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...

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.”