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...

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 cafĂ© 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).