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...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The King Is Here

“The king is here,” Steve mutters under his breath.

Steve is the manager at The Skylight Diner, and The Skylight is almost always busy. That’s partly because of its location on 34th Street, a two-way thoroughfare that conveniently links the Copacabana nightclub to Penn Station with the Skylight in between. It also happens to be around the corner from the 35th Precinct of the New York Police Department (NYPD), attracting a steady stream of hungry nightshift police officers. But mostly it’s the blue and red neon sign framed in stainless steel that beckons patrons at all hours of the night: Open 24 Hrs.

At around 4 a.m. on warm June evening, a guy walks in wearing a red and gold crown – The King. His date wears a glimmering tiara. Most weekends in May and June, just about every 24-hour eatery in the area is full of high school students from Long Island and New Jersey partying after prom. It is not uncommon for groups of prom-goers to rent limousines for the night and come into the “city” for nightclubs like the Copacabana. After 3 a.m., the Skylight fills up with boisterous teenagers in wrinkled tuxedos and tight-fitting dresses.

Inevitably, limo drivers follow their charges into the diner and settle down at the counter to wait for the drive back to the suburbs. One such prom night, Louie sits at the counter. He’s a retired NYPD officer who owns a fleet of limousines on Long Island. But not for long. He is selling most of his fleet and leaving New York, moving to North Carolina next month. This is one of his last trips out on the nightshift. He explains how some of his Long Island neighbors discovered a planned community near Charlotte, North Carolina. He figures that he can make twice what he earns in New York and live at half the cost there. After forty years in New York, Louie is selling out: “Really,” he says, “I mean, yeah, it’s a beautiful city, it never sleeps, it’s wonderful. But between the crime, the taxes,” he trails off. “If you have any real estate in New York,” he says simply, “sell it.”

Louie ends his pitch as Steve walks over. “You don’t know me, right?” Steve asks Louie. “I could tell you a story right now, and you’re gonna call me a moron.” Steve tells Louie about his father’s cousin, who owns a diner in Maryland but wants to retire in Greece. “Listen,” Steve begins, impersonating his father’s Greek cousin, “I had a son your age, he died in a car accident a couple of years ago. I’ve got a daughter, she lives in Atlanta and she doesn’t want to bother with a diner. I’ll make a deal with you. I’m 72 years old. You come down here, you send me $3,000 a month and I go to Greece. And the place is yours.” Steve waits, leans over the counter for effect, and adds, “But I’m still here.”

Louie hesitates a moment, then obediently cries, “You’re a moron!”

Steve smiles and says, “What did I tell you?”

Monday, November 10, 2008

You'll Want to Burn Your Clothes

This Friday marks the third anniversary of the move of Fulton Fish Market from Lower Manhattan to the South Bronx. For each of those three years, an artist, Naima Rauam, has displayed her paintings of the market in an exhibit titled, “Remembering Fulton Fish Market.” This year’s exhibit is coupled with a commemoration of Joseph Mitchell, on this centennial year of his birth. Last weekend we had the opportunity to see both exhibits and to take a walking tour with Jack Putnam, a longtime friend of both Naima and Joseph Mitchell. “I moved to New York to be a writer in the tradition of Joseph Mitchell,” I told Putnam. If you’re in the area, please go to some of their events this weekend and come out on Tuesday (the 11th) to hear me read some passages on the fish market at the KGB Bar.


“It’s gonna get in your clothes,” says the parking attendant. It’s bitter cold on the last night of February, but you can still smell the fish as soon as you drive into the parking lot of the Fulton Fish Market in its new home in the South Bronx. The market has recently moved to Hunts Point, a desolate, industrial promontory that juts out into Flushing Bay across the water from Rikers Island jail. The parking attendant’s tone is friendly, playful even, but he’s not joking. One trip to the fish market and you’ll want to burn your clothes.

Inside the 400,000-square-foot market, the smell is stronger, the lights are blindingly bright, men speed by on forklifts at a dizzying pace, and massive amounts of fish sit on ice in wax-coated cartons. Vendor stands and floor drains run the length of the cavernous space. At the stands, salesmen with fierce hooks hanging from their shoulders open cartons, weigh fish, set out wooden baskets full of crabs, and generally prepare for the day. Though officially forbidden, not a few of them go about their work with a cigarette dangling from their near-purple lips. Their clothes, which they keep in lockers at the market, haven’t seen a washer in a few days—the smell would seep quickly into any change of clothes—and many a salesman has pieces of fish and blood on the shoulder where he hangs his hook.

As in the original market, everyone knows one another, and strangers stand out. The frenetic pace of the forklifts and the swinging hooks seem choreographed, practiced, but deadly to those unaccustomed to the dance. For all the latent danger, it’s a jocular, friendly place where eye contact, smiles, and jokes are as routine as the smell. It’s 12:20 am. The market has been open for twenty minutes.

