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Even as a city sleeps, its demons are afoot

It was Tuesday night in St. Petersburg.

It could have been any night in any city that has a bedtime.

A city, like a child, is easiest to appreciate at night, after it has gone to sleep. Then, with no sign of all the silly words and actions that people coax from it during the day, its innocence and even its sweetness can come through.

Without the parade of people marching to all the places they're supposed to go, a city can be a patchwork quilt, appreciated for the handiwork that made it. Without all the mindless babble and the noises of people amusing themselves, a city can sound like a work of nature.

Even from a car, which provides the illusion of safety needed to traverse a dark city.

With the window down, you can hear water tickling the underside of The Pier. Within minutes, you can find yourself at the foot of the garishly graceful Sunshine Skyway bridge.

You can appreciate the magnitude of the ThunderDome and the engineering that keeps it standing and not think for a second about the wildly speculative gamble that allowed the first shovel of dirt to be turned.

The car makes you feel safe and detached from all that you pass.

It is a comfort not easily disturbed. Turn on a police scanner, however, and the city becomes a different, less innocent place.

A man is at a convenience store using a pay phone. He wants to get back in his house to get the rest of his possessions, but his wife has a restraining order and a large kitchen knife . . .

The quiet streets northeast of downtown could be rural if the houses were not so close and connected by sidewalks. The trees are as full of life and the light as subdued as a country night.

A 14-year-old girl is fighting with her mother. She has a stick and some other weapon . . .

Sparklers of light lead across the stretch of water from North Shore to Snell Isle. It is hard not to wonder if money has brought the happiness into these mansions that Americans are wont to believe it will. It is hard to know from a car passing in the night.

A couple is fighting. She calls the police, but the call is abruptly interrupted. No one answers when the police call the number back. Police have been there before, and they hate to go there again. But they have to . . .

The Barnett Tower.

A man has been beaten up at one of the seedy hotels lining U.S. 19 N. He doesn't want to talk about it with police. Medics fix him up . . .

By car, you can get anywhere in the city in 10 or 15 minutes.

A man says he was robbed at gunpoint and beaten. Medics work on him in a parking lot near the crime scene while police officers question him . . .

The armed robbery happened two blocks from my house while I was riding around a sleeping city, listening to a police scanner and thinking it's too easy to insulate yourself, by money or geography _ or by staying in the car _ from much of humanity's ugliness.

It is not easy. It is not possible.

At the crime scene, one officer walks the street with a flashlight, searching for clues. Several teenagers are standing around nearby intersections. They know more than any of them will admit to the police. The man with the red splotch near his eye probably does, too.

The teenagers have probably witnessed this scene before. The area offers curbside service for drug users, and the man with the medics fits the bill of the typical patron. The conclusion of his search is not unusual.

People who hop into their cars and travel in search of drugs are easy robbery victims. They have money, at least enough to buy the drugs when they find them, maybe more, and because they don't want people to know about their trip, they are unlikely to tell police the truth.

When they are robbed, even killed, there is no public outcry and little sympathy from a society fed up with crime.

We are so efficient at crossing the distances that money and location have put between us. Just 10 or 15 minutes from anywhere in the city by car.

But bridging those paltry distances will take years.