New York is the city that never sleeps. But this renowned insomnia would not be possible without the more than 200,000 men and women who work the nightshift – the fry cooks and coffee jockeys, train conductors and cab hacks, cops, docs, and fishmongers selling cod by the crate. Inverting the natural rhythm of life, they keep the city running as it slows but never stops.

In our book, NIGHTSHIFT NYC, we tell the stories of New York City nightshift workers. This ethnography of the night investigates familiar sites, such as diners, delis and taxis, as well as some unexpected corners of the night, such as a walking tour of homelessness in Manhattan and a fishing boat out of Brooklyn. We show how the nightshift is more than simply out of phase, it is another social space altogether, highly structured, inherently subversive, and shot through with inequalities of power. NIGHTSHIFT NYC presents the narratives of those who sleep too little and work too much, revealing the soul of a city hidden in the graveyard shift of 24-hour commerce when the sun goes down and the lights come up.

But there is more to the story than found its way into the pages of the book. Here you'll find more stories of the night in New York City and around the country. And we hope you will add your own stories and comments in the months to come. Stay tuned and check back often...

Monday, December 29, 2008


Edward Hopper haunts me. When we were in Chicago last week, I read a lovely novel, An Unfinished Season, by Ward Just, which features a scene where the protagonist spends some time in the Art Institute of Chicago looking at Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), that iconic nightshift painting of a diner at night. When I was a senior interviewer on a study of homelessness, my boss, NYU social work professor Deborah Padgett, took me to her office, which is in the former studio where Hopper lived and worked with his wife Jo.

When we spent our year on the nightshift to write Nightshift NYC, the Whitney Museum had an exhibit, “Holiday in Reality,” on Hopper’s work. In addition to Nighthawks, there were many breathtaking pieces that demonstrate Hopper’s long preoccupation with light/dark and day/night. There was Soir Bleu (1914), as well as the watercolors and gouaches from his time in France (1906-07) that inspired Soir Bleu. There were the etchings from 1921, Night in the Park and Night Shadows. The former features a guy in a hat reading the paper on a bench in a moonlit Central Park, the latter another solitary man in a hat walking amidst shadows. And Early Sunday Morning (1930), another shadowy portrait of alienation, which, while morning, evoked for me the familiar feeling we’d come to know after having survived another all-night trek through New York.

At the Whitney exhibit, a sign on the wall said Hopper’s work “captures signification qualities of modernism: urban life and the individual’s place within it, the evocation of time passing, and a mediated, synthetic representation of the real world.” Two weeks before seeing the exhibit, we spent all night out in Manhattan taking a walking tour of homelessness, with a formerly homeless man, Barry, and our photographer for the book, Corey Hayes. Primarily a portrait photographer, Corey’s style for shooting the nightshift pictures evolved over time. But that night he shot many of the first photos of what became his signature nightshift style, capturing the synthetic light and blurred motion of the night. Seeing Hopper’s work against the backdrop of my appreciation for Corey’s photos, I was struck profoundly by how Corey was capturing the mediated, synthetic nature of the mediated, synthetic reality that is night in New York

Also, in both Early Sunday Morning and New York Movie (1939), Hopper created scenes that were deliberately a little outdated, to show how they were changing, shifting. We’d already titled our book but staring at those paintings I was aware of a secondary meaning to it, the shift being not only the hours worked but the shifting state of New York. That’s why we chose to feature two diners, one old and one a recreation, to get at that shift; and further underscoring the point, the old one, the Cheyenne, closed before the book was published.

But here’s where we diverge from Hopper’s portrayal of the night. Hopper’s diner, painted in 1942, was not outdated but rather representative of something new, modern, and therefore alienating. Just beyond the diner, a row house represents what’s fading away. In the diner, there’s a film noir feeling evoked by harsh (new, modern, fluorescent) light, unease among the people, and not even an exit for them to escape into the night – that is, if they dare to brave the shadowy nightworld beyond the diner. Without an exit, they’re trapped inside, with each other, but without connection, with only their urban anxiety, malaise, and fear. Even the title, not the typical term for people who stay up late, “nightowls,” but “nighthawks,” which Hopper invented, deepens the portrayal of a dangerous, violent, modern world.

Nearly seventy years later, many still see the night – in New York City especially – as a shadowy nightworld full of anxiety, malaise and fear, where no one connects with each other, all are alone and alienated, and danger lurks around every corner. This is not an accurate portrait of New York at night. Yes, there is a mediated, synthetic nature of a mediated, synthetic reality, but only on the surface of things. Stay in the diner long enough and you start to see that not only do people connect with each other, they forge a community where they look out for each other, where even a stranger can find company and conversation, and where the alienating dayshift city can seem a million miles away.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Guest Blog... The Auditor

It has been some time since we’ve hosted a guest blogger, and tonight it is The Auditor. He works the nightshift in a Chicago hotel and keeps a fascinating, hilarious account of his experiences at Graveyard Shift Chicago. We were recently in Chicago reading from our book at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. A great little bookshop with fine wine and even better beer. If you’re in the neighborhood, say hello to the owner, our new friend, Suzy.

The Auditor, his nom de plume, meant to join us ... but he overslept.

Once I had a couple Australian tourists come to the desk and ask where they can watch some late night Chicago Blues while eating Chicago Deep Dish Pizza on the Chicago Lake Front, preferably in Chicago’s Al Capone’s favorite booth and is within a three block walk. I work in the Loop which is the financial district and things shut down modestly early. There are a few good restaurants and a couple Irish pubs, but if you want the real Chicago night life, you may have to get your hands dirty. Hop on the Red Line going north and get off at Addison if you want some blues. Or hop on the Red Line going south if you are gutsy and want some real blues. Deep dish pizza is not a problem if you want to order in, but you don't need to ask for Chicago style pizza. We know what you mean. As for Al Capone, I know he is the only historic Chicago figure you know of, so you can take a $20 cab north to Lawrence and Broadway and hop off at the Green Mill, one of my favorite bars and jazz clubs which was one of his hangouts. If you're not an asshole, the bartender might even point out some prohibition history. But seriously folks, Chicago has more than violent mobsters in its history. We have our share of recent corrupt governors too.

I work swing shifts at a classy and hip Loop hotel, two nights as a night manager from 11pm to 7am. At night I am a part time web browser, scam artist thwarter, couple counselor, and adult baby sitter. Since it is pretty quiet in the Loop at night, I get much of my amusement with the guests who are plastered by midnight and do not know where to go. I once asked advice from one of my bartenders who deals with drunks all night. “It’s easy,” he said. “You have to be just as crazy as they are.” Good advice. Of course he has the liberty to take numerous shots of Rupplemints to achieve this, so I guess I will stick with writing about them, which has worked thus far.

The rough part of working swing night shifts is obviously the sleep schedule. You have none, therefore are forced to be flexible. I don't know how anyone can work nights full time and maintain a normal relationship and an active social life. It allows me to stay out late at least three days of the week and guarantees that for at least two of them I will be working and therefore not spending money at the Green Mill.

Sure, my friends and family have no idea when to call since there is a good chance they will be waking me up. Sure, I haven't eaten a real breakfast in five years. But my commute is much more tolerable than yours.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Nightshift Chicago

Next week, we’ll be reading and signing books in Chicago. Why Chicago?

As in New York City, lots of people in Chicago work the nightshift. Last year, in Chicago, 171,279 people left for work between 4pm and 4:59 a.m. That’s 11% of the city’s total workforce. As in NYC & all over the world, these nightshift workers struggle to maintain relationships, eat right, exercise and, above all, sleep.

Not surprisingly, researchers at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center have just published an article in Sleep on, well, sleep. Much research suggests that nightshift workers need to stay on a nightshift schedule, even on nights off, to mitigate the harmful effects of working nights. But this study, by lead author Mark Smith, suggests that it’s possible to mitigate these effects even if nightshift workers choose to sleep nights when they’re off work. How? With a strict regimen of light and dark to help partially delay the body’s natural circadian clock. For the full article (registration required), click here. For my other posts on sleep and the circadian cycle, see The Body's Clock and The Daysimeter. And remember, it’s not only shift workers who need to pay attention to daily doses of light & dark. It’s anyone struggling with depression, seasonal affective disorder, or the blahs when night falls earlier and earlier each day.

Ok, so you don’t work nights or mind the increasingly early nightfall but you still live in Chicago. Check out the exhibit, IN THE DARK, at the Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, 2430 N. Cannon Dr., Chicago, IL 60614, 773.755.5100, . Learn more about how worms, bats, butterflies and, yes, humans interact with darkness.

Finally, our book event is on Friday Dec 19 @ 7pm, at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60625, 773.293.2665, We're billing it as a night of holiday shopping and bar hopping in the Lincoln Square area, starting at 5pm, then the book event at 7pm, then a pub crawl starting at 9pm. Hope to see you there!

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Stillness

Across the street from a Manhattan emergency room, an all-night deli serves coffee and sandwiches to nightshift nurses, doctors, paramedics, and the occasional waiting family member. Rachel, a young nightshift nurse, orders her usual large coffee. She settles down at one of the two or three tables inside the deli, a recently remodeled section that somewhat pitifully suggests a quaint café. It’s late, close to 2 a.m., and there is nothing quaint about the place in the over-bright fluorescent glow.

As “Rock’n Around the Christmas Tree” plays overhead, Rachel explains the difference between working the dayshift and the nightshift in the E.R. “On the dayshift,” says Rachel, “your day gets progressively busier and busier as it goes on, it gets crazier and crazier.” Rachel takes a sip of her coffee and adds, “It’s also an older staff because you have more senior nurses because everyone wants to work days.”

