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, 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.