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, May 11, 2009


It is May, 2009. We've come full circle with the blog, a year of posts on all things nightshift. If you're just stumbling upon us, wander through the archive to find information and stories that did not make it into the book, and some that did, a few guest blogs, some thoughtful essays, and a few pictures. We're ending our year of blogging on the nightshift on a high note, the American Society of Journalists and Authors just gave us one of their Outstanding Book Awards. For those of you who've been following along, thanks for taking the journey with us. For those of you who've just found us, follow the link to the right and pick up a copy of NIGHTSHIFT NYC. You'll never experience the night the same way again.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

May Day

Friday is May first, May Day to those who’ve ever danced their way around a maypole.

In New York City this year, it’s the May Day Rally, a rally and march for worker and immigrant rights. Organized by the grassroots May 1st coalition, which hopes to win legalization and full rights for all workers, the rally is at 4p.m. and the march at 5p.m.

Consider marching for Juan, who used to work at the Cheyenne. That’s not his real name. An undocumented Mexican immigrant, he’s shielded by a pseudonym. When the diner closed, his bosses said he’d gone on to work at another of their restaurants. He didn’t. He’d always hoped to return to Mexico. Maybe he did. Maybe not. Here’s a bit of his story, from Chapter 18 of Nightshift NYC:

Juan, 43, wears a white chef’s shirt, checked chef’s pants and, when he goes out on deliveries, a navy Members Only style jacket. His short black hair stands up on end a bit, though tonight it’s slicked down with a good bit of gel.

At 2:30 a.m., he takes a break. He eats hungrily before he returns to the basement kitchen or out into the night for a delivery. His job here is an unremitting cycle of deliveries, dirty dishes, and piles of potatoes to wash before the morning rush. He has worked at the Cheyenne for two years, this time. Like many undocumented Mexican immigrants, Juan has moved back and forth across the border several times in his working life. With a family to support in Mexico, the US provides a good income but it will never be home.

In New York, Juan has only worked nightshift jobs. As he describes it, “I don’t know what the daytime is like in New York.” He works seven nights a week, 364 nights a year for $4 an hour. “It’s a lot of work,” he says. “I don’t like to work the night, but I have to work to take care of my family.” He’s smiling but he has giant bags under his

“I don’t speak English, only the numbers. It’s a problem, because customers ask me questions I don’t understand. I’ve never had the time to study English. I come home only to sleep, I get up to go to work, bathe, and go. That is my life. I am very tired, but I want to save a little more money.”

Nightshift workers like Juan need advocates. Especially in the current economy, when they are more likely to be laid off or paid even less. In New York City, nightshift workers are often immigrants. If they’re undocumented, they – and their dayshift counterparts – risk being fired, not hired at all, or exploited for cheap labor. As this City Limits article shows, this increases the likelihood that they cannot pay their rent, will become homeless, and cannot send money to their families back home.

The rally and march are not the only ways to support workers. Read more on their plight. Ask them their story. Be a nice customer. Tip well. Donate to Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, which supports restaurant workers and their families.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Guest Blog (Again!) ... Michael Arthur

A few weeks ago we posted some late night sketches from artist Michael Arthur. Michael is the archival artist at Joe's Pub and all of his drawings are done directly in ink with no pencils and no rough drafts. We liked his sketches from his commute home to Brooklyn so much, we decided to post a few more. Check out more of his work at:  and

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Food and Shelter

This month, the federal stimulus bill (or, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) will start affecting real life. Some have already seen their paychecks notch up a little.

For others, part of the 12.5 million people out of a job right now, the perks will take longer.

If they (or you) were already enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the renamed food stamps program – each family member will receive an extra $18/month for groceries. That’s nothing to spit at these days. In many neighborhoods, families can use that money at farmer’s markets and CSAs. (If you’re feeling energetic, make sure this option exists in your neighborhood and fight for it if not.) And, according to this City Limits article, the Department of Agriculture estimates each $1 spent on food puts $1.84 back into the sluggish economy.

If they (or you) have housing but cannot afford it, take note of another acronym: HPRP. This is the new Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. It offers an unprecedented $1.5 billion for homelessness prevention, diversion, and re-housing programs. During other slumps in the economy, or deindustrialization (e.g., a local economy flush with factory jobs turned into one full of internet jobs), the near-homeless quickly became homeless. Operated by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), charities and other “third parties” apply for grants. (Applications are due May 18; more information here.) Individuals who meet strict guidelines are eligible for assistance from those organizations. They won’t pay mortgages, but they might pay up to 18 months of rent and utility payments on current housing; security and utility deposits on new (cheaper) housing; motel vouchers up to 30 days between the current and new apartments; and various other case management benefits.

If they (or you) were already homeless, however, things still need to improve a great deal. In New York City, the Department of Homeless Services (wait for it … DHS) recently reported yet another decrease in street homeless people, according to their annual count, the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (with the sunny acronym HOPE). These counts began after HUD required cities receiving federal assistance for homelessness to supply data. At the time, Mayor Bloomberg’s plan, “Uniting for Solutions Beyond Shelter,” sought to end chronic homelessness.