The nightshift moves in reverse. “If you come in at eight o’clock at night in the E.R.,” Rachel explains, “that’s the busiest time. So you come in and it’s absolutely crazy. There’s a ton of people. And your night gets calmer as it goes on.” Rachel describes the ebbs and flows of the nightshift, the crush of patients treating the E.R. as a primary care clinic starting around 5 p.m., then a lull before patients are transferred upstairs around 2 a.m. “You have a younger staff at nights,” she explains. “They don’t have the seniority so it’s younger nurses.” It’s one reason she prefers the nightshift, and may be why she feels the nightshift nurses work well together compared to those who work the daylight hours. “For the E.R. at least, I think the night staff just works better as a team than the day staff does,” she says. “I really like nights better. And I like coming in and having it be crazy and then having my day get nicer as it goes on instead of crazier.”

She takes in the quiet hum of the deli and adds, “And I can come here and sit and drink my coffee for an hour and it’s quiet. You don’t get that during the day.”

Rachel gathers up her paper cup of half-drunk coffee and pushes through the glass door of the deli. It’s snowing out, but it’s only a few dozen yards to the emergency entrance. She passes the empty bays where ambulances would wait were they not on diversion and steps through the sliding doors of the emergency room.

Before heading back into the maze of beds and whirring machinery, she stops and says, “I think working nights has created a stillness in my life.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The King Is Here

“The king is here,” Steve mutters under his breath.

Steve is the manager at The Skylight Diner, and The Skylight is almost always busy. That’s partly because of its location on 34th Street, a two-way thoroughfare that conveniently links the Copacabana nightclub to Penn Station with the Skylight in between. It also happens to be around the corner from the 35th Precinct of the New York Police Department (NYPD), attracting a steady stream of hungry nightshift police officers. But mostly it’s the blue and red neon sign framed in stainless steel that beckons patrons at all hours of the night: Open 24 Hrs.

At around 4 a.m. on warm June evening, a guy walks in wearing a red and gold crown – The King. His date wears a glimmering tiara. Most weekends in May and June, just about every 24-hour eatery in the area is full of high school students from Long Island and New Jersey partying after prom. It is not uncommon for groups of prom-goers to rent limousines for the night and come into the “city” for nightclubs like the Copacabana. After 3 a.m., the Skylight fills up with boisterous teenagers in wrinkled tuxedos and tight-fitting dresses.

Inevitably, limo drivers follow their charges into the diner and settle down at the counter to wait for the drive back to the suburbs. One such prom night, Louie sits at the counter. He’s a retired NYPD officer who owns a fleet of limousines on Long Island. But not for long. He is selling most of his fleet and leaving New York, moving to North Carolina next month. This is one of his last trips out on the nightshift. He explains how some of his Long Island neighbors discovered a planned community near Charlotte, North Carolina. He figures that he can make twice what he earns in New York and live at half the cost there. After forty years in New York, Louie is selling out: “Really,” he says, “I mean, yeah, it’s a beautiful city, it never sleeps, it’s wonderful. But between the crime, the taxes,” he trails off. “If you have any real estate in New York,” he says simply, “sell it.”

Louie ends his pitch as Steve walks over. “You don’t know me, right?” Steve asks Louie. “I could tell you a story right now, and you’re gonna call me a moron.” Steve tells Louie about his father’s cousin, who owns a diner in Maryland but wants to retire in Greece. “Listen,” Steve begins, impersonating his father’s Greek cousin, “I had a son your age, he died in a car accident a couple of years ago. I’ve got a daughter, she lives in Atlanta and she doesn’t want to bother with a diner. I’ll make a deal with you. I’m 72 years old. You come down here, you send me $3,000 a month and I go to Greece. And the place is yours.” Steve waits, leans over the counter for effect, and adds, “But I’m still here.”

Louie hesitates a moment, then obediently cries, “You’re a moron!”

Steve smiles and says, “What did I tell you?”

Monday, November 10, 2008

You'll Want to Burn Your Clothes

This Friday marks the third anniversary of the move of Fulton Fish Market from Lower Manhattan to the South Bronx. For each of those three years, an artist, Naima Rauam, has displayed her paintings of the market in an exhibit titled, “Remembering Fulton Fish Market.” This year’s exhibit is coupled with a commemoration of Joseph Mitchell, on this centennial year of his birth. Last weekend we had the opportunity to see both exhibits and to take a walking tour with Jack Putnam, a longtime friend of both Naima and Joseph Mitchell. “I moved to New York to be a writer in the tradition of Joseph Mitchell,” I told Putnam. If you’re in the area, please go to some of their events this weekend and come out on Tuesday (the 11th) to hear me read some passages on the fish market at the KGB Bar.


“It’s gonna get in your clothes,” says the parking attendant. It’s bitter cold on the last night of February, but you can still smell the fish as soon as you drive into the parking lot of the Fulton Fish Market in its new home in the South Bronx. The market has recently moved to Hunts Point, a desolate, industrial promontory that juts out into Flushing Bay across the water from Rikers Island jail. The parking attendant’s tone is friendly, playful even, but he’s not joking. One trip to the fish market and you’ll want to burn your clothes.

Inside the 400,000-square-foot market, the smell is stronger, the lights are blindingly bright, men speed by on forklifts at a dizzying pace, and massive amounts of fish sit on ice in wax-coated cartons. Vendor stands and floor drains run the length of the cavernous space. At the stands, salesmen with fierce hooks hanging from their shoulders open cartons, weigh fish, set out wooden baskets full of crabs, and generally prepare for the day. Though officially forbidden, not a few of them go about their work with a cigarette dangling from their near-purple lips. Their clothes, which they keep in lockers at the market, haven’t seen a washer in a few days—the smell would seep quickly into any change of clothes—and many a salesman has pieces of fish and blood on the shoulder where he hangs his hook.

As in the original market, everyone knows one another, and strangers stand out. The frenetic pace of the forklifts and the swinging hooks seem choreographed, practiced, but deadly to those unaccustomed to the dance. For all the latent danger, it’s a jocular, friendly place where eye contact, smiles, and jokes are as routine as the smell. It’s 12:20 am. The market has been open for twenty minutes.

It’s a Wednesday night and, in fish market parlance, that means it’s Thursday, one of their busiest mornings. Thursday mornings were the busy morning at the original Fulton Fish Market, too. But even the familiar commotion—the smell, the lights, the flying forklifts, the cartons of fish—cannot make the new space feel like the old one to those who knew it well. “Every now and then,” wrote Joseph Mitchell in “Up in the Old Hotel” in 1952, “seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market.”

An artist, Naima, stands on a metal staircase sketching a fish salesman as he fillets tuna. Wrinkled and thin, Naima looks to be in her midseventies. She wears no makeup, her hair pulled back in a bun, a full-length charcoal gray parka, and a colorful knit scarf.

“The market has been the main subject matter for my entire painting career,” she says. Naima started sketching the original fish market as an art student in the mid-1960s. “Frequently, I would be up at 2 or 3 in the morning, or all night long doing my work because this is the time of the action.”

Naima makes the trip north to Hunts Point once a week, driving from the Lower East Side in Manhattan. The transition to the new location, says Naima, has been very difficult for her personally. “I’m trying to get more enthused about the scene here,” she says. The vendors and their salesmen, like Naima, have little choice if they want to stay in the business. “They’re here now,” she says, “trying to do the best they can.”

[photo courtesy of Corey Hayes]

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Couldn't make it to the launch party? Watch this...

If you weren't able to join us for our launch event at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, check out our short video of the affair. It was a great success, with food, drink, lots of friends and special guests.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Expect Everything

“I spend all night on the street.”

Jahi, an Egyptian in his early twenties, stands behind his kebab cart on Gansevoort Plaza – the intersection of Gansevoort and Greenwich, Little West 12th and 14th streets. It’s a little before 2:30 a.m. and this section of the meatpacking district is still bustling. There’s a giant new Theory store where Woolco used to be, a fitting symbol of how fashion has replaced food in the district.

The cobblestone streets remain but instead of meat trucks rolling across them, they’re jammed with taxis full of customers. People are everywhere. The quiet of the side streets gives way to the throbbing bass of the clubs, the horns of taxis and limousines, and the fragments of conversation the revelers scream to one another and into their phones. Above it all there’s a giant Budweiser billboard of beautiful people partying that reads: “Expect Everything.”

“I work just only on weekends,” Jahi says with a chopped yet melodic Egyptian accent. He works 10 p.m. to 5:30 or 6 a.m., always on this same corner, four days a week. By “weekends” he means Wednesday through Saturday. “They don’t come to the club Sundays,” says Jahi, “so I have Sunday, Monday, Tuesday off.”

As he talks, he scrapes clean his grill. A girl interrupts him, her voice laced with alcohol, “Hey, do you have a restroom?” A few girls buy some chicken kebabs and flirt with him. Some customers return asking for hot sauce and salt. The only salt he has is from the pretzel warmer, which is very hot. He gives some to the girl and it burns her hand, but she laughs. Another girl approaches with a distinct swaying gait, saying, “I lost my wallet. Did you find a wallet?” He tells her, “Sweetie, no, I don’t have it.” She says, “I never did this in my life. I lost my wallet.”

Girls stumble across the cobblestones and on the sidewalks in their stilettos. Some guys help carry their dates across the minefield of cobblestones. Other girls take off their shoes. When one guy leaves his date stranded on the sidewalk to fend for herself in her heels, she stays there and shrieks out after him, “You deserted me.” He strides easily across the cobblestones. “You deserted me,” she screams again but he never looks back.

Jahi talks about what it’s like to deal with drunk people every night. “A lot of them,” he says, “they give me fucking hard time about nothing. Sometimes about the price.” He tells a story about a guy who asked the price of a shish kebab, and when Jahi told him it was five dollars he accused him of ripping him off. “I said to him, ‘This is the deal. I don’t put my hand in your pocket to take the money. You like it, it’s five dollars, take it. You don’t like it, that’s it.’ So to me he says, ‘It’s okay,’ and he give me ten dollar and go. A lot of funny situations like this. He’ll start fighting with you and then he pay more than you tell him and go.” Jahi laughs. “And some of them, they just take it, and go, without paying nothing. He’s just fucking drunk.” Some pay when he reminds them, others pay twice and walk away before he can say anything.

