but they aren’t really angry. It’s not like they’ve got anywhere to be. In time, they get their food and shut up, stuffing their faces with hash browns and burgers like starving African kids at a Buckingham Palace buffet.The stoner kids eat their fill and leave a mess. Once they’re gone, I’m back to entertaining myself. I check on the cook, and we talk for a minute about nothing in particular. I can tell he’s eager to get back to his book, so I let him. Out front, it’s just me and my cup of coffee, dark as the spaces between the streetlights.Suddenly I’m thinking of the news I watched before coming in tonight. It’s always dreary, the news. I know a lot of people refuse to watch it for that very reason, but I can’t stand not knowing what’s going on outside my life. I long for the information, and I’ll be damned if I have to go to a computer to get it. As a consequence for my adamance, I’m haunted by all those real life stories of negligence, molestation and murder that the news anchors find so fascinating.Tonight, for example, there was a story straight out of a fairy tale. A man and a woman are married, no children, happily. They grow apart, like couples often do, and divorce. Only one problem: The girl still loves the guy, and she tries to get back together with him. You know the story—relentless phone calls, letters, e-mails, stories about how she’s sorry and they should still be together. Things take a turn for the worst when the guy falls for a new slice. Then the messages get downright hateful, stuff you wouldn’t even believe a lady would say. Next thing you know, one night the crazy bitch breaks into her ex’s house, grabs a big old knife from the kitchen and slices open the traitor’s throat, along with that of his new girl. “If he won’t be with me, he won’t be with anybody,” she says. One of those. Afterward she goes straight to the police department and tells them what she’s done, and—bam!—the news stations have a story. Everyone wins, except not really.That’s what I’m talking about, with this inside-outside, clean-dirty, day-night balance theory. Do you see what I mean, how that heinous stuff only happens inside, at night? Drugs and sex and violence, the three cardinal virtues of our backwards society. With alcohol to fuel it. All that stuff goes on inside after the sun says lights out, while the Puritan Cleaners make the other half of our problems all better. Tomorrow, it reverses: The sun comes up and the trash comes out. People throw last night’s filth into the street, along with their Happy Meal boxes and gum wrappers. Someone else’s problem now. After dark, it all starts over. The Cleaners won’t be losing their jobs any time soon.I return to the silent window picture with no company but my own mind. I think about the steam rising from my coffee cup and the rain that’s beginning to fall from the sky, how they’re really the same thing. Like the sky’s just a big, upside-down cup of coffee. Well, it’s just as black.A woman walks by, in slow motion. Her hair shining synthetic blonde, her legs striding, long. She’s wearing fishnets, tall boots and a black miniskirt, and she’s carrying a red handbag by the strap, her elbow bent and her hand up as if she were a coatrack. Please, Honey, could you be a little more cliche? I can smell the dead fish in her makeup from inside the diner. She’s a prostitute, of course. A businesswoman. It always surprises me how blatant they are. But, then again, is a cop really going to approach a woman and say, “Hey, Miss, are you for sale?” Sounds like sexual assault to me.So there’s another example. Just an innocent little fox right now, but once she gets to her destination, inside, she’s a skunk. A garbage truck. Or maybe the term “dumpster” would be more appropriate.Actually, now that I think about it, she’s just as much of a prostitute outside, isn’t she? Sure, she’s not actually doing anything illicit, but she still wears the title. Still has the intention. So there does seem to be some sort of outdoor element to prostitution. Doesn’t exactly put a hole in the framework of my theory, but it gives me something to think about besides my goddamn coffee.A scream. Though she’s out of sight, it can’t be anybody but that prostitute. Instinctively, I run from behind the counter to the door, outside. She’s at the corner on her hands and knees, with her head down, her locks mopping up the sidewalk. I notice immediately that her red handbag is gone. Without it, she’s just black and white, like Marilyn Monroe. She was robbed, obviously, probably by a motorcycle. Jackings like that are all too common these days. She doesn’t seem hurt, only startled.I look around, searching for clues, and the only other person in sight is the Museum bouncer, watching with his arms folded, his face expressionless.I take out my cell phone to call 911 and report the robbery. Doing what I can to help this poor girl. The prostitute springs up as she hears the beeps and screams, “What the hell are you doing?”“Well,” I answer, “I’m calling the police. You were robbed, weren’t you? We can catch the bastards.”“Hang up now, you goddamn idiot!” She snatches the phone from me before the call connects, and I wonder whether the cops will be showing up soon, looking for someone incapacitated. Still holding my phone, she sees the bouncer looking at her. “Shit,” she says and tosses me the phone. “Damn it,” she says hurriedly as she runs across the street. “Damn it, damn it, damn it.” Wobbling in high heels, soon she’s out of sight.Geez, Miss. You think you’ve got problems? I’m the one whose theory is all messed up now. I’m alone in the intersection, among all the smells of night—and fresh paint. To my left, glistening wet in the streetlights, are the words, “Neither God Nor Love.” Blue letters against ghastly white concrete.So that’s what really happens after the Cleaners finish up. So much for that wonderful balance. I guess that’s what happens when you step outside.I process these new developments as I walk back into my diner and grab the bucket.Ha. And now look at me. I’m wiping a table clean, indoors, at night.