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, 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?