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, 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.