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 19, 2008

Night Train

It's nearly 3 a.m. and we're on the homeward-bound Q train.

We finished the book months ago, moved to Brooklyn, and began to forget what it felt like to stay up all night.

Tonight reminds us. The train takes an inexplicable route and winds up at the Pacific stop. A recorded voice says those dreaded words: "This is the last stop on this train." We shuffle out with the other weary night travelers. We wind our way through the Atlantic-Pacific terminal to the Atlantic Q platform to head deeper into Brooklyn. We wait, and wait, and wait. Behind us stand two girls, natural blondes in their early twenties. One has curves, the other an isosceles triangle nose. Someone has drawn a head-to-toe line down the center of the thinner girl, and caked her entire right side in gray-black mud. Or so it seems. For all the odd things we've seen in this city after midnight and all we know about not staring, this tempts us to crane our necks and look closer. Tempts. Before we look again, a man approaches and asks if she's ok. She's been wanting someone to ask this question. She tells him, loud enough for all the curious to hear, that she fell. Staring down the track to see if she could see the oncoming train - as we all do in NYC - she fell. Into the liquid muck that stagnates between the rails. Our train arrives. She limps onto it. Her friend sits. She loudly protests that she cannot; she is in pain. Black mud coats the right side of her hair. Chunks of it hang off her jeans, her jacket, her boots. It covers her face, her hands. It covers her friend's hands.

We spent a year lingering long enough to see such moments play out again and again. Interested less in those who travel through the night than those who labor during it, we rarely followed people like her and instead sought those such as the conductor on that train. We first thought, naively, that we'd interview nightshift workers before or after their shifts. But their shifts are so punishing, we soon learned, that it was cruel to expect them to talk to us afterwards. It was equally unreasonable, we also soon learned, to expect them to cut short their limited sleep to wake earlier and talk to us before their shift began. So we took on the extra burden instead of asking them to do it. We flipped our schedules to stay up nights and sleep days. We're married so it helped a great deal that we were both able to invert our schedules. (Though we did meet folks who said they worked nights because they wanted to avoid a spouse who worked days.) Some nights every conversation turned into an interview with an amazing person who you'll meet in the book. Other nights, we walked miles looking for people who would talk to us and found none. Most nights we waited hours till they had a spare moment. Often we scheduled and re-scheduled and re-scheduled interviews to accommodate them. We suffered (some of) the same things they suffer on the nightshift: weight gain, headaches, difficulty staying in touch with friends and family, sluggish bodies and minds, and so much more.

Back on the Q train, a drunk man unwisely tries to get the muddied girl to see the humor in it. She does not. She tells him she knows she's lucky to be alive, but that she really hurt herself. He goads her. She gets angry. Her friend smiles and promises her they'll get off at the next stop. The train stops. The door opens. And they are gone.

No comments: