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 26, 2008

The Body's Clock

Cliff the Cabbie turns north on Third Avenue. Like most nightshift cab drivers in New York City, his shift runs 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. Tonight he wears his favorite leather jacket, a loose-fitting shirt and jeans. With a lilting Jamaican accent and full-throated laugh, he talks about working nights. "It's not normal, because your body is not made to work at night. You’re supposed to be sleeping at night and working in the daytime. It’s not normal.”

Cliff doesn't refer to circadian rhythms by name, but that's what he's describing. The word circadian, from the Latin, translates roughly as "about a day." Circadian rhythms control almost everything that happens in our bodies in about a day. They control body temperature. They control digestion. They control the release of hormones, such as melatonin, which is released at night and regulates sleep. It works like this. The eyes receive information about what time it is from the amount of light absorbed by the retina. The retina sends this information to the group of cells in the hypothalamus known as the SCN. The SCN passes on that information to the teeny tiny pineal gland in the epithalamus. If it's night time (or there isn't enough light for the retina to think it's daytime), that little gland secretes melatonin, which makes Cliff tired. Whenever we feel tired, or hungry, or thirsty, it's because our circadian rhythms think it's time to be tired, hungry, or thirsty.

For those who work regular overnights, or alternating shifts, all this messing around with the body's circadian rhythms can quickly cause health problems. Digestion problems are especially probable because the G.I. system is so sensitive in general but all the more so at night when the body thinks you're asleep. It only took us a few weeks on the nightshift to crave pancakes at 3 a.m. instead of salad, and to convince ourselves that pain in our guts from the salad meant we shouldn't order it next time. Needing to sleep during the day, we, and millions of others, skipped exercise in favor of sleep. Thus for those who work nights there are correlated increases in diabetes, obesity, heart problems, and depression. Then there are decreases in memory, cognitive functioning, immune functioning, and coordination. In December, 2007, the cancer wing of the World Health Organization weighed in on a long-debated issue by adding the nightshift to its list of possible causes of cancer.

Add to that sitting in a taxi 12 hours a night, and Cliff the Cabbie found himself rather overweight. "You have to plan some time to go out and exercise when you’re off," he says. "If you don’t do that, you’ll gain a lot of weight. That’s what happened to me." Cliff the Cabbie started taking brisk walks two or three mornings a week after work. At first, his legs hurt so badly he could barely walk. He kept at it. "After about two or three months," he says, "I went out to walk and there was no pain." Within four months, he realized he'd lost weight. "I dropped off a good 15 or 20 pounds. Just walking at a brisk pace." Once it grew cold again, he stopped his walks -- and put back on some of the weight. But he's committed to getting in shape. And he's committed to the nightshift. Don't even talk to him about the dayshift. “It’s too much stress," he says. "You eat a lot of pollution, too. I can’t do it anymore. I’ll take my chances on the nightshift.”

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