He laughs again and says, “Yeah, in just one year, I see a lot of new stuff here in this city.”

Two women approach and ask, “Have you got any E’s or coke? Ecstasy or cocaine? Do you know where I can get some E’s or cocaine from? We’re from England and we’re drug addicts!” Before long they’re leaning suggestively into two guys wearing hooded sweatshirts. The four of them disappear around a corner.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Launch Party!

If you are in the New York area, join us this Saturday at 9pm at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe to celebrate the release of NIGHTSHIFT NYC. Free drinks and snacks while they last, and we'll even have a few special guests from the book. And of course, we'll have books for sale! You can find more information about upcoming events on our website

We look forward to seeing everyone at Housing Works. Bring a friend and spread the word!

Saturday, Nov 1 @ 9pm
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
126 Crosby (between Prince and Houston)

Monday, October 27, 2008

It's Like a Tuna Fish in Here

“I tell you the truth, I’ve been here fifteen years and I don’t know where is the keys!”

Sunny, 42, cackles at his joke and pushes his paper hat off his forehead. He looks a dozen years older than he is, easily weighs 200 pounds, and has a distinct bulbous nose and ruddy complexion. Tonight he wears a black Rick James t-shirt, black pants, and tennis shoes. Turning back to the grill, he expertly manages several orders at once, flicking his free hand to the beat of his metal spatula and the Arabic music overhead. It’s after 2 a.m. on a Saturday night in late May, and the late-night rush at Sunny’s Brooklyn deli has just begun.

Sunny’s deli sits on a busy avenue, snugly sandwiched between a subway entrance and an underground pool hall that’s hardly noticeable save the small crowd at its door day and night. Tonight there is a steady stream of customers, with more on the way as the night tips toward dawn. Sunny dances in dizzying motion between the counter and grill, filling orders and lifting spirits. The space fills and patrons come in less and less sober, barking orders at Sunny. He takes it in stride, placating impatience with a gap-toothed grin, a practiced banter and an infectious hiccupping chuckle that sounds disarmingly similar to that of Popeye the Sailorman.

“At four o’clock, forget it,” Sunny says, his English tumbling out in a thick Ramallah accent. “You can’t even talk to me, it’s like a tuna fish in here.” His malapropism of the more familiar “sardines” still captures nicely the tightly packed crowds that fill the narrow space after the bars and clubs begin to close on a Friday or Saturday night. He motions toward the front of the store where his partner and two or three Yemeni employees man the register for the goods on the shelves. “Monday to Friday, their business at nighttime is like $500 or $700,” he explains. “It’s not bad.” Sunny smirks and leans in close, “But on the weekend, I kill! From ten o’clock at night to five in the morning, almost two grand.” With a sly shrug of his eyebrows, he adds, “It’s like big business.”

According to a 2007 report from the Center for an Urban Future, foreign-born New Yorkers have always been more likely to start their own businesses than native-born. In some neighborhoods, the rate is two to one. As of 2000, the foreign-born population was still only 36 percent of the city’s total population, yet half of all self-employed workers in New York were born outside the United States. Immigrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel and Lebanon all start businesses at more than twice the rate as native-born New Yorkers, in some cases four-times as often.

The orders have started to pour in, but Sunny remains unflappable. In an uncharacteristic moment of carelessness, he knocks several dishes to the floor. The crash of thick porcelain almost drowns out the loud Jordanian music and the impatience of waiting customers, but only for a moment.

“I’m sorry, not my fault,” Sunny says to no one in particular. “I’m the one gotta pay for it, it come out of my pocket anyway.”

Friday, October 24, 2008

How Much for the Ribbon?

“How much do you think he’s selling this for?”

The bleary-eyed woman sways ever so slightly, holding up a large spool of green ribbon. It’s 1 a.m. on a January Tuesday at the Lucky Stop Deli, a tiny island of light on the Avenue of the Immigrant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Hassan is busy with another customer, and the ribbon woman waits her turn.

“How much you selling this for?”

Hassan, 21, looks at her, and then the ribbon in her hand. His head of curly black hair and thin goatee frame a confused stare. He scans the items in the small store, cases of soda and beer on one side, chips, crackers and other dry goods on the other. He looks back at the woman.

“What is that?” he asks.

The woman laughs. “You’re so funny, man.” She shuffles back toward the refrigerator cases with the mysterious ribbon. “This is the best store.”

Hassan watches her go and laughs. It’s a clear, enunciated laugh – ha-ha-ha – that proves infectious. Between customers he bounces to the music pouring from a portable stereo below a display of potato chips. It might be anything from Led Zeppelin to Lambada, but tonight it’s the Middle Eastern dance-fusion music of the late Ofra Haza, a Yemenite Jewish pop icon.
Originally from Yemen, Hassan moved to New York six months earlier, and has worked the nightshift at the Lucky Stop Deli for the last five. On slow nights, he passes the time joking around with Santiago, his coworker from Mexico who makes sandwiches and works the small grill. Tonight is a slow night. “On the weekends people come in drunk and very hungry,” he explains. “Sometimes girls come in here just messing around and don’t order anything.”

Corner convenience stores like the Lucky Stop are a mainstay of the block-based economy of New York City neighborhoods, though there is entrenched disagreement on what these stores are actually called. To many they are delis, descendants of delicatessens opened by Jewish immigrants more than a century ago. To many others, especially in Latino or formerly Latino neighborhoods, they are bodegas, descendants of the small grocery stores established at mid-century to serve communities that seldom received attention from larger national franchises. Whether it was Jewish immigrant entrepreneurs at the turn of the century, or Latino Bodegueros in the second half of the 20th century, delis, bodegas and corner stores have always been part of the immigrant history of New York City. Hassan is now one small part of that history.

The ribbon woman shuffles back to the counter with two 40-ounce bottles of Ballantine malt liquor. “This is a great store,” she says again. She pays and turns toward the door as a Domino’s pizza delivery man enters. The ribbon woman pauses and says, “I mean, if the Domino’s man comes to this store, then…” She resumes her exit, adding, “They know the value of a… whatever.” And she shuffles out of the store.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Nightshift NYC in Stores Now!

The official publication date is not until November 1. But UC Press is ahead of schedule. If you don't find copies in your local bookstore, ask for it (and while you're at it, ask them to invite us to do a reading)! And if you are in the New York area, join us at 9PM Saturday, November 1 for our launch party at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. For more events see And if you're on Facebook, become a fan.

Night Watch

In the 1960s, the journalist and activist Jane Jacobs described the importance of eyes on the street for city safety, especially after dark. Neighbors and public characters can create a network of vigilance to keep the perception of danger, if not danger itself, at bay. Even today, all-night delis in New York receive packages for neighbors, offer a familiar face at any hour, and help foster an organic, mutually constituting urban community.

But for many quiet stretches on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, there are no all-night delis. After dark, doormen are the last live eyes on the street, paid substitutes for public characters.

It is a responsibility that Upper West Side doormen James and Ricardo take seriously.

“You have to be very, very careful,” says James. He describes a fight a few doors down. “I heard a guy say, ‘Gun!’ And you don’t know what they’re gonna do ‘cause we’re right there. But thank God, nothing happened. You have to be alert. And I usually lock the doors after a certain hour.”

“We’re playing with our life!” says Ricardo. Slipping into Spanish, he says again, “We’re playing with our life! You are risking your life. The nighttime is very hard. The doorman doesn’t have good security, only the telephone. You have a problem, you call the police. If someone comes with a gun or something like that, it’s dangerous.”

But James and Ricardo are not the only ones doing the watching. The surveillance cameras that dot the city are also in the lobbies of their buildings, a fact that gives Ricardo pause during his shift. Of the many techniques he uses to keep awake, one includes prayer. “I like to pray in the morning, at 3 o’clock in the morning, or 2:30,” he says. “But up in the corner, you know, the camera is watching me.” He grins, then laughs with his whole body. “I worry about the camera, I do.”

According to a 2006 survey by the New York Civil Liberties Union, there are more than 4,000 surveillance cameras in Manhattan, up from 769 only seven years earlier. Last month, the NYCLU filed suit against the city to get access to full details on the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, which includes adding an unknown number (rumored to be in the thousands) of new surveillance cameras in Lower Manhattan alone.

Cameras now record even the most mundane activities of millions of New Yorkers every day. They are in every diner, deli, airport, hospital, and train station; they are on street corners and inside building lobbies and stairwells; they are even on the dashboards of most taxis. And though the cameras silently record twenty-four hours a day, they are somehow more noticeable at night. With fewer people distracting attention, and less pressure to conduct your business and hurry on, the unblinking eye of a surveillance camera, or two, or ten, mounted on a cramped deli ceiling makes buying even a soda somehow feel suspect.

And they’re not just in New York City. “Look,” a film by Adam Rifkin, portrays life from the perspective of surveillance cameras, of which there are an estimated 30 million in the US.

Like public lighting at the turn of the last century, it’s assumed that security cameras deter crime by exposing, and now recording, activity. But lighting had a dual purpose, both to light the way for law-abiding citizens and to serve as eyes for state authorities. Surveillance cameras, however, serve only the latter purpose, recording equally the activities of everyone from would-be criminals to doormen saying their nightly prayers.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sleep Sweet Sleep

My cousin’s husband works nights as a police officer in a town of about 200,000 people. While you might think his nightshift experience a stark contrast from those we interviewed in NYC, he shares with them a consuming need for sleep.

