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, December 29, 2008


Edward Hopper haunts me. When we were in Chicago last week, I read a lovely novel, An Unfinished Season, by Ward Just, which features a scene where the protagonist spends some time in the Art Institute of Chicago looking at Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), that iconic nightshift painting of a diner at night. When I was a senior interviewer on a study of homelessness, my boss, NYU social work professor Deborah Padgett, took me to her office, which is in the former studio where Hopper lived and worked with his wife Jo.

When we spent our year on the nightshift to write Nightshift NYC, the Whitney Museum had an exhibit, “Holiday in Reality,” on Hopper’s work. In addition to Nighthawks, there were many breathtaking pieces that demonstrate Hopper’s long preoccupation with light/dark and day/night. There was Soir Bleu (1914), as well as the watercolors and gouaches from his time in France (1906-07) that inspired Soir Bleu. There were the etchings from 1921, Night in the Park and Night Shadows. The former features a guy in a hat reading the paper on a bench in a moonlit Central Park, the latter another solitary man in a hat walking amidst shadows. And Early Sunday Morning (1930), another shadowy portrait of alienation, which, while morning, evoked for me the familiar feeling we’d come to know after having survived another all-night trek through New York.

At the Whitney exhibit, a sign on the wall said Hopper’s work “captures signification qualities of modernism: urban life and the individual’s place within it, the evocation of time passing, and a mediated, synthetic representation of the real world.” Two weeks before seeing the exhibit, we spent all night out in Manhattan taking a walking tour of homelessness, with a formerly homeless man, Barry, and our photographer for the book, Corey Hayes. Primarily a portrait photographer, Corey’s style for shooting the nightshift pictures evolved over time. But that night he shot many of the first photos of what became his signature nightshift style, capturing the synthetic light and blurred motion of the night. Seeing Hopper’s work against the backdrop of my appreciation for Corey’s photos, I was struck profoundly by how Corey was capturing the mediated, synthetic nature of the mediated, synthetic reality that is night in New York

Also, in both Early Sunday Morning and New York Movie (1939), Hopper created scenes that were deliberately a little outdated, to show how they were changing, shifting. We’d already titled our book but staring at those paintings I was aware of a secondary meaning to it, the shift being not only the hours worked but the shifting state of New York. That’s why we chose to feature two diners, one old and one a recreation, to get at that shift; and further underscoring the point, the old one, the Cheyenne, closed before the book was published.

But here’s where we diverge from Hopper’s portrayal of the night. Hopper’s diner, painted in 1942, was not outdated but rather representative of something new, modern, and therefore alienating. Just beyond the diner, a row house represents what’s fading away. In the diner, there’s a film noir feeling evoked by harsh (new, modern, fluorescent) light, unease among the people, and not even an exit for them to escape into the night – that is, if they dare to brave the shadowy nightworld beyond the diner. Without an exit, they’re trapped inside, with each other, but without connection, with only their urban anxiety, malaise, and fear. Even the title, not the typical term for people who stay up late, “nightowls,” but “nighthawks,” which Hopper invented, deepens the portrayal of a dangerous, violent, modern world.

Nearly seventy years later, many still see the night – in New York City especially – as a shadowy nightworld full of anxiety, malaise and fear, where no one connects with each other, all are alone and alienated, and danger lurks around every corner. This is not an accurate portrait of New York at night. Yes, there is a mediated, synthetic nature of a mediated, synthetic reality, but only on the surface of things. Stay in the diner long enough and you start to see that not only do people connect with each other, they forge a community where they look out for each other, where even a stranger can find company and conversation, and where the alienating dayshift city can seem a million miles away.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Guest Blog... The Auditor

It has been some time since we’ve hosted a guest blogger, and tonight it is The Auditor. He works the nightshift in a Chicago hotel and keeps a fascinating, hilarious account of his experiences at Graveyard Shift Chicago. We were recently in Chicago reading from our book at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. A great little bookshop with fine wine and even better beer. If you’re in the neighborhood, say hello to the owner, our new friend, Suzy.

The Auditor, his nom de plume, meant to join us ... but he overslept.

Once I had a couple Australian tourists come to the desk and ask where they can watch some late night Chicago Blues while eating Chicago Deep Dish Pizza on the Chicago Lake Front, preferably in Chicago’s Al Capone’s favorite booth and is within a three block walk. I work in the Loop which is the financial district and things shut down modestly early. There are a few good restaurants and a couple Irish pubs, but if you want the real Chicago night life, you may have to get your hands dirty. Hop on the Red Line going north and get off at Addison if you want some blues. Or hop on the Red Line going south if you are gutsy and want some real blues. Deep dish pizza is not a problem if you want to order in, but you don't need to ask for Chicago style pizza. We know what you mean. As for Al Capone, I know he is the only historic Chicago figure you know of, so you can take a $20 cab north to Lawrence and Broadway and hop off at the Green Mill, one of my favorite bars and jazz clubs which was one of his hangouts. If you're not an asshole, the bartender might even point out some prohibition history. But seriously folks, Chicago has more than violent mobsters in its history. We have our share of recent corrupt governors too.

