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, 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.