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, 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!