In 2005, the first year it was held in all five boroughs, the count turned up 4,395 individuals. In grad school at the time, focusing on chronically (or street) homeless men in New York City, I found that number highly suspect. Researchers and some advocates were saying the number and the survey methods were deeply flawed. Many other advocates, silenced by the federal and city funding they receive for their programs, admitted – off the record – it was flawed, but publicly said it was at least doing something about street homelessness.

Soon, Bloomberg’s goal morphed: not to end chronic homelessness (why not if there’s only 4,395?) but to decrease “street homelessness” by two-thirds by 2009. I decided to volunteer to lead a team for the 2006 count to see its survey methods up close. Lo and behold! Though my 2006 HOPE team was forbidden to wake up anyone; had to walk around with police escorts; went out on a weather-advisory night in January; and thus all the homeless men I knew were, on this night at least, indoors, DHS estimated, in their e-mail to team leaders, that there were “3,843 unsheltered individuals … a 13 percent year-to-year decrease from HOPE 2005.” A few days before, still wanting to be a believer, I’d asked one of the homeless men I’d been shadowing for a year what he thought of HOPE. He’d been living on the streets since the 1980s. “That will never work,” he said. “You’ll never find them. First of all, it’s cold. You can’t do something like that in the winter. And then you can’t be waking them up in the middle of the night. But mainly you’ll never find them. They have their places but you’ll never find them.” I asked one of the two police officers with us that night what they thought. “Call 311, call DHS, call your congressman,” he said. “You have to tell them this isn’t working.”

In 2007, we encountered a team leader, Will, during our nightshift research; he’s in the book. We spent a night walking around with Barry, a formerly homeless man; he’s also in the book. Various advocates from Housing Works went out on the count and, as this link shows, found it flawed. They literally called it “flawed.” DHS, meanwhile, issued a press release in February 2008 that said opaquely, HOPE 2007 found “a 15% drop in the number of unsheltered homeless people from 2005.” That’s 2% since 2006.

In 2008, I skipped it. So too 2009. But DHS keeps issuing their press conferences. In 2008, they reported a 12% decrease from the previous year, and a 25% decrease since 2005. This year, they announced there were now only 2,328 “unsheltered individuals living in New York City,” down 47% since 2005.

It’s not a lie. Many chronically homeless individuals in New York City have been housed via Housing First models and other innovative programs. (Here’s an article I wrote on some of them, including Care for the Homeless and Pathways to Housing.) And numerous advocates give thanks that at least the city is doing something.

But as the safety net struggles to hold up under more and more people who need help, something isn’t enough. Spring is here. When it’s hot out, DHS officials should go into the parks after midnight. Then their count will be accurate. Then maybe every New Yorker will have their own home.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Voice of the People

One year ago today, on April 6, 2008, the Cheyenne Diner closed.

NIGHTSHIFT NYC opens with a modern recreation of a diner, the Skylight, and closes with the real thing, the Cheyenne. An excerpt from the penultimate chapter:

“No one is normal who comes in at night.”

Fatima, 33, smiles slightly and steps back from the cash register at the Cheyenne Diner, easing her small, curvy frame against the counter. She wears a uniform of a red short-sleeve shirt with an American Indian on the back, black long-sleeve t-shirt underneath, black apron at her waist, black pants, and black shoes. A tight ponytail contains her black, curly, shoulder-length hair and highlights her face. Her contagious smile reveals slightly crooked teeth and the smallest of dimples on either side of her mouth. “Anyone on the streets at 3 or 4 in the morning is not regular,” she continues, her words tumbling out in a lyrical Dominican English. “They can be crazy people. That’s why you have to be sweet and sour. You have to know how to manage people.”
We’d finished the book by then but it still hadn’t appeared between hard covers. We stopped by on that sad last day and found that Fatima, Mr. Gerry, and Juan had jobs elsewhere. NPR stories, articles and blogs started appearing on its demise, most sad, some cynical of nostalgia for old New York, but all of them impassioned.

Before long, we heard that a real estate developer bought it and planned to move it to Brooklyn. Red Hook, to be exact. While we generally view real estate development as synonymous with gentrification, we recognize it’s not always a simple story. Thus we were at least glad the Cheyenne would live on, and thrilled that its new life would be in Brooklyn. Some in Red Hook even laud the developer who bought it, Mike O’Connell, and his father, Greg O’Connell (think Fairway).

However. O’Connell could not, did not, would not find a way around the problem of transporting the Cheyenne to Red Hook. It wouldn’t fit on the Manhattan Bridge. It was too expensive to travel via barge on the canal. Up on the auction block it went, in January, with a demolition deadline slated for a few weeks out. The chair of the Committee to Save the Cheyenne Diner (seriously), Michael Pearlman, issued a press release on Jan 14.

For an “undisclosed sum,” the release said, owner George Pappas sold the Cheyenne to the head of an investor group, Joel Owens. It will resurface soon in … Birmingham, Alabama.

But how can they get it to Birmingham if they couldn’t get it to Red Hook?

According to Pearlman’s press release, the 2,000 square-foot diner (15 by 96 feet) will travel in two sections on flatbed trucks. M&M Rigging will do the job. They’re the ones who took that other iconic NYC diner, the Moondance, to LaBarge, Wyoming in 2007. It reopened in LaBarge in January.