Nightshift workers must accommodate a life out of phase with the rest of us. Sleep is put off until daylight, if not sacrificed entirely to make time for the family, friends, and commonplace responsibilities that still run on a dayshift schedule.

Like many nightshift workers, PICU nurses Jessica and Tamar try to return to a “normal” schedule on their time off. They are not always successful. “If I don’t have anything to do that night,” says Jessica, “I’m like, ‘Forget it, I am sleeping until 5 o’clock or whenever my alarm wakes me up.’ But then I miss the whole day sleeping.” Tamar nods knowingly, “That’s the frustrating thing about working nights is that you waste a whole day of your week catching up on your sleep.” Jessica adds, “That’s why we work three days because we technically work four, one of them sleeping.”

Many nightshift workers cite variations on this awkward calculus of three days equals four due to lost sleep. Esther, a NICU nurse, often sleeps as little as an hour or two between shifts. James, a doorman, sleeps just three hours before returning to work again. “My wife and my kids, they say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’” he says. Billy, a deckhand, explains his schedule this way: “The other night crew on this boat works Sunday night for Monday and they get off on a Thursday morning. We come in Thursday night for Friday. They do four nights on the boat, but there are only seven days a week. So we do three plus one.” He smiles at the complexity of his explanation and says, “See, I tell people I live eight days a week, and they look at me like I’m crazy. I work four nights, I get off Monday at 6:45 in the morning. I don’t go back to work until Thursday night at 10:30. I have four full days off and I work four days. It’s like living eight days a week.”

Other nightshift workers find ways to sleep within the grueling schedule. Tim, a fish salesman, has built a life that allows about 8 hours of sleep during the day before returning to work. “If there’s stuff to do during the day,” he says, “you just cut back on your sleep. You still want to be involved in your kids’ lives, as well as have some sort of a relationship with your wife.” Hassan, a deli cashier, sleeps four or five hours every afternoon before working every night 11 pm to 11 am. “I’m very tired. I can work but, somehow, I’m so weak getting up, I can’t do it very fast. The alarm clock can ring for hours, and I don’t care. I don’t even hear it. Sometimes, I turn it off and I’ll say I’ll sleep for ten minutes, and then three hours pass.” John, a cashier at an overlit café near Times Square, stands at the register each night from 7 pm to 7 am. His sleep strategy? “I’m slim but my calves are strong. I can sleep standing.”

My cousins husband can't sleep standing - he's often behind the wheel of a patrol car in the wee hours. But his struggle to maintain a healthy family life, and get enough sleep, is not all that different from the men and women of nightshift New York (who, by the way, outnumber the entire population of his town).

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Cheyenne

On a lonely stretch of Ninth Avenue, there once was a diner. Beyond the radiance of Penn Station and Times Square, the Cheyenne Diner, which figures prominently in NIGHTSHIFT NYC, provided some welcome light and life to a darkened city. Though the Cheyenne was showing its age, and suffering as a consequence, it was the original of which so many modern “diners” are a nostalgic recreation. It was one of the few remaining diners in the city that could make a legitimate claim on the glory days of mass-produced, homogenized and wildly popular all-night diners. The Cheyenne’s gleaming stainless steel “dining car” exterior welcomed insomniacs and nightshift workers on break since the 1930s.

But after more than seventy years of service, it shut its doors for good on April 6.

Other eateries might have seen more action at night, but they had to work overtime to reproduce an experience that the Cheyenne offered effortlessly: the familiar 14-ounce bottle of Heinz ketchup, the cake stand on the Formica counter, the reliability that more often than not the soup of the day would be split pea. Salt and pepper shakers sitting perpetually refilled on every table, silverware and white napkins always set at every seat, and those oh-so-comforting glass sugar canisters awaiting those who like their coffee light and sweet. On the hottest of nights, the fake palm tree near the back door swayed from the night breeze, allowing people to imagine they were somewhere, anywhere but here. Swathed in this sameness of the Cheyenne, they could be in their favorite hometown diner, or the one where they took their first date, or even the one down the street

Diners have long served the overlapping and variable schedules of shift workers – and they have always been associated with the night. The first in New York City opened in 1893. It was a horse-drawn “night lunch wagon” operated by the Church Temperance Society in hopes of drawing business away from bars and their 10-cent meals. By the 1920s, public lighting opened up the city streets to regular late night commerce and the old night lunch wagons put down foundations and were dubbed “dining cars.” Their manufacture and aesthetic became standardized – tethered to the streamlining of American industry throughout the first half of the last century.

Within twenty years, the shortened “diner” would be permanently fixed in the popular romantic imagination. First Edward Hopper, then Hollywood, cast the diner as the model setting for urban social interaction, or lack thereof. Both contributed to the image of the diner as the one place where everyone whose conscience would not let them sleep could be alone, together. What began as a philanthropic outreach to new immigrants became part of a manufactured image of immigrant cities such as New York – dark, dangerous, overcrowded and yet strangely alienating and lonely.

As a result, New York is home to a varied collection of all-night eateries that fall roughly into the category of “diner.” Together they manifest the continuity of the city feeding its sleepless at all hours, and the collective nostalgia for that “other” New York, historical or imaginary, that was less alienating than today.

So as more and more of the old diners close their doors throughout Manhattan, a bit of that continuity is lost. But for the Cheyenne, and perhaps for all of us, there may yet be some hope. Mike O’Connell, a developer, bought the shell of the Cheyenne for $5,000. Next spring it will reopen in its new home in Red Hook with a view of the harbor. Let’s hope it will still be open 24 hours.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


People are talking about the nightshift. Well, we are anyway. Last week went like this.

On Sunday, talk turned to the 1979 reactor meltdown in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. “That happened on the nightshift,” I said. “Lots of accidents like that happened on the nightshift: Chernobyl, Bhopal, Three Mile Island. We wrote about it in the book.”

On Tuesday, a friend’s mom, who’s in the hospital a long way from New York City, relayed a conversation she had with her nightshift nurse. “Her life is really hard. She never sleeps.” Our friend urged her mom to buy the book.

On Thursday, I called Frigidaire (or rather Electrolux, which owns the brand). I spoke to a woman with an accent I couldn’t quite place. She gave me two numbers in Brooklyn to call with my question. I thanked her and asked where, geographically, she was. “Manila,” she responded. “What time is it there?” I asked. “Right now it is 3:30 in the morning here.” Women in the Philippines and India are flocking to call centers that, because of the time difference, must be staffed through their night to attend our mid-day questions. And because of the tight job market in health professions, many of them are trained nurses who could not find jobs in local hospitals.

And then on Saturday, a friend told a story about taking a NYC taxi late at night. The driver told him the credit card machine didn’t work, that he had to go to an ATM machine for cash. Our friend argued with the driver, pointed out that the machine worked, and eventually paid by credit card. But he felt badly afterwards. “Why,” he asked us, “would the driver lie about that? Why wouldn’t he let me pay by credit card?” We explained that taxi drivers begin their shifts in debt, paying in advance to lease the medallion licenses they cannot afford to own. The credit card processing costs drivers, not the companies who own the cars. And even a really big tip, on a credit card, is not as helpful as a smaller tip in cash immediately.

Ok, so it’s a subject on the tip of our tongues. But it’s not just one subject: the nightshift. And it’s not just about New York City. It’s about disasters, catastrophes, accidents, loneliness, social dislocation, sleep disorders, nursing, healthcare, Philippine call centers, taxi drivers, globalization, and so much more. And it’s about small decisions, every day, or night. Like paying attention to the sacrifices, large and small, that many are making here and abroad to attend our needs through the night.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Night Fishing

It’s a rainy Tuesday night in June on the Brooklyn VI, a bluefish boat operating out of Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. The 110-foot boat pulled out of the bay at 7:30 pm, passed under the flight path of JFK airport, and ran due east for two hours through six-foot swells. By the time it anchored in the shallows of the Atlantic Ocean, the sun had set and the horizon had disappeared in the darkness.

Billy, a deckhand with spiky black hair and rugged good looks, wears a sweatshirt emblazoned with the boat’s logo and the fisherman’s oilskin overalls known as skins. He works the deck with a thick-set, convivial deckhand named Chuck. Some nights, they’ll help customers bait hooks, fillet (dress) fish they catch, and help untangle the occasional backlash, where the line gets caught up in the reel. Other nights, when the fish are biting, they’ll mostly gaff, using a long metal hook to help haul the fish up out of the water and onto the deck.

“Last night was good,” says Billy. “It went fast. I went home this morning and I stunk. I always say if you don’t stink, you made no money.”

Though the Brooklyn VI can accommodate over 100 customers lined shoulder-to-shoulder around the narrow deck, tonight there are only fifteen lines in the water. The rough sea has the boat spinning in a wide arc around the anchor, making it easy to snag a line under the hull.

Someone brings in the first fish.

“Atta boy, girl,” Chuck says as Alanna, a five-foot-tall woman in green skins, heaves a bluefish onto the deck.

Before Chuck can move in to help, Alanna clamps down on the flapping fish with the heel of her rubber boot and wrenches the hook from its throat. With a practiced move she scoops up the catch by the gills and drops it into a barrel by her side. The male customers on either side of her scowl at her good fortune. She smiles sweetly. “Must be beginner’s luck,” she says as she baits another hook with a chunk of herring. Alanna is no beginner. She’s been out on bluefish boats since she was 8 years old, and worked as a deckhand since she was a teenager. Now in her early twenties, she’s a schoolteacher at a Brooklyn Yeshiva and married to a boat captain.

Halogen lamps above the deck light up the surface of the water around the boat, but beyond that it is inky black. In the distance there is the faint speck of another bluefish boat, and even farther, the dim lights of the coast, but the steep swells keep such reference points on the move.

Eventually, only Alanna, Billy and Chuck remain on deck but even they are waiting for the captain to blow the horn. Catching more than anyone else on the boat, eight bluefish, Alanna has the high hook for the night. On clear nights, the fish outnumber the customers, and Billy and Chuck can barely keep up with the gaffing. Other nights, like tonight, the fish are scarce and no one wants to be out on the water. When the horn finally blows three times, they know they are heading back to the bay.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Profits and Losses

As the global economy falters, more nightshift jobs get cut -- and added -- around the world. Here's just a sample of what's come across the wire in the last three months:

In the US, Nissan announced plans to close the nightshift and cut 6,000 jobs at its two plants in Tennessee. Officials cited rising fuel prices and a sluggish economy as reasons for the drastic measures. They promised no layoffs and offered buyout packages of up to $125,000. Employees have until this Friday to decide what to do.

In Sweden, Ford Motor's Volvo Cars Unit announced plans to cut a nightshift at one of their plants. Volvo PR people cited the falling value of the dollar as a factor, and suggested that the 700 people working the nightshift would be moved to day shifts.

Several employers in the UK have announced similar cuts. In Norwich, Anglian Home Improvements cut nearly 100 jobs, 31 of them on the nightshift. Officials cited slow sales and low profits. In Spalding, George Adams and Sons cut 44 nightshift jobs, blaming the sluggish economy. In Coventry, Ikea opened its first city-center store in the UK earlier this year. Last month, citing the nightshift was neither "cost-effective nor efficient," they told employees they'd be transferred to the dayshift. In Solihull, Land Rover announced plans to suspend the nightshift beginning in October. They promised no layoffs and cited reduced demand. In Blackburn, Invotec Circuits, which makes circuit boards, cited rising material and energy costs as the reason behind cutting 45 nightshift jobs.

In Ireland this week, the call center Conduit announced it was cutting nightshift jobs and outsourcing the work to Manila, Philippines.

It's not all cuts, though. In Manila, call centers and other growing 24/7 commerce has led to an increase in nighshift jobs for police and traffic enforcers. In Sunderland, England, Nissan added a nightshift to meet demand for the Qashqai, providing 800 jobs. In Tasmania, Australia, last month, Cadbury sent nightshift workers home early and had everyone report to a meeting where they were notified of impending cuts. Meanwhile, nurses in Tasmania's 24-hour staffed facilities received increased funding.

And finally, in one US town, Opelousas, Louisiana, the police department announced a number of cutbacks. The nightshift, however, will receive additional funding.

How is the economy affecting your nightshift job? If your job was cut, or added, tell us about it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Night Work for Women

For over 100 years, bans on night work for women have been on the books. As early as 1898, the New York State legislature passed a night work law that stated, “No female shall be employed, permitted, or suffered to work in any factory in this state before six o’clock in the morning, or after nine o’clock in the evening of any day.” Less than ten years later, the law was overturned as unconstitutional by the New York State Court of Appeals, but a movement against women’s nightshift labor was underway. Prominent political figures, such as the Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis and his tract “The Case Against Night Work For Women,” helped to create bans against women’s nightshift labor in twenty-four states by 1913. By 1919, the movement went global when the International Labor Organization (ILO) passed Convention No. 4 prohibiting industrial night work by women.

The 20th Century proceeded with greater and greater restrictions on women’s labor at night, particularly in Europe. Mid-century social movements against such discriminatory labor practices eventually overturned the bans on night work for women in the US, but as recently as the last decade, debates on allowing women to work the nightshift were still taking place in France, Austria and India. In India, in fact, proposed legislation to overturn the ban remains stalled. Those in favor of doing away with the bans on women working nights cite the stark paternalism of such regulation. On the other hand, advocates for the bans, or at least for some form of regulation, argue that women, especially those with children at home, face greater exploitation from industries dependent on nightshift labor. Where social convention expects women to be primarily responsible for childcare, these advocates argue, forcing them to work nights creates grossly unfair conditions. At the very least, they argue, pregnant women should have the option of switching back to days during and after their pregnancy. In 1999, Japan lifted their ban, in place since 1911, and amended it in 2000 with additional counter-measures to protect women.

What do you think? What regulation, if any, should apply to night work for women?

Monday, August 25, 2008

First Review Is In...

We won't normally fill these posts with self-congratulations, but... Today we received the advance copies of the book, and they look great. We also got news of our first review. The book won't be on shelves for another two months, so here's a preview of what at least one objective reader thinks of it:

LIBRARY JOURNAL, September 1, 2008

Through conversations over the course of a year with hospital workers, cab drivers, restaurant employees, deckhands, bodega owners, transit workers, homeless outreach service providers, and others who, by choice or necessity, are awake while the rest of us sleep, the authors examine the "social space" of the night. The personal stories capture the peculiar mood of the night shift, from the dangers of working behind a deli counter or the wheel of a taxi when the customers are often drunk and ornery, to the camaraderie of diner and hospital workers who bond together during the dark hours. Almost universally, the night shift workers claim to lack sufficient sleep and suffer health effects from their schedules. Russell Leigh Sharman (anthropology, Brooklyn Coll.; The Tenants of East Harlem) and Cheryl Harris Sharman, a writer and researcher, contextualize the personal anecdotes of their subjects by seamlessly weaving into the narrative pertinent data on the economy, transportation, health, industry, crime, labor, homelessness, immigration, and New York City history. This well-researched volume is illustrated by atmospheric black-and-white photographs. Recommended for public and academic libraries. -Donna L. Davey, NYU Lib.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Guest Blog... Paul Moses

A few weeks ago we heard from Cory Cavin about working nights at VH1. This week, it's Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College. Paul was a reporter for The Associated Press from 1980 to 1984, and then worked for 17 years at Newsday's New York City edition, including service as city editor and City Hall bureau chief. What follows is either an amusing story about working the night desk as a reporter or a harrowing story about working nights at a zoo.

I never knew quite how disoriented I was when I worked the nightshift at The Associated Press’ New York metro desk until the night the polar bear in the Central Park zoo killed a man who had entered its cage. As the “night supervisor,” I worked alone, responsible for reporting all breaking news involving New York City and its suburbs. There was no safety net; everything went out on the wires unedited.

Mostly, it was a job that could be done with the eyes practically closed, as was the case. I would rewrite the major stories in The Times for the wire and freshen stories AP reporters had done for the morning papers so that they could be used in the few afternoon papers still publishing at the time, September of 1982. And through the early morning hours, I would call periodically to the Police Department’s public information desk, where a lone spokesman, Sgt. Ed Burns, updated me on the latest crimes. His light-hearted tone suggested that none of the mayhem was worth my trouble, and I was usually inclined to go along.

Until the morning we had a conversation that went something like this:

Burns: Yeah. We got something. The polar bear in the Central Park zoo ate a guy.

Me: What? You’re --

Burns: No, really. The detectives are questioning the bear now.

Me: You’re kidding?!

Burns: The bear wants a lawyer.

Burns was pretty entertaining (perhaps a quality that his son, the director-actor Ed Burns, inherited from him) and, given my sleepy disorientation near the end of the shift, I couldn’t tell if this was a real story, cop humor or some combination of the two. I eventually got enough details from him to find out that a man who had entered the bear’s cage really had been killed – and it became worldwide news the instant I filed the first bulletin.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Food, Glorious Food

There’s something about the nightshift that leads, inevitably, to food. Talk of food. Pursuit of food. Weight gain from food. Perhaps it’s that Russell, Corey and I love good food. Possibly it’s because the NYPD, MTA, Port Authority, and taxi leasing companies turned down our requests for interviews but the Cheyenne Diner and other eateries kept their doors open to us. Or maybe it’s that working nights, as we’ve mentioned in other posts, makes you crave carbs instead of vegetables, which leads to what many refer to as the “overnight fifteen” extra pounds.

No, these all played a part but the real reason there’s lots of talk of food in the book is that everyone we interviewed talked about food. Since we often interviewed them on breaks or just after their shifts, they were also often eating while we talked. During our first conversation with Fatima at the Cheyenne, around 3 a.m., she drank a Diet Pepsi and ate a slice of cherry pie.

Steve, the night manager at the Skylight Diner, eats just once a day – in the morning after his shift. He might eat eggs. Or he might have a burger or pizza. “That’s why I’m big,” he said.

At midnight, at the start of his shift working at a Penn Station newsstand, Ahmed ate an apple. “I like to have something healthy to eat,” he said. Echoing this statement, Alam, who managed a Penn Station café, usually ate either a salad or a chicken sandwich at the start of his shift at midnight.

Rick, an exterminator, said that he too eats breakfast at the end of his shift, at 7 a.m. Then he goes to sleep until 3 p.m. “And then I’ll really be in the mood for Eggs Benedict,” he said.

Peter at JFK gained weight. “I gained 10, 12 pounds, maybe more. Now that I’m on a dayshift,” he said, meaning the 4 p.m.-midnight shift, “I’m 8 pounds lighter. I would eat before I came to work. Then I wouldn’t eat at all at work, then I’d eat right before I’d go to sleep. Go right to sleep, wake up maybe a half hour before I had to be at work and then rush to work.”

At his Brooklyn bodega, Sunny, the owner, grilled us amazing shrimp one Monday night around 4 a.m. Then at precisely 5 a.m., his night customers gone and his morning customers not yet awake, he made himself a turkey sandwich. For the first time all night, he sat down. And he ate.

PICU nurses Jessica and Tamar described their eating habits over a diner breakfast at the end of their twelve-hour shift. Since they don’t have much of an appetite before their shift, they admitted to grazing throughout the night. “On whatever’s available,” Tamar said. Jessica elaborated that she eats a number of small meals throughout the day, and has distinct names for each of them. “I have a pre-lunch lunch, lunch, and a post-lunch lunch, and then,” she added, pointing to her scrambled eggs, cinnamon toast, and orange juice, “breakfast.”

