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, June 4, 2008

Eyeliner Twins

After 4 a.m. one Friday night, the bars in Manhattan just closed, Penn Station fills with drunk girls and guys heading home to Long Island and New Jersey. Several girls strut past a 24-hour coffee shop. A store employee shakes his head and howls at them. He’s got spiky hair and wears dark sunglasses. He’s had this job for two weeks but doesn’t mind it, he says, because he gets to look at the girls. He stops talking to howl as more girls jiggle and stumble past his shop. Some girls roll their eyes. Some laugh and continue their catwalk. Still others veer into his store. While he does this, er, publicity work, four other employees, all Spanish-speaking new immigrants, do the work that doesn’t relate to the cash register.

Three African-American women in their early twenties totter by on 3-inch heels and barely-there dresses. He interrupts his conversation with another customer to howl at them. They walk over. He tells them they look beautiful. One of them eyes him suspiciously, saying, “We feel like we look.” Not missing a beat, he says, “Well, if you feel like you look then you feel gorgeous.” She smiles. Her friends smile and laugh. They buy a few things and traipse toward their trains.

If this book was a novel, alcohol would be a character. One of the chief differences between the nightshift and dayshift is the use of alcohol by customers. Dayshift employees, even at the same sites, have far more interaction with sober people than drunk ones. At night, it's the opposite. People who work days party at night. Even if they only get a little out of control once a year, they're going to do it at night. That's partly because night affords darkness, a shroud covering all illicit behavior. It's also partly because of biology, and a neurotransmitter known as GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid to science geeks). GABA either increases excitability or inhibits behaviors best shrouded by darkness, depending on a number of factors. For example, alcohol and certain drugs block GABA's inhibiting ability.

Several more girls come into the coffee shop. Almost interchangeable, they're all voluptous, tan, and spilling out of tight dresses. Though he’s only been here two weeks, the spiky-haired employee knows them already. “Where’d you go tonight?” he asks like they’re old friends.

“The Gypsy tea club,” one of them answers. She’s propped precariously on a stool. Her friends arrange themselves similarly on similar stools. He approaches them. “I wanna marry your sister,” he says to one of them. Another of them, the 5 a.m. smeared eyeliner beneath her eyes wider than a cigarette, turns to him, smiles coquettishly, and says, “I’m really bad.” Perhaps she’s the sister he wants to marry. “You don’t have to settle down,” he says generously, “as long as you just come by to see me.” He asks for her number. As she’s gives it, s-l-o-w-l-y, another employee leans over the counter behind them listening. He has a pencil and paper ready, waiting to record her number.

A twenty-something male customer enters the store. He makes his purchase, witnesses these curvy ladies straddling their respective stools, and saunters toward them. “It’s my birthday,” he begins, “Do I get a birthday spank?” Every girl takes her turn giving a birthday spank. “Does that mean you like what you see or what?” he asks. One girl, whose eyeliner also runs halfway down her cheek, says, flirtatiously, “Maybe.”

The men disperse. The customer leaves. The employees get to work. The girls sit alone. One of them reflects on their evening out. She says to one of the other girls, “We didn’t do very much acid.” The other replies, “We didn’t do much of anything. We were so out of it.” Yet another says something about how they didn’t pay for many drinks. “What?” asks one of the eyeliner twins, loudly, almost angrily, “Do you think we paid for drinks?” More loudly, she says, “Are you stupid? Only stupid girls pay for drinks!”

The point isn't that people shouldn't drink. It's far more complicated than that. And it's true that lots of the male nightshift workers we met consider all the drunk girls the main perk of their jobs. Here's an article, published in the UK this week, by a nightshift doctor who too often sees the result of all these lowered inhibitions. Even he's not saying drinking should be banned. And here's an article I wrote for PAHO on alcohol abuse. (The Spanish version if you're so inclined.)

What do you think?

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