This year, we decided to do our part to keep a neighborhood institution, well, in the neighborhood. Though nowhere near as old or iconic as the Cheyenne, the struggling Vox Pop in our Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park was about to go under. Vox Pop, which means “voice of the people,” was a chief reason we moved here. They hosted one of the first events for the book. We heard via the local blog that they were selling shares to the community, to save it from closing permanently, and to make it a truly community space. As with the Cheyenne, stories, blog posts and comments appeared immediately, most sad, some cynical, all impassioned. Though our little contribution won’t make us rich, or at least that’s not why we did it, we’re excited to be part of a grassroots team that helped at least one NYC establishment stay open, and stay in NYC.

So the Moondance is in LaBarge and the Cheyenne will be Birmingham. But Vox Pop, at least, remains in Brooklyn.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Last week, the New York Times ran this very positive piece on NIGHTSHIFT NYC. It's from Sewell Chan at the City Room Blog. Here's a bit of what he had to say:
The graveyard shift. The lobster shift. Burning the midnight oil. In the city that never sleeps, ways to describe the 24-hour life of New York City abound. But probably no book has ever examined the nature of nighttime work in the city — and of the often forgotten, faceless people who do it — in as great depth and descriptive power as “Nightshift NYC,” a scholarly but readable book recently published by the University of California Press.

The book, based on a year of ethnographic and journalistic examination of the lives of more than 100 nighttime workers at dozens of sites across the city, is based in social science research but opens like a novel:

After the tour buses disgorge their tourists into the sleek hotels of midtown Manhattan, and after the day-dwellers lock themselves in against an accumulated fear of the night, the city slowly slouches into its own skin, revealing a vulnerability and an occasional mean streak to those who brave its darker side. This is the “other” New York, the city as bleary-eyed insomniac that replaces the manicured tourism of daylight.

The writers are a couple: Russell Leigh Sharman, an associate professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College, and Cheryl Harris Sharman, a writer and journalist. The book is illustrated with a series of haunting black-and-white images by the photographer Corey Hayes, whose work evokes the melancholic mood of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”

Embarking on what they call an “ethnography of the night,” the Sharmans devote their study to those “souls who sleep too little and work too much.”

They describe the night shift of the book’s title as “a social space that is highly structured and inherently subversive, as transnational as it is transgressive, and shot through with inequalities of power.” Yet they take pains to avoid describing the workers of the night as merely oppressed or exploited, instead sketching a remarkably diverse panorama of characters with different backgrounds, beliefs and aspirations.
To read the entire, rather LONG, piece - click here. And don't be shy, comment on the City Room Blog!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Guest Blog ... Michael Arthur

Michael Arthur is the archival artist at Joe's Pub. He specializes in drawing the intimate rehearsals and performances of musicians, dancers and theatre performers. All of his drawings are done directly in ink with no pencils and no rough drafts; each drawing is a live reaction to the moment. He made the drawings below on his late night commutes home to Brooklyn from Joe's Pub. Check out more of his work at: and

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cancer Compensation

Last week, the BBC reported that Denmark is paying workers’ compensation to about 40 women nightshift workers who’ve developed breast cancer. It follows a ruling by the World Health Organization’s cancer arm that lists nightshift work as a probable carcinogen.

Since then, there’s been a firestorm of concern, comments, blog posts, and articles. They all basically say the same thing; if not precisely the same thing (many sites have simply repurposed the BBC story). In the UK, there are original articles from The Guardian, The Telegraph, New Scientist, and The Scotsman. Real rather than recycled reporting has been rare in the US, but a story has been filed from CNN. In Canada, there’s this story from The Globe and Mail. In Australia, this from ABC. And in New Zealand, this from Radio New Zealand.

While it’s great that this topic has gone viral, and that workers receive compensation, it’s not time to quit your nightshift job.

First, most of what’s been written in the past week focuses on the lack of melatonin, and increased estrogen, resulting from working the nightshift, but that’s not the whole story. If you’ve been following the posts here on this blog, you already know that it’s a more complicated story about circadian cycles and there are ways to mitigate the harmful effects. If you’re new to this blog, check out The Body’s Clock, The Daysimeter, Watch Out, and Nightshift Chicago.

Second, the World Health Organization’s cancer arm, aka The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), listed the nightshift as a probable carcinogen in 2007. That ruling followed years of research claiming that there was a cancer link, and other research claiming that there wasn’t. This does not negate its importance as a risk factor for cancer, but shows that research remains inconclusive.

Third, Denmark’s National Board of Industrial Injuries, the government agency awarding claims, only awarded 38 out of 75 submitted claims. That’s only half. So while it’s supremely laudable that they’re paying claims, it’s important to keep calm and remember that half the women who submitted claims were not awarded compensation. In fact, their 2007 annual report states that “there is only limited scientific documentation of a correlation.” The British Medical Journal reminded readers that the nightshift + women does not necessarily = cancer. “Women in Denmark who developed breast cancer after many years of working night shifts have received compensation despite only limited research supporting the link,” they wrote. Perhaps the most balanced story, comes from Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor at The Guardian.

Fourth, the IARC has yet to issue a full report on the subject; until then, don’t quit your night job.