If all this leaves you craving carbs after midnight, try the four garlic rolls for $1 at John & Tony’s Pizzeria on First Ave in the East 50s. Not uptown? Try the samosas at taxi-driver hangout Lahore Deli on Crosby between Prince and Houston (and subscribe to this blog to know when we’re having our launch party at Housing Works Used Book Café next door, replete with Lahore samosas). Or, if you’re of healthier ilk, head to one of the two 24-hour New York Sports Clubs at 80th & Broadway or 23rd & Park Avenue.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Search for Happiness

Lately I've been reading books lent or given by friends that all seem to share a similar theme: the search for happiness.

In The Geography of Bliss, NPR correspondent Eric Weiner travels the world to find out where, exactly, bliss resides. He treks to Bhutan, Iceland, Moldova, India, some other countries and, in the US, Miami and Asheville. He does not go to New York. In Eat Pray Love, writer Elizabeth Gilbert travels to Italy to explore pleasure, India for prayer, and Indonesia for love. She does not go to New York; in fact, she leaves her homes, her husband, her job, her friends, and New York to find herself. In Selma, a tiny red volume by Jutta Bauer, a sheep, Selma, happily spends her days eating grass, playing with her children till lunchtime, exercising in the afternoon, chatting with the buzzard Mrs. Miller in the evenings, eating more grass and, finally, falling fast asleep. Asked what she would do with more time or with a million dollars, she replies that she would spend her days eating grass, playing with her children till lunchtime, exercising in the afternoon, chatting with Mrs. Miller in the evenings, eating more grass and, finally, falling fast asleep.

What, you reasonably ask, does this have to do with the nightshift?

Much, I think.

Trekking around the city after dark, instead of traveling the world, we found much bliss. Our own, to be sure, but also that of the many women and men who work the other 9 to 5. True, as we've pointed out here, they suffer. They lose friends, sacrifice sleep, gain weight, suffer health problems, struggle with depression and diabetes and digestive issues. But as we asked them about those topics, they replied again and again with other words. Words like "cohesion," which Jessica and Tamar felt among the night staff on the PICU. Or "prayer," which James and Ricardo, doormen who worked across the street from each other (one Christian, the other Jewish), felt they had the freedom to practice on this less populated shift. Or "relationships," which Peter at JFK felt they alone -- as nightshift workers -- had time to develop at such a deep level. Or "community," which Esther, a NICU nurse and a Christian, listed as the reason why she sacrifices her sleep. Or "stillness," which Rachel, an ER nurse and a Christian, said she had in her life because she worked nights. Without trekking to an Indian ashram, without big paychecks and even bigger apartments, without even switching after seniority to the dayshift, these people found these things working nights. In New York. Gilbert, in Eat Pray Love, gives New York City the one word description of "ACHIEVE." For millions, this is true. And many pick up and leave when they find that achievement either too elusive or destructive to press on. But for others, many, many of whom work nights, they have found another New York. They have found cohesion, prayer, relationships, community, and stillness. That's a city to get to know, to love, and to visit next time you find yourself searching for happiness.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Daysimeter

Nightshift workers have known for years that working nights and sleeping days can wreak havoc on the body’s internal clock. But scientists are just now catching up with some useful technology that might help reset that clock. Here’s an excerpt from an article Cheryl wrote for Scientific American, published online last week:

In an effort to gauge exactly how light affects our body clocks, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Center (LRC) in Troy, N.Y., has developed a device called a Daysimeter. Small and ear-mounted—like a wireless cell phone headset—it has three sensors that measure head movement, bright light (or lux, a measurement of the light used for daytime vision), and blue visible light (also known as circadian light). Circadian light—radiated by the sun as well as computer and television screens—helps balance certain hormones and neurotransmitters in the body, but only in specific doses and at certain times of day. Too much of this light can throw off the body's internal clock, which researchers believe leads to problems such as fatigue and poor health…

"We envision the Daysimeter, along with other biological markers [such as hormones] will allow us to get a more detailed circadian profile of a particular person," says LRC director Mark Rea, a Rensselaer professor of cognitive science. Researchers can measure the effect of circadian light exposure on hormone levels through blood samples collected from subjects. "We're fully expecting that we'll see variation among the population," he notes.

Rea envisions "real-time light prescriptions" to help people receive or avoid light at the appropriate times. Simple measures to control when and how much circadian light we receive could help nightshift workers stay alert on the job and sleep more effectively during the day, help cure jet lag, decrease depression, and generally help everyone get a proper night's sleep.

The ability to modify circadian rhythm could potentially mitigate the negative health effects that some researchers believe are brought on by disruptions to the light-dark cycle. Recent studies have found a link between health and changes in the natural circadian rhythm. The Journal of the National Cancer Institute published a series of articles, for example, that showed night shift workers had a higher incidence of breast cancer; and, last year, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer cited night work as a potential breast cancer risk factor…

Rea admits the LRC is a long way off from making their instrument available to the public. But researchers in the science of circadian rhythm are excited by the prospect of devices that may one day help people understand their own particular light-dark cycle and how to keep it in balance.

For the full article, click here:

Monday, July 14, 2008

Day for Night

Robert hovers over his warm beverage in a crowded lounge in Brooklyn. Tan and fit, with a crew cut, earring, and a shirt open at the chest, he looks much younger than his 46 years. His title varies depending on who’s doing the talking, so he might be called a film electrician or lamp operator, but his job is lighting feature film sets throughout the city.

He’s describing what it’s like to light for night exteriors. Film is a sensitive medium, and shooting outside at night requires a lot more light than one might expect. He continues, “There are guys that just dread it, but on the other hand, it’s our show. We are the most important element operating on the movie at that point, aside from the camera. We’re what’s putting light on everything. Film can’t be shot without us.”

Robert works on a freelance crew assembled by a well-respected and in-demand Gaffer so he’s almost always working. For the film industry, that means about 200 days a year. A good portion of those days are nights. “It’s something we all expect to do at some point or another,” he explains, “and a lot of guys just dread it when it happens.”

Robert has had to be resourceful to get a decent amount of sleep. “There’s a material that grips use called duvetyne that is black cloth, and they’ll put it over things to black things out. I took a bunch of it home and started pinning up all my windows so that I could just pretend that it was nighttime.” He laughs in a little mock agony and says, “Eventually you’re so sleep deprived you’re able to sleep under any circumstances. But it’s never as sound a sleep. It’s just unnatural.”

Much of Robert’s job could be considered “unnatural,” playing with the border between night and day. “The sun is going to rise, and no matter what you do, you can’t change that.” He described what it was like to light for night exteriors in New York when the night grew shorter through the summer. “The sun was only down for six to eight hours,” he said. “You can push it, I’ve seen some people push it. Sometimes you’ll find yourself at the end of the night and they’re putting in big black things on top of what we’re shooting so they can stretch out the night for a little bit longer.”

But not even Hollywood can hold back the sun. “When you’re doing that, there’s a certain amount of denial that you’re operating under just to get the shot. When you’re in a night exterior, generally, you have to contend with the laws of physics, and ultimately you will be forced to stop. And if your production is out of control and you’re not prepared, the night gets away from you.”

Few films are shot entirely, are almost entirely, at night. Here are a few of my favorites (apparently this was more popular in the 80s):

After Hours, Martin Scorsese, 1985
Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982
Escape from New York, John Carpenter, 1981

Check one out and think about the dozens of crew members who worked the nightshift to make it happen. And let us know if there are any we should add to the list…

Monday, July 7, 2008

Watch out!

Pedro makes deliveries on his bicycle all night long. “It’s very dangerous,” he recognizes. He’s enjoying a slow moment on this Tuesday night at 3 a.m. “Just now, a taxi that was parked darted out into the street and I almost hit it. This happens all the time. Once on 31st street I hit a car. Another time on 11th Avenue also.”

While these near-misses could be the fault of the drivers or happen as easily during the day, many accidents and injuries happen on the nightshift.

On Wednesday, June 4, a nightshift worker in an auto factory in Luton, England, got trapped in machinery at 5:30 a.m., remained trapped for an hour and a half, but survived. The week before, on Friday, May 30, a nightshift worker in a plastics factory in Redruth, England, was in a fatal accident at 4:30 a.m.

And then there are the bigger disasters: Nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania in 1979 (4 a.m.) and Chernobyl in 1986 (1:23 a.m.) The 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India (12:40 a.m.) killed 2,000 and injured 200,000 people.

Medical errors also increase at night. Here’s a recent New England Journal of Medicine article about adding doctors to the nightshift to prevent errors. (Or the Wall Street Journal article about it if you’re pressed for time.)

After spending a year on the nightshift shadowing everyone from waitresses to ICU doctors, it’s clear that the slower pace and calming quiet of NYC at night has its immense benefits.

However, it’s also clear that the night can be treacherous. Circadian rhythms are at their lowest around 3 a.m. Sleep debt accumulates more quickly than you might think (some studies say cognitive performance drops by 30% with one night of lost sleep, and 60% with two nights). And the information lag that can occur between shifts, as one employee’s shift ends and another’s begins, can lead to catastrophic errors.

But there’s hope! Scientists are working on ways to make nightshift workers more alert at night and enjoy more restorative sleep during the day. Stay tuned for more on that.

Meanwhile, let us know what you do to stay awake on the nightshift.

Monday, June 30, 2008

A Normal Life

Clad in burgundy scrubs, three Filipina nurses enjoy a calm moment in the nightshift on the cardiac ICU. Gina, 38, has long black hair, flawless skin, and perfect comedic timing. Ann, 31, another stunning beauty, has shorter black hair and wears glasses. Both she and Gina are slender and sit behind a desk in chairs they barely fill. Emma, who doesn’t admit her age, stands next to them. With fuller hips and a rounder face she appears to be in her late forties but her magnetic eyes and sly smile make her seem a decade younger than that.