It’s a Wednesday night and, in fish market parlance, that means it’s Thursday, one of their busiest mornings. Thursday mornings were the busy morning at the original Fulton Fish Market, too. But even the familiar commotion—the smell, the lights, the flying forklifts, the cartons of fish—cannot make the new space feel like the old one to those who knew it well. “Every now and then,” wrote Joseph Mitchell in “Up in the Old Hotel” in 1952, “seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market.”

An artist, Naima, stands on a metal staircase sketching a fish salesman as he fillets tuna. Wrinkled and thin, Naima looks to be in her midseventies. She wears no makeup, her hair pulled back in a bun, a full-length charcoal gray parka, and a colorful knit scarf.

“The market has been the main subject matter for my entire painting career,” she says. Naima started sketching the original fish market as an art student in the mid-1960s. “Frequently, I would be up at 2 or 3 in the morning, or all night long doing my work because this is the time of the action.”

Naima makes the trip north to Hunts Point once a week, driving from the Lower East Side in Manhattan. The transition to the new location, says Naima, has been very difficult for her personally. “I’m trying to get more enthused about the scene here,” she says. The vendors and their salesmen, like Naima, have little choice if they want to stay in the business. “They’re here now,” she says, “trying to do the best they can.”

[photo courtesy of Corey Hayes]

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Couldn't make it to the launch party? Watch this...

If you weren't able to join us for our launch event at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, check out our short video of the affair. It was a great success, with food, drink, lots of friends and special guests.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Expect Everything

“I spend all night on the street.”

Jahi, an Egyptian in his early twenties, stands behind his kebab cart on Gansevoort Plaza – the intersection of Gansevoort and Greenwich, Little West 12th and 14th streets. It’s a little before 2:30 a.m. and this section of the meatpacking district is still bustling. There’s a giant new Theory store where Woolco used to be, a fitting symbol of how fashion has replaced food in the district.

The cobblestone streets remain but instead of meat trucks rolling across them, they’re jammed with taxis full of customers. People are everywhere. The quiet of the side streets gives way to the throbbing bass of the clubs, the horns of taxis and limousines, and the fragments of conversation the revelers scream to one another and into their phones. Above it all there’s a giant Budweiser billboard of beautiful people partying that reads: “Expect Everything.”

“I work just only on weekends,” Jahi says with a chopped yet melodic Egyptian accent. He works 10 p.m. to 5:30 or 6 a.m., always on this same corner, four days a week. By “weekends” he means Wednesday through Saturday. “They don’t come to the club Sundays,” says Jahi, “so I have Sunday, Monday, Tuesday off.”

As he talks, he scrapes clean his grill. A girl interrupts him, her voice laced with alcohol, “Hey, do you have a restroom?” A few girls buy some chicken kebabs and flirt with him. Some customers return asking for hot sauce and salt. The only salt he has is from the pretzel warmer, which is very hot. He gives some to the girl and it burns her hand, but she laughs. Another girl approaches with a distinct swaying gait, saying, “I lost my wallet. Did you find a wallet?” He tells her, “Sweetie, no, I don’t have it.” She says, “I never did this in my life. I lost my wallet.”

Girls stumble across the cobblestones and on the sidewalks in their stilettos. Some guys help carry their dates across the minefield of cobblestones. Other girls take off their shoes. When one guy leaves his date stranded on the sidewalk to fend for herself in her heels, she stays there and shrieks out after him, “You deserted me.” He strides easily across the cobblestones. “You deserted me,” she screams again but he never looks back.

Jahi talks about what it’s like to deal with drunk people every night. “A lot of them,” he says, “they give me fucking hard time about nothing. Sometimes about the price.” He tells a story about a guy who asked the price of a shish kebab, and when Jahi told him it was five dollars he accused him of ripping him off. “I said to him, ‘This is the deal. I don’t put my hand in your pocket to take the money. You like it, it’s five dollars, take it. You don’t like it, that’s it.’ So to me he says, ‘It’s okay,’ and he give me ten dollar and go. A lot of funny situations like this. He’ll start fighting with you and then he pay more than you tell him and go.” Jahi laughs. “And some of them, they just take it, and go, without paying nothing. He’s just fucking drunk.” Some pay when he reminds them, others pay twice and walk away before he can say anything.

He laughs again and says, “Yeah, in just one year, I see a lot of new stuff here in this city.”

Two women approach and ask, “Have you got any E’s or coke? Ecstasy or cocaine? Do you know where I can get some E’s or cocaine from? We’re from England and we’re drug addicts!” Before long they’re leaning suggestively into two guys wearing hooded sweatshirts. The four of them disappear around a corner.