Finally, for Nightshift NYC, we interviewed over 100 nightshift workers, always asking them detailed questions about their health. We’d read all the research, and continue to read it. To be sure, there are health effects (as well as errors, injuries and accidents), but most people we interviewed said the benefits outweighed the risks.

Nightshift workers shouldn’t quit their jobs or sue their employers, but they should be paid a night differential and allowed flexible scheduling; they should have a workplace with appropriate lighting, perhaps even a nap room and time to nap; and, if they have a family history of breast cancer, other health issues, or if they’re pregnant, a dayshift.

What’s your take on the subject? Best response gets a free copy of the book.

(NB: Thanks to Megan Feenstra Wall, Derek Steele, Laura Piquado, & Shannon Haragan for sending some of these links.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Guest Blog ... Jennifer L.W. Fink

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer and mother of four young boys. Her blog, Blogging ‘Bout Boys, is all about boys – raising them, educating them and learning with them. Visit her at

Blessings of the Night

Many years ago, as a Registered Nurse, I worked the night shift. Actually, I rotated between day and night shift – some days working 7 am – 3 pm, others working 11 pm – 7 am – and let me tell you: nothing messes with the body like switching between nights and days.

The first day on nights was always the toughest. It was such a surreal feeling, to leave my comfortable, cozy home in the dark of night and drive to work, past other comfy, cozy homes. I’d peer inside the windows, those squares of golden light, and feel somehow slighted. They were getting to spend the night winding down, enjoying each other’s company, and I was off to work.

And yet, there was something magical about those nights. During the day, the floor buzzes with activity. Nurses, doctors, physical therapists, researchers, social workers, visitors, dieticians and more bustle around, caring for patients and checking off tasks. At night, it’s just us and the patients.

During those quiet, dark nights, I was privileged to witness some intensely personal moments. I cared for a Roman Catholic priest who’d just received a kidney transplant over the Christmas season. For whatever reason, his new kidney wasn’t yet working and he was mad at God. At night, in the dark, he felt free to talk of his spiritual crisis and I often listened, providing a sounding board for a man of God who was all too human.

Another time, I held the hand of an elderly woman who lay dying. She asked me to pray with her, and I did. In that moment, I felt an awesome power. Instead of being upset about having to work, I felt blessed to share such an intimate moment with a woman who so desperately needed someone by her side.

I’m reminded of those moments over and over, now that I parent my own four sons. Although I no longer technically “work nights,” parenthood is a 24/7 proposition that includes its fair share of night duty. And just like in nursing, I often dread those nights on duty. I’m a person who needs sleep, so the idea of being up all or even some of the night does not sound like fun to me, ever.

Yet when the call comes – when the sick or lonely child cries out – I am instantly awake. I fly to their bedside and fight through my own tiredness to tend to their needs. And inevitably, I am reminded of the blessings of the night. Tired as I may be, the night is time to experience my child in a whole new way: time to snuggle with the toddler who no longer likes holding, time to comfort the tween who’s slowly outgrowing his need for Mom and Dad, time to simply appreciate and reflect on the beauty and wonder of these children that are mine.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

An Hour of Light for an Hour of Night

It’s Daylight Savings Time again. The adjustment, while routine now, was not always so easy to accommodate.

In 1942, a mother sought to re-set her infant son’s clock incrementally, about a minute per day. The February 28, 1942 New Yorker reported that by February 9th she’d tweaked his schedule by an hour. Not until she saw her husband set the clocks an hour ahead did she realize her mistake. She’d set his schedule back an hour, not forward. “She figures she’ll have him set right by May.”

The initial attempt to shift our clocks an hour twice a year came from England. Railways, farmers, scientists and other critics kept William Willett from tampering with time. He first envisioned the scheme in 1905. Only after Germany tried it during WWI, after Willett’s death, did the British set their clocks ahead as a war-time economizing measure in May, 1916.

A week or so later, in the US, explains David Prerau in Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, a group convened in New York City. They formed the National Daylight Saving Association. In Boston, a group including A. Lincoln Filene of bargain clothing fame issued a report, “An Hour of Light for an Hour of Night.” Their argument for Daylight Saving Time included reasons like more accidents occurring under artificial lighting, that is, at night.

Weeks after the US entered WWI, in 1917, a Daylight Saving Time bill came before Congress. The American Railway Association fought it (millions of clocks would need changing, among other logistical logjams) but conceded traffic was lightest at 2 a.m. It took another year to pass but clocks started their spring jump at 2 a.m. Sunday, March 31, 1918.

Critics abounded, but there were celebrations apace. In Manhattan, people watched the change of the clock on the Metropolitan Tower on Madison Square. People gathered in nearby hotels, in Madison Square Park, in the streets. The Boy Scouts paraded. So too the NYPD Band. In Brooklyn, an equally festive scene occurred at Borough Hall.

Thus 2 a.m. has been the time to spring forward or fall back ever since.

While 2 a.m. seems a fine time to shift the clock to those of us who are asleep, the stretch and shrink of light and dark affects those who work nights. In winter, they hardly see the sun. In the brighter months, it creates the strange sensation of starting the nightshift when it’s still light out. On a movie set, this means less time to get those night shots, well, at night.

In England, writes Prerau, nightshift workers at the Devonport Dockyard wanted to be paid for the hour that sprang them forward to 3 a.m. in 1916. Two years later, in the US, nightshift workers were told their shift would extend an hour, till 9 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.

But even those who don’t work nights feel the effects of changing clocks twice a year. (That is, unless you live near the equator, or Arizona, or Hawaii, or any of the other places in the world that don’t follow Daylight Saving Time.)

In one curious example, The New Yorker reported on July 17, 1926 about a woman who lived at the Plaza Hotel on a nightshift schedule. The relatively new Daylight Saving Time kept her oversleeping past her normal waking time of 5:30 p.m. She ate breakfast at 7, a.m. And lunch at 12, midnight. At 2, a.m., her chauffer took her for a drive in the park. “After this she writes letters until dinnertime, just before dawn. We hasten to add that this must not be lightly put down as an instance of metropolitan depravity. The lady’s habits are regular and she rarely stays up later than eight or nine A.M.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

So Many Things

I’ve written quite a few posts here about some of the wonderful people we met who work nights in New York City but whom we ultimately couldn’t include in the book.

One of my favorites was a taxi driver from Guinea, in West Africa, our fourth night out. He was the first to educate us about the intricacies of driving a taxi in New York. Soon enough we learned his story was a familiar one. He only worked nights and he drove a taxi owned by a broker who owned both his taxi and his medallion.

The medallions are private property, and can be bought and sold like any other commodity. There are over 13,000 of them these days, and each one is worth more than $300,000. Most of the city’s 24,000 active yellow cab drivers cannot afford to own a medallion. Instead, they lease one, through brokers, who often own as many as fifty at a time.

That West African driver we met early in our research was like so many of the taxi drivers we met preparing for the book - trolling the city streets after dark, hoping to make at least enough to cover the lease to the broker.

Yet his story was also unique in ways I’ll never forget. First, he hated working nights.

“The reason I do it,” he said, “is because my wife passed away and I don’t want to be in the house at night.”

We let that hang in the silence for a while. Second, he told us one of the first stories in what we’d come to know as New York As A Small Town. We’d asked him the best thing that had happened to him in his cab at night.

“Well, I don’t know, because, it’s hard, depends, there’s so many things. Sometimes, at Christmastime, you have some very nice people. They come and give you Christmas gifts, they don’t even know you. That’s number one. So many things.”

He was quiet a moment, then said again, “So many things.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

When Things Go Wrong

On September 12, 1963, on the nightshift (9:30 p.m.), an A-4D jet fighter crashed into the Coney Island Rail Yards. The massive jet missed hitting any trains in the yard. The pilot, too, was unharmed, bailing out and landing in a Brooklyn parking lot on Avenue U.

Accidents like this, in the air and on the ground, seem to happen more often after dark.

In 1918, what many still call the city’s worst subway accident occurred on November 1. The motormen were on strike. A dispatcher filled in. Moments before 7 p.m., the inexperienced dispatcher driving the train lost control while entering a tunnel. Almost one hundred rush-hour commuters lost their lives. Two hundred more were injured.

Nearly eighty years later, on June 5, 1995, a similar accident occurred in Brooklyn. A Manhattan-bound M train stopped on the Williamsburg Bridge. Along came a Manhattan-bound J train. At 6:12 a.m., the J train ran into the M train. The motorman of the J train, on the last run of his nightshift, was killed. Fifty passengers were injured.

In Chapter 12, “Everyone Is The Same Down There,” we profile George, a nightshift MTA conductor. He talks about the importance of having a live conductor on the train, especially when something goes wrong. And things do go wrong. Especially on the nightshift.

Why? Well, one answer, which I’ve written about in other posts, relates to circadian rhythms. The body needs roughly twelve hours of light and twelve hours of dark, and it’s difficult to get that on the nightshift. But there are other, equally important reasons. There’s the issue of fatigue, which can happen even during the daylight hours. There’s the issue of shift changes, and the information that gets lost between shifts. There’s the issue of the lack of management personnel on the nightshift, so that those with the authority and expertise to solve problems are often not there. And there’s also the issue of a weak safety culture, where it’s frowned upon to report small problems or follow basic safety procedures.

So what caused U.S. Navy pilot Lieutenant William A. Gerrety to crash his jet fighter into the Coney Island Yards back in 1963? Circadian rhythms? Fatigue? Information lost during shift change? Lack of management personnel? Weak safety culture? All of the above?

Turns out, none of the above. The jet was struck by lightning.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Nap Time

Though we came across many profoundly tired workers during our year on the nightshift, none were as tired as Dave. He was a second-year resident in charge of a cardiac intensive care unit for the night. We met fourteen hours into his 27-hour shift. He couldn’t remember what he was about to do, he could barely speak, and he was in charge of some of the hospital’s most vulnerable patients.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) constantly seeks to issue regulations that balance limiting the number of hours residents can work with the time-honored tradition of extended shifts. In 2003, the ACGME limited residents to working no more than 80 hours a week. But last fall, they noted in a letter to Health Affairs that residents of certain specialties were still working – and, some argue, needing to work in order to provide the best care for their patients – beyond those limits.

In a recent issue of Health Affairs, Elizabeth Gaufberg, an assistant professor of medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, cites her own experience as a first-year resident. One night in the ICU, suffering from a postnasal drip that kept her awake even on nights off, she looked around and realized that all was calm. It was 3:47 a.m. “Every patient was stable, all notes written,” writes Gaufberg. With nothing to do until morning rounds at 6 a.m., she prepared to sleep. Moments later, a cardiac resuscitation code was called for a patient somewhere else in the hospital. If they survived the resuscitation, Gaufberg knew, they’d be transferred to the ICU: her quiet, stable ICU. Sleep deprived beyond measure, she found herself wishing the patient would not survive. “I said a silent prayer,” writes Gaufberg, “that the patient would die and retreated to the call room.” She slept. The patient died. Gaufberg was forever changed. “There were many other moments in residency that challenged my compassion, my humanity. Most of them occurred when I was soul-numbingly tired. But somehow I was always able to remember and hold that moment as a terrible touchstone—that moment in which I wished a patient dead.”

On December 2, 2008, the Institute of Medicine released a report proposing additional measures to limit residents’ “duty hours,” including required naps between 10p.m. and 8a.m. and a limit of 4 nightshifts in a row. A New York Times editorial on December 9 joined other experts and activists in criticizing the proposed requirement for residents to take a five-hour nap in the middle of a long shift. “That mandate seems impossible to enforce,” they wrote, “and few residents are likely to get five uninterrupted hours of sleep. A ban on shifts longer than 16 hours seems preferable.”

It’s a complicated problem to solve. And expensive. But the 80-hour limit in the US far exceeds the number of allowable duty hours in other countries. It’s 72 hours in New Zealand, 52.5 in France, and less than half – 37 – in Denmark. I, for one, wouldn’t want Dave watching over me if I had to be in the cardiac ICU, unless he’d just had a long nap.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Guest Blog... Michael Boonstra

Back in December, we had the privilege of chatting with Leonard Lopate live on WNYC and taking questions from callers on his popular public radio program. The response in the days and weeks afterwards was overwhelming. One of the many folks who reached out to us with their own experiences on the nightshift was Michael Boonstra. We thought his stories of working the overnight shift at the Plaza Hotel in the 1980s were worthy of a more public forum. So this week, our guest blogger is Mr. Boonstra.

By way of a little background on our guest, Michael says he has lived in the same rent stabilized apartment in the East Village for 31 years and considers himself a New Yorker, still in love and fascinated with it’s many quirks and idiosyncrasies. After 25 years working in the film industry he says he is currently in search of what to do when he finally grows up, and that finding Nightshift NYC could be the start of a long overdue writing career. Here's Michael's take on "the graveyard shift":
One of the things I loved about working the graveyard shift at the Plaza Hotel in room service during the 1980s was commuting on my bicycle and the great downhill ride on 5th Avenue into The Village. One of the things I hated was the only other waiter with whom I worked during those hours of 11P to 7A: a paranoid schizophrenic from Brazil. At that time the two of us were room service; taking the orders on the phone, setting up the tables, preparing the food and delivering it up to the rooms, which meant we had to work well together. The problem was this fellow didn't trust me and would threaten to kill me on a regular basis. Fortunately I had a couple of friends in security and the hotel later brought on a full time clerk to take the orders.

She was a middle aged African American woman who was so addicted to her soaps that she would set her alarm clock during the day so as not to miss them. Then she would spend the night at work talking about the troubles of the characters, as if they were real people.

There was a young Greek American kid who was brought on from the breakfast shift to help out. He was the drug connection and could supply black beauties, which got us through the shift in a flash. There were a surprising number of guests who would ask for drugs when they put in their orders. For a while, coke was supplied but you can't keep that up and we didn't, fortunately, before anyone caught on. By the time this waiter came on, the Brazilian had left and there were four of us. One was Polish and had landed in NYC with three dollars in his pocket. We are still friends. The other was a young kid who lived with his girlfriend and her mother on Long Island. We were saddened when the news came one night that he'd overdosed on barbiturates.

When business got really slow at three or four, the Greek kid and I would go up to the roof in the service elevator. There was a place on the 58th Street side where you'd look out and see only the intricate maze of buildings, but with no opening whatsoever to view traffic in the streets. We would smoke a joint to come down from the speed and then head back downstairs to an often frustrated Pole, who had just gotten swamped with orders.

When the night ended, we’d head for the local Blarney Stone for a drink. There were always a number of well dressed types who would come in just starting their day, for a couple of shots.

My weekends were Sunday and Monday and I loved having a weekday off because you could get so much done without fighting the crowds. But you always had a sleepy suspicion that you were living an alternate universe.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sad to Say

With the economy tanking, winter, and whatnot, I’ve tried to keep these posts positive lately.

But it’s tough out there. For everyone. Especially for those working nights. Layoffs worldwide often start with those on the nightshift. And then there’s the violence.

Many of you have thanked us for introducing you to the plight of the nightshift workers all around you, especially taxi drivers and doormen. An excerpt from Chapter 2, “I’ll Take My Chances on the Nightshift,” about taxi drivers:

“Night driving is dangerous,” says Malik.

He is cruising along the parkway across Queens. The lanes are empty, but he keeps to the speed limit. “Before,” says Malik, “every week a cab driver was killed. Everybody knows they have the cash.”

He explains that drivers frequently think, “Maybe they’re going to show a gun or something. Maybe they are going to rob me.”

Anyone who lived through the slew of murders of New York City gypsy cab drivers in 2000 knows that the job is a dangerous one. In May 2000, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration put a firm number to the violence by reporting that taxi drivers were “60 times more likely than other workers to be murdered on the job.” Using Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the report also said that they were more likely to experience violent assaults than any workers other than police officers and security guards.

Violence against drivers is especially likely at night. The sociologists Diego Gambetta and Heather Hamill, in their book Streetwise, discuss a survey they conducted of New York Times articles. Of those that reported the time of the crime, 64 percent of drivers injured or attacked were victimized between 10 pm and 6 am.

But now, says Malik, it’s “99.9 percent better.” In fact, it’s 55 percent better. Violent crimes reported by the New York Police Department, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, dropped from 174,542 in 1990 to 78,945 in 1999.

That was then. This is now. I refuse to give in to all the dire predictions, but I’m also occupationally obligated to tell the truth.

Nightshift workers are being victimized, violently; in some cases, fatally.

In Omaha, Nebraska, pop. 419,545, two nightshift convenience store clerks have been killed since November.

In New York City, a nightshift gas station attendant was killed last week on Staten Island, pop. 481,613. Like many of the nightshift workers we met in and around NYC, he was an immigrant. Like many nightshift workers around the world, he was new to his job. Pakistani Mohammad Ahmad, 50, had worked at the Gulf Station on Victory Boulevard only a few weeks. “He came to America because he wanted the American lifestyle,” his wife told the New York Times. “He told his father he wanted the American lifestyle, he didn’t want to stay in Pakistan.”

It's tough out there.

But we don’t have to give in to fear and despair. There are things we can do. Thank the nightshift workers who cross your path for doing their jobs. As I’ve posted before, tip your taxi driver well – and pay cash. Get to know your nightshift doorman. Find out his or her favorite cookies, snacks, or newspaper, and bring such goodies to help pass the night. Sit with them in your sleeplessness. Linger long enough to find out more about your nightshift store clerk, or gas station attendant. If you’re buying diapers or filling your car with gas, ask about their kids, their car, their lives. Reach out. Hang on. Things will improve.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Page 99 Test

Ford Madox Ford once wrote: "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." Aside from having probably THE best name in the history of literature, Ford was an insightful character - inspiring an entire blog dedicated to his assertion. If you've never seen Marshal Zeringue's The Page 99 Test blog, you should check it out.

And while you're there, take a look at our contribution to the ongoing test of Ford Madox Ford's famous theorem. Here's an excerpt:

Page 99... describes how Sunny, a self-described Palestinian, came to New York from Ramallah, speaks Hebrew with Israeli regulars, and doesn’t let politics interfere with commerce.

But the main reason why it’s an accurate test of the quality of the whole is that it speaks to the immigrant experience in New York City, which became a key theme. Page 99 discusses the difficulties immigrants face when owning businesses in New York City. There are the usual entrepreneurial struggles to acquire credit and capital, and to overcome bureaucratic obstacles, but these are compounded by their newcomer status and language barriers. Digressing a bit, to Page 98, a 2007 report from the Center for an Urban Future found foreign-born New Yorkers to be more likely than native-born to start businesses, sometimes twice as likely. Immigrants from some Middle Eastern countries start businesses at more than twice the rate of native-born New Yorkers, sometimes four times as often. But, back to Page 99, for entrepreneurial immigrants from the Middle East, things changed after September 11, 2001. Deportments and detainments shut down many of these small businesses. For those still open, their owners and workers routinely face being called terrorists.

However, Page 99 also reflects the whole by capturing the specific to show the myriad ways nightshift workers live inverted lives. Because Sunny is wide awake, he has the time and patience to talk with a sleepless child. Because he will be awake and off work when she wakes, he can enjoy breakfast with her. Because he understands the strange logic of working nights, he can grant her wish for a cheeseburger for breakfast. These are the benefits of a life out of phase. But there are, of course, costs. He must talk with her by telephone because he cannot be there in person. He eats breakfast with her because he’s asleep while she plays during the day. And he’ll surely raise a few eyebrows for bringing her that cheeseburger for breakfast.
You can read our entry in its entirety here.

And...if you're in NYC this Sunday, February 1, join us for a reading at Sunny's bar in Red Hook at 3pm. More details on our website:

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Space Between Night and Day

When we were on the Leonard Lopate Show, a man called in to say that he always feels more creative at night. That’s true of a lot of artists. There’s something magical about the night that makes it a worthy subject or source of artistic output, or both. I wrote about Hopper’s fascination with night and light. Van Gogh, too, sought to capture the luminous light of the night.

