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, 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?