In the last week, I’ve suffered from mild insomnia. To cope, I’ve been riding my bicycle through the urban core at night, after the pavement has cast off its stored heat.

A bike is slower than a car, but faster than walking, which allows me to observe in detail while traveling many miles.

I start in Nuuanu after midnight, when streets are nearly empty and most shops are closed.

Honolulu’s urban core is a very different place while bicycling in the dead of night. This is the view of King Street from the Alapai Transit Center.

Sterling Higa/Civil Beat

With no companion except a steady headlight and a blinking red taillight, I bike for an hour. Thirty minutes out, 30 minutes back – just enough time to reach Waikiki while meandering.

Biking the city at night is an intimate experience, a reminder that sunlight obscures as much as it illuminates.

Most places along the way are asleep, the businesses closed, the streets empty. Few pedestrians roam the sidewalks, typically workers finishing a late shift or drunks making their rounds.

Hotel Street, Ala Moana and Waikiki are constellations of insomnia, complete with noise and traffic. The remaining “open” signs are scattered like stars in the night sky.

Between these lone stars and loud constellations are vast stretches of dark, quiet space. But this space is not still. Some people who are homeless move through the night, easier to see without cars or other pedestrians in the way.

Unseen Forces

Many know little rest, unsettled by the fear of police, the threat of violence and the knowledge that what little belongs to them could be taken in an instant. Others yelp and shriek in the dark, victims of mental illness.

Criminals prey on helpless people. And without walls, without witnesses, without the protection of law, those without homes must be ready to move quickly.

The ones carrying the least appear to sleep most soundly. I see them on bare concrete, curled fetal, often with nothing except the clothes they wear.

Lying awake in bed seems a curse, but a few minutes of night riding remind me otherwise.

Some keep more possessions: a mattress or blanket, a shopping cart nearby.

Groups are common. A few bicycles and tents gathered together. Often, at least one person will remain awake and watchful.

Others roam, scrounging through trash cans or congregating near still-open businesses.

This last group will sleep in the sun, with the city awake, when the watchful eyes of passersby will safeguard them.

Restless Nights

I wonder whether I would rather sleep with nothing to lose or shift restlessly to secure my self and possessions.

This is an abstract question, but I am not sure whether our lawmakers have asked it.

Some of our policies seem designed to keep the homeless suspended in motion.

Most of us will never experience that restlessness. Lying awake in bed seems a curse, but a few minutes of night riding remind me otherwise.

I arrive home to a simple apartment. Four walls with a door that locks. A comfortable bed and a closet full of things I don’t need. A space to be still, if only for the rest of the night.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.