Much of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying takes place at night. Addie Bundren watches her oldest son Cash building her coffin, turns to look at her youngest son Vardaman, and then dies, at twilight. Cash comes into see her. “He is looking down at her peaceful, rigid face fading into the dusk as though darkness were a precursor of the ultimate earth …” Faulkner writes. Cash and neighbor Vernon Tull then toil the night away to finish the coffin. Flashbacks tell the story of Addie’s third son, Jewel, who stealthily worked nights, “by lantern,” clearing a field in order to buy himself a horse. On the eighth night after her death, en route to bury her in Jefferson, Addie in her coffin sits under a moonlit apple tree. Also at night, that same moonlit night, Addie’s second son, the strange one, Darl, sets fire to another man’s barn. On the ninth night, her mother finally in the ground, the lone daughter, Dewey Dell, meets a boy whose promises will do her no good.

Night wasn’t only the setting for much of Faulkner’s story. It was also the source of much of the story. He wrote it while working nights at a power plant. He was a fireman and night watchman at the University of Mississippi plant. He kept vigil over the sleeping – and sleepless – of Oxford, Mississippi, waiting until the last lights turned out. And then, at the tail-end of his nightshifts, in the quiet mornings, he wrote. He later said he wrote it in six weeks, some reports say seven weeks, and the 1987 Vintage edition I’ve carried around since high school says it took him eight weeks. Whichever, he wrote it quickly. And he wrote it in that liminal space between night and day, neither one nor the other. I like to think it’s that in-betweenness of how it was written that contributes to its being so murky and powerful and radiant and opaque all at once.

Mainly I like to contemplate the context in which it was written and the contribution that one particular nightshift worker made to the world. According to my weathered Vintage copy, he began writing it on October 25, 1929. Four days later, the world fell apart. On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, sending the economy spiraling, costing countless people their livelihoods if not their lives. Though he worked nights, though the world as everyone knew it came crashing down around them, Faulkner did not despair. He wrote this novel. One has only to scan a few pages of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible or Suzan-Lori Parks’ Getting Mother’s Body to catch a glimpse of his contribution to their work, and to our world. So, nightshift workers, nightowls, writers, workers everywhere: Do not despair, though the world crash down around you. Work on, write on. It’s worth it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Three New Yorks

I came to New York to write. Millions upon millions have come to New York to write. As I wrote in an earlier post, I came to New York specifically to write in the tradition of Joseph Mitchell, though he died a few years before I arrived. I assert to anyone who will listen that he was one of the best nonfiction storytellers ever. Mitchell, it seems to me, gained much of that storytelling skill by growing up in the south – and by being an outsider in New York. I think that from these two bits of his biography he learned that crucial part of storytelling too many reporters miss when they’re seeking The Story: he learned to listen. And listen. And listen. He learned to not be in a hurry to find The Story. He learned to have patience. He learned to observe the cadence of speech, the rhythm of life, and the quotidian miracles overlooked by anyone in a hurry. Thus his writing on New York, a city too often rushing forward for its inhabitants to savor the stillness of a single moment, captures details, people, occupations, and preoccupations many miss in the bustle.

When he was writing for The New Yorker in the 1940s, for example, the oyster bedders and lobster baymen were already part of a dying profession in the constantly-changing city. Many a reporter would’ve skipped over them in favor of profiling a newer profession, finding a better story. Or they might’ve turned the story into one on the perils of those dying professions on the water. Mitchell took another tack. He simply sat with them long enough to immerse himself in their world: how they spoke, what they wore, the smells they smelled, and the topics that emerged as important to them. He cared less for The Story than their story or, rather, saw that the one was the other.

Though I graduated from college aching to come write in New York, I found myself first in Boston, and then Oxford, England, and then a rough-and-tumble port town on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Each successive move took me further from my strengths and supports, and taught me how to tell a story by first being quiet. In Limón, Costa Rica, stripped of my language, culture, and every comfort, I finally learned to listen. I learned that while someone may be slow to answer my questions, I need not follow with more rapid-fire questions but instead to wait and, in that waiting, to observe.

When I finally arrived in New York, a decade ago this June, I’d had six years away from my southern roots, living amidst various languages, accents, occupations, and preoccupations. I knew I could never know more about New York than a native New Yorker. I knew I could never move (or speak or write) faster than a native New Yorker. But I knew that I had the patience to listen. And listen. And listen. I knew how to not be in a hurry to find The Story. And in so listening, waiting, and observing, I knew that their story, if not The Story, would reveal itself to me.

Why tell you all this now? Two reasons: WNYC and E.B. White. When Leonard Lopate interviewed us on his NPR show on WNYC a few weeks ago, many called in and many more have since written us to say that we’d captured what they’ve experienced in New York. We couldn’t be more gratified, and humbled, by those words. So I’ve wondered how the three of us – Russell, Corey, and me, outsiders each and every one of us – could possibly have rendered New York City in a way that resonated with native New Yorkers (though of course that was one goal). This led me to think of Joseph Mitchell, another outsider permitted to sit awhile and write things down. And it led me to recall these lines from the iconic Here is New York, from another of my favorite New Yorker writers, E.B. White:

There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter – the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something … Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion.

Indeed, Russell, Corey, and I came to New York in quest of something. We’re settlers here. But we have poured all our passion into this book, and this city, and we’re grateful that you’ve found something in its pages that resonates with what you – native, commuter, settler, or even just occasional visitor – know to be true of your New York.