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, July 14, 2008

Day for Night

Robert hovers over his warm beverage in a crowded lounge in Brooklyn. Tan and fit, with a crew cut, earring, and a shirt open at the chest, he looks much younger than his 46 years. His title varies depending on who’s doing the talking, so he might be called a film electrician or lamp operator, but his job is lighting feature film sets throughout the city.

He’s describing what it’s like to light for night exteriors. Film is a sensitive medium, and shooting outside at night requires a lot more light than one might expect. He continues, “There are guys that just dread it, but on the other hand, it’s our show. We are the most important element operating on the movie at that point, aside from the camera. We’re what’s putting light on everything. Film can’t be shot without us.”

Robert works on a freelance crew assembled by a well-respected and in-demand Gaffer so he’s almost always working. For the film industry, that means about 200 days a year. A good portion of those days are nights. “It’s something we all expect to do at some point or another,” he explains, “and a lot of guys just dread it when it happens.”

Robert has had to be resourceful to get a decent amount of sleep. “There’s a material that grips use called duvetyne that is black cloth, and they’ll put it over things to black things out. I took a bunch of it home and started pinning up all my windows so that I could just pretend that it was nighttime.” He laughs in a little mock agony and says, “Eventually you’re so sleep deprived you’re able to sleep under any circumstances. But it’s never as sound a sleep. It’s just unnatural.”

Much of Robert’s job could be considered “unnatural,” playing with the border between night and day. “The sun is going to rise, and no matter what you do, you can’t change that.” He described what it was like to light for night exteriors in New York when the night grew shorter through the summer. “The sun was only down for six to eight hours,” he said. “You can push it, I’ve seen some people push it. Sometimes you’ll find yourself at the end of the night and they’re putting in big black things on top of what we’re shooting so they can stretch out the night for a little bit longer.”

But not even Hollywood can hold back the sun. “When you’re doing that, there’s a certain amount of denial that you’re operating under just to get the shot. When you’re in a night exterior, generally, you have to contend with the laws of physics, and ultimately you will be forced to stop. And if your production is out of control and you’re not prepared, the night gets away from you.”

Few films are shot entirely, are almost entirely, at night. Here are a few of my favorites (apparently this was more popular in the 80s):

After Hours, Martin Scorsese, 1985
Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982
Escape from New York, John Carpenter, 1981

Check one out and think about the dozens of crew members who worked the nightshift to make it happen. And let us know if there are any we should add to the list…

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