They’ve always worked nights, all of them. “It’s convenient for the kids,” says Emma, who’s been doing this for sixteen years. Emma says she can fall asleep right away on their hour-and-a-half break. With a thicker accent than Emma or Ann and a stoic expression meant to elicit laughter, Gina says, “She didn’t hit the pillow yet, and she’s asleep. I’m still talking, and she’s asleep.” Emma nods approvingly, Ann smiles widely, and Gina cracks a slight smile.

Ann has worked the nightshift for seven years. Gina steps away for a moment and Ann talks about why she likes it. “The good thing about the nightshift,” she says, “is you can go to the bank, you can shop for groceries. You cannot necessarily do that when you are working in the day. So three hours of sleep is okay, I can still function at night. The most I get is four hours.”

They all started working nights because they lacked the seniority to work days. But now, with seniority, Gina, Ann and Emma keep working nights, primarily for their young children.

Ann allows herself to imagine a life on the dayshift. “If only we could go to days.”

“It would be a normal life,” admits Emma, still standing.

Gina wanders back into the room, and the conversation. “No,” she says emphatically, “because if you work nights, you can go to the bank in the morning ...”

After much discussion, they say they like nights because they’re calmer and they find the staff more cohesive. Almost as an afterthought, Gina says that it’s also nice to receive the night differential of higher pay.

And, says Gina, her wry smile returning, “If you compare the morning nurses and the night nurses, we look good and young.” Her face an emotionless mask, she says, “If you come back in the morning, you’ll see.” Ann and Emma smile guiltily. Gina continues, “They say we lose ten years if you work nights, because of course your skin is different, you look haggard, gray hair. But look at the morning nurses,” she pauses for effect. “Just compare the beauty.” They all laugh.

More seriously, they consider that perhaps they like nights either because they’re married or because they’re Filipina. “Singles,” says Gina, “have a different point of view. I don’t know why they choose nights.” Emma’s placid expression turns more playful and she says her piece: “Whites don’t want to work nights. They want a life.” Her tone is jocular but the quick succession of nods from the other nurses indicates there is truth in what she says, or at least they perceive truth in what she says. Gina mentions two white nurses on their unit. “They're only here at night because they were hired for nights.” Emma nods. “They're new,” she says. Still joking, a little, she adds, “If they have a chance to go days, they will go days.”

Monday, June 23, 2008

Guest Blog... Cory Cavin

From time to time we will have a guest offer their perspective on the nightshift. Tonight, it's Cory Cavin. He's an editor on the nightshift for VH1, but he can also be seen performing at the Upright Citizen's Brigade and other Improv Comedy venues around the city. Check out his blog at

Usually about 7:00pm I start gathering my things so I can head to work. The reverse commute is great because at worst I catch people coming home late from work which means an always vacant train ride for me. I usually feel pretty alert this time of day because any tiredness has worn off by early evening. I've always been a night owl, so having to be "on" in a 3rd shift environment is never a problem.

My job revolves around prime time television, watching the night's most popular TV shows with a team of 2 others – a co-producer and a talking head comedian. We concoct witty commentary about the shows’ most ridiculous and memorable moments, loading up zingers for the comedian to deliver in front of solid colored background. This becomes the backbone of a 3 minute internet package distributed to the e-masses sometime in the non-waking hours. So that when they arise to sip their morning coffee, they can see what they missed on a celebrity dancing show and what we’ve got to say about that guest judge with absolutely NO volume control. Who is that guy and what is his deal? Amiright?

The hours between wrapping the camera and actual internet distribution are the quietest and most intense hours. The rest of the team leaves and I sit in an office above Times Square, New York City trying to beat the clock so I can beat my normal out-time of 3:00 AM and get home at a “decent time”. It’s during that time that I edit the package together, making commentary meet content, introduce season finale footage to warnings of “Spoiler Alert!”. The occasional security guard walks by and either scares me to death with their unexpected presence or we exchange an anonymous hello. You would be surprised what your mind does around 2:30 AM with the noise of someone walking into your edit suite in a mostly empty 50-floor office building. I occasionally cross paths with other nighttime video editors on their way to the snack machine or bathroom (and they are met with the same muffled terrified gasp followed by a hurried, “Oh, hey…”). It’s always a surprise to see another human around at that hour (hence the small heart attacks that happen upon spotting one), and that is one of the most defining aspects of the job. Offices are often characterized by their social culture, the boring times in the day when one walks to the pantry and makes a lap around the cubicles to kill 10 minutes and get closer to 5 o’clock, or the cupcakes in the meeting room for Doris’ birthday where casual conversations about sports happen and office camaraderie, however forced, flourishes. These interactions are mostly stripped from my office nightshift experience. After my team leaves, 4 hours before my out time, I’m mostly alone, except maybe for the others on the floor who I may run into on a bathroom break. Who are assuming they’re alone and are just as startled as I am when they see me, uninhibited, talking aloud to myself in the hallway.

The following video was produced during an all night work marathon at and best sums up my suspicions and fears of what lies in the office at night:

See more funny videos at CollegeHumor

Monday, June 16, 2008

Unnoticed and unheard

In a cramped Upper East Side deli, the owner, Ishmael, pays out $100 to a man with a winning lottery ticket. It’s 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday night so he’s doing a brisk business of cigarette, coffee, soda, and snack sales.

Ishmael, originally from Yemen, explains his schedule. He works seven nights a week, sixteen hours a shift. “I’m here on weekends until 3:30 or 4,” he says. “On weeknights till 1:30 or 2.” Tonight he might stay later, he admits, because he’s training someone new. “He’s also Yemeni,” adds Ishmael, nodding to a man who looks to be about the same age.

Ishmael, 53, has owned this busy deli for fifteen years. “I’ve had one vacation,” he says proudly. He says he has to work this hard to cover the $5000 a month in rent for the store, and the expenses of his family. “I have six daughters,” he says, “the oldest 35.” He pauses a moment, then adds, “And two sons, 18 and 22.” He grows quiet and then says that he kicked out the oldest son.

Working sixteen-hour nightshifts, admits Ishmael, leaves little time for him to be home – or sleep. “I sleep here sometimes,” he says jubilantly. “Especially when the children were small.” Things were very hard then, when they first came from Yemen. “It was really rough between my wife and me then,” he says. Things have changed. Things have changed in Yemen too, Ishmael says. “There used to be no women in Yemen. Now it’s the opposite. All women, no men."

Ishmael isn't in the book. That's because he's but one of many Yemeni entrepreneurs working nights in New York City delis. But his story, like all those we interviewed who didn't make it into the book and all those we couldn't even interview, deserves to be told. Working nights is just one of the many sacrifices they make. This blog is as much about the facts and findings that continue to make headlines, or sometimes go unnoticed, as it is a way to provide space for the voices of people who often go unnoticed and unheard on the nightshift.

Monday, June 9, 2008


About 2 a.m. one night in October, 2006, Peter leaves JFK International Airport Terminal 4. He's a US customs border protection officer. He concedes drawbacks but focuses instead on the benefits of the nightshift: going to school days, a tight community of coworkers, and being paid a night differential. Peter walks rapidly to his car in the garage. He stops abruptly and smiles. "You know how people bring their pets with them everywhere? Well, people bring their cats, and sometimes these cats’ cages fall and they open and they scurry off." As he speaks, a half dozen cats dart in and out of the concrete support columns of the parking garage. Some nibble on cat food left in large plastic containers just outside their lair. "A whole community of them developed here," Peter explains. "Somebody who works here actually feeds them.”

The New York Times first reported on these feral cats in October, 2007. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, citing risk to aircraft and passengers, began trapping and removing them. Animal rescue organizations, who'd worked to spay and neuter them, responded that this "removal" meant certain death for the cats. They protested, calling instead for a strategy known as trap, neuter and release (T.N.R.). Some airline workers joined the protests.

Protests stalled things until Memorial Day when the Humane Society received a call that the round-up would resume on June 1. Last Tuesday, June 3, the Times reported the subsequent protest outside Port Authority offices in Union Square. The Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals urges T.N.R.

Some animal lovers argue that the cats can be adopted. Others say having them there hurts the bird population. Still another group of airport workers says it's sad but too unsafe to have them on an airfield.

The articles:

Oct 26, 2007 NY Times
Oct 29, 2007 NY Times
June 3, 2008 NY Times

Can't wait to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Eyeliner Twins

After 4 a.m. one Friday night, the bars in Manhattan just closed, Penn Station fills with drunk girls and guys heading home to Long Island and New Jersey. Several girls strut past a 24-hour coffee shop. A store employee shakes his head and howls at them. He’s got spiky hair and wears dark sunglasses. He’s had this job for two weeks but doesn’t mind it, he says, because he gets to look at the girls. He stops talking to howl as more girls jiggle and stumble past his shop. Some girls roll their eyes. Some laugh and continue their catwalk. Still others veer into his store. While he does this, er, publicity work, four other employees, all Spanish-speaking new immigrants, do the work that doesn’t relate to the cash register.

Three African-American women in their early twenties totter by on 3-inch heels and barely-there dresses. He interrupts his conversation with another customer to howl at them. They walk over. He tells them they look beautiful. One of them eyes him suspiciously, saying, “We feel like we look.” Not missing a beat, he says, “Well, if you feel like you look then you feel gorgeous.” She smiles. Her friends smile and laugh. They buy a few things and traipse toward their trains.

If this book was a novel, alcohol would be a character. One of the chief differences between the nightshift and dayshift is the use of alcohol by customers. Dayshift employees, even at the same sites, have far more interaction with sober people than drunk ones. At night, it's the opposite. People who work days party at night. Even if they only get a little out of control once a year, they're going to do it at night. That's partly because night affords darkness, a shroud covering all illicit behavior. It's also partly because of biology, and a neurotransmitter known as GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid to science geeks). GABA either increases excitability or inhibits behaviors best shrouded by darkness, depending on a number of factors. For example, alcohol and certain drugs block GABA's inhibiting ability.

