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, 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...