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, 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]

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