I work swing shifts at a classy and hip Loop hotel, two nights as a night manager from 11pm to 7am. At night I am a part time web browser, scam artist thwarter, couple counselor, and adult baby sitter. Since it is pretty quiet in the Loop at night, I get much of my amusement with the guests who are plastered by midnight and do not know where to go. I once asked advice from one of my bartenders who deals with drunks all night. “It’s easy,” he said. “You have to be just as crazy as they are.” Good advice. Of course he has the liberty to take numerous shots of Rupplemints to achieve this, so I guess I will stick with writing about them, which has worked thus far.

The rough part of working swing night shifts is obviously the sleep schedule. You have none, therefore are forced to be flexible. I don't know how anyone can work nights full time and maintain a normal relationship and an active social life. It allows me to stay out late at least three days of the week and guarantees that for at least two of them I will be working and therefore not spending money at the Green Mill.

Sure, my friends and family have no idea when to call since there is a good chance they will be waking me up. Sure, I haven't eaten a real breakfast in five years. But my commute is much more tolerable than yours.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Nightshift Chicago

Next week, we’ll be reading and signing books in Chicago. Why Chicago?

As in New York City, lots of people in Chicago work the nightshift. Last year, in Chicago, 171,279 people left for work between 4pm and 4:59 a.m. That’s 11% of the city’s total workforce. As in NYC & all over the world, these nightshift workers struggle to maintain relationships, eat right, exercise and, above all, sleep.

Not surprisingly, researchers at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center have just published an article in Sleep on, well, sleep. Much research suggests that nightshift workers need to stay on a nightshift schedule, even on nights off, to mitigate the harmful effects of working nights. But this study, by lead author Mark Smith, suggests that it’s possible to mitigate these effects even if nightshift workers choose to sleep nights when they’re off work. How? With a strict regimen of light and dark to help partially delay the body’s natural circadian clock. For the full article (registration required), click here. For my other posts on sleep and the circadian cycle, see The Body's Clock and The Daysimeter. And remember, it’s not only shift workers who need to pay attention to daily doses of light & dark. It’s anyone struggling with depression, seasonal affective disorder, or the blahs when night falls earlier and earlier each day.

Ok, so you don’t work nights or mind the increasingly early nightfall but you still live in Chicago. Check out the exhibit, IN THE DARK, at the Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, 2430 N. Cannon Dr., Chicago, IL 60614, 773.755.5100, . Learn more about how worms, bats, butterflies and, yes, humans interact with darkness.

Finally, our book event is on Friday Dec 19 @ 7pm, at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60625, 773.293.2665, We're billing it as a night of holiday shopping and bar hopping in the Lincoln Square area, starting at 5pm, then the book event at 7pm, then a pub crawl starting at 9pm. Hope to see you there!

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Stillness

Across the street from a Manhattan emergency room, an all-night deli serves coffee and sandwiches to nightshift nurses, doctors, paramedics, and the occasional waiting family member. Rachel, a young nightshift nurse, orders her usual large coffee. She settles down at one of the two or three tables inside the deli, a recently remodeled section that somewhat pitifully suggests a quaint cafĂ©. It’s late, close to 2 a.m., and there is nothing quaint about the place in the over-bright fluorescent glow.

As “Rock’n Around the Christmas Tree” plays overhead, Rachel explains the difference between working the dayshift and the nightshift in the E.R. “On the dayshift,” says Rachel, “your day gets progressively busier and busier as it goes on, it gets crazier and crazier.” Rachel takes a sip of her coffee and adds, “It’s also an older staff because you have more senior nurses because everyone wants to work days.”

The nightshift moves in reverse. “If you come in at eight o’clock at night in the E.R.,” Rachel explains, “that’s the busiest time. So you come in and it’s absolutely crazy. There’s a ton of people. And your night gets calmer as it goes on.” Rachel describes the ebbs and flows of the nightshift, the crush of patients treating the E.R. as a primary care clinic starting around 5 p.m., then a lull before patients are transferred upstairs around 2 a.m. “You have a younger staff at nights,” she explains. “They don’t have the seniority so it’s younger nurses.” It’s one reason she prefers the nightshift, and may be why she feels the nightshift nurses work well together compared to those who work the daylight hours. “For the E.R. at least, I think the night staff just works better as a team than the day staff does,” she says. “I really like nights better. And I like coming in and having it be crazy and then having my day get nicer as it goes on instead of crazier.”

She takes in the quiet hum of the deli and adds, “And I can come here and sit and drink my coffee for an hour and it’s quiet. You don’t get that during the day.”

Rachel gathers up her paper cup of half-drunk coffee and pushes through the glass door of the deli. It’s snowing out, but it’s only a few dozen yards to the emergency entrance. She passes the empty bays where ambulances would wait were they not on diversion and steps through the sliding doors of the emergency room.

Before heading back into the maze of beds and whirring machinery, she stops and says, “I think working nights has created a stillness in my life.”