Several more girls come into the coffee shop. Almost interchangeable, they're all voluptous, tan, and spilling out of tight dresses. Though he’s only been here two weeks, the spiky-haired employee knows them already. “Where’d you go tonight?” he asks like they’re old friends.

“The Gypsy tea club,” one of them answers. She’s propped precariously on a stool. Her friends arrange themselves similarly on similar stools. He approaches them. “I wanna marry your sister,” he says to one of them. Another of them, the 5 a.m. smeared eyeliner beneath her eyes wider than a cigarette, turns to him, smiles coquettishly, and says, “I’m really bad.” Perhaps she’s the sister he wants to marry. “You don’t have to settle down,” he says generously, “as long as you just come by to see me.” He asks for her number. As she’s gives it, s-l-o-w-l-y, another employee leans over the counter behind them listening. He has a pencil and paper ready, waiting to record her number.

A twenty-something male customer enters the store. He makes his purchase, witnesses these curvy ladies straddling their respective stools, and saunters toward them. “It’s my birthday,” he begins, “Do I get a birthday spank?” Every girl takes her turn giving a birthday spank. “Does that mean you like what you see or what?” he asks. One girl, whose eyeliner also runs halfway down her cheek, says, flirtatiously, “Maybe.”

The men disperse. The customer leaves. The employees get to work. The girls sit alone. One of them reflects on their evening out. She says to one of the other girls, “We didn’t do very much acid.” The other replies, “We didn’t do much of anything. We were so out of it.” Yet another says something about how they didn’t pay for many drinks. “What?” asks one of the eyeliner twins, loudly, almost angrily, “Do you think we paid for drinks?” More loudly, she says, “Are you stupid? Only stupid girls pay for drinks!”

The point isn't that people shouldn't drink. It's far more complicated than that. And it's true that lots of the male nightshift workers we met consider all the drunk girls the main perk of their jobs. Here's an article, published in the UK this week, by a nightshift doctor who too often sees the result of all these lowered inhibitions. Even he's not saying drinking should be banned. And here's an article I wrote for PAHO on alcohol abuse. (The Spanish version if you're so inclined.)

What do you think?

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Body's Clock

Cliff the Cabbie turns north on Third Avenue. Like most nightshift cab drivers in New York City, his shift runs 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. Tonight he wears his favorite leather jacket, a loose-fitting shirt and jeans. With a lilting Jamaican accent and full-throated laugh, he talks about working nights. "It's not normal, because your body is not made to work at night. You’re supposed to be sleeping at night and working in the daytime. It’s not normal.”

Cliff doesn't refer to circadian rhythms by name, but that's what he's describing. The word circadian, from the Latin, translates roughly as "about a day." Circadian rhythms control almost everything that happens in our bodies in about a day. They control body temperature. They control digestion. They control the release of hormones, such as melatonin, which is released at night and regulates sleep. It works like this. The eyes receive information about what time it is from the amount of light absorbed by the retina. The retina sends this information to the group of cells in the hypothalamus known as the SCN. The SCN passes on that information to the teeny tiny pineal gland in the epithalamus. If it's night time (or there isn't enough light for the retina to think it's daytime), that little gland secretes melatonin, which makes Cliff tired. Whenever we feel tired, or hungry, or thirsty, it's because our circadian rhythms think it's time to be tired, hungry, or thirsty.

For those who work regular overnights, or alternating shifts, all this messing around with the body's circadian rhythms can quickly cause health problems. Digestion problems are especially probable because the G.I. system is so sensitive in general but all the more so at night when the body thinks you're asleep. It only took us a few weeks on the nightshift to crave pancakes at 3 a.m. instead of salad, and to convince ourselves that pain in our guts from the salad meant we shouldn't order it next time. Needing to sleep during the day, we, and millions of others, skipped exercise in favor of sleep. Thus for those who work nights there are correlated increases in diabetes, obesity, heart problems, and depression. Then there are decreases in memory, cognitive functioning, immune functioning, and coordination. In December, 2007, the cancer wing of the World Health Organization weighed in on a long-debated issue by adding the nightshift to its list of possible causes of cancer.

Add to that sitting in a taxi 12 hours a night, and Cliff the Cabbie found himself rather overweight. "You have to plan some time to go out and exercise when you’re off," he says. "If you don’t do that, you’ll gain a lot of weight. That’s what happened to me." Cliff the Cabbie started taking brisk walks two or three mornings a week after work. At first, his legs hurt so badly he could barely walk. He kept at it. "After about two or three months," he says, "I went out to walk and there was no pain." Within four months, he realized he'd lost weight. "I dropped off a good 15 or 20 pounds. Just walking at a brisk pace." Once it grew cold again, he stopped his walks -- and put back on some of the weight. But he's committed to getting in shape. And he's committed to the nightshift. Don't even talk to him about the dayshift. “It’s too much stress," he says. "You eat a lot of pollution, too. I can’t do it anymore. I’ll take my chances on the nightshift.”

Monday, May 19, 2008

Night Train

It's nearly 3 a.m. and we're on the homeward-bound Q train.

We finished the book months ago, moved to Brooklyn, and began to forget what it felt like to stay up all night.

Tonight reminds us. The train takes an inexplicable route and winds up at the Pacific stop. A recorded voice says those dreaded words: "This is the last stop on this train." We shuffle out with the other weary night travelers. We wind our way through the Atlantic-Pacific terminal to the Atlantic Q platform to head deeper into Brooklyn. We wait, and wait, and wait. Behind us stand two girls, natural blondes in their early twenties. One has curves, the other an isosceles triangle nose. Someone has drawn a head-to-toe line down the center of the thinner girl, and caked her entire right side in gray-black mud. Or so it seems. For all the odd things we've seen in this city after midnight and all we know about not staring, this tempts us to crane our necks and look closer. Tempts. Before we look again, a man approaches and asks if she's ok. She's been wanting someone to ask this question. She tells him, loud enough for all the curious to hear, that she fell. Staring down the track to see if she could see the oncoming train - as we all do in NYC - she fell. Into the liquid muck that stagnates between the rails. Our train arrives. She limps onto it. Her friend sits. She loudly protests that she cannot; she is in pain. Black mud coats the right side of her hair. Chunks of it hang off her jeans, her jacket, her boots. It covers her face, her hands. It covers her friend's hands.

We spent a year lingering long enough to see such moments play out again and again. Interested less in those who travel through the night than those who labor during it, we rarely followed people like her and instead sought those such as the conductor on that train. We first thought, naively, that we'd interview nightshift workers before or after their shifts. But their shifts are so punishing, we soon learned, that it was cruel to expect them to talk to us afterwards. It was equally unreasonable, we also soon learned, to expect them to cut short their limited sleep to wake earlier and talk to us before their shift began. So we took on the extra burden instead of asking them to do it. We flipped our schedules to stay up nights and sleep days. We're married so it helped a great deal that we were both able to invert our schedules. (Though we did meet folks who said they worked nights because they wanted to avoid a spouse who worked days.) Some nights every conversation turned into an interview with an amazing person who you'll meet in the book. Other nights, we walked miles looking for people who would talk to us and found none. Most nights we waited hours till they had a spare moment. Often we scheduled and re-scheduled and re-scheduled interviews to accommodate them. We suffered (some of) the same things they suffer on the nightshift: weight gain, headaches, difficulty staying in touch with friends and family, sluggish bodies and minds, and so much more.

Back on the Q train, a drunk man unwisely tries to get the muddied girl to see the humor in it. She does not. She tells him she knows she's lucky to be alive, but that she really hurt herself. He goads her. She gets angry. Her friend smiles and promises her they'll get off at the next stop. The train stops. The door opens. And they are gone.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Who works the night...

15 million people in the United States work “alternative shifts” in the evenings or nights. In 2004, this accounted for 14.8 percent of the labor force. The majority of these alternate shift workers work “evening shifts,” which the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) delineates as working between the hours of 2 p.m. and midnight. The BLS classifies nightshift employees as those whose shifts fit somewhere between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. In 1997, those who regularly worked the nightshift accounted for 3.5 percent of full-time employees. In 2004, 3.2 percent, or 4 million people worked regular overnights. Over half of them work in “protective services” and, depending on the year, about 41 percent work in food services. They tend to be men. They tend to be single. They tend to work alternate shifts because of “the nature of the job.” About one-fifth, however, chooses these shifts for “personal preferences.” Nationally, they tend to be black or African American, followed by Asian, Hispanic or Latino, and then white.

In New York City, according to 2005 American Community Survey (ACS) data from the US Bureau of the Census, 245,163 workers went to work between 4 p.m. and 4:59 a.m. That’s about 7 percent of the city’s 3.3 million workers. Reflecting national trends, more men worked these alternate shifts than women, especially shifts beginning after midnight. Since New York is a city of immigrants, and immigrants tend to be overrepresented in low-paying, low-prestige jobs, it is no surprise that many of those found working through the night were born on foreign soil.

NIGHTSHIFT NYC tells the stories of more than 100 of these workers. Men like Hassan, a young man from Yemen who works the Lucky Stop Deli in the Lower East Side from 8pm to 8am 7 nights a week. And women like Esther, a nurse on the nightshift in a Brooklyn pediatric ICU. But we also seek out the flavor of the city on the nightshift, not just for those working its dark hours, but for those night tourists from the dayshift as well. Alcohol makes a regular appearance on the nightshift, as does the comfort food that keeps diners and street vendors in business. At the end of a year on the nightshift conducting interviews for this book, we felt the effects of a life out of phase with the rest of the city. But more on that later...