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, October 27, 2008

It's Like a Tuna Fish in Here

“I tell you the truth, I’ve been here fifteen years and I don’t know where is the keys!”

Sunny, 42, cackles at his joke and pushes his paper hat off his forehead. He looks a dozen years older than he is, easily weighs 200 pounds, and has a distinct bulbous nose and ruddy complexion. Tonight he wears a black Rick James t-shirt, black pants, and tennis shoes. Turning back to the grill, he expertly manages several orders at once, flicking his free hand to the beat of his metal spatula and the Arabic music overhead. It’s after 2 a.m. on a Saturday night in late May, and the late-night rush at Sunny’s Brooklyn deli has just begun.

Sunny’s deli sits on a busy avenue, snugly sandwiched between a subway entrance and an underground pool hall that’s hardly noticeable save the small crowd at its door day and night. Tonight there is a steady stream of customers, with more on the way as the night tips toward dawn. Sunny dances in dizzying motion between the counter and grill, filling orders and lifting spirits. The space fills and patrons come in less and less sober, barking orders at Sunny. He takes it in stride, placating impatience with a gap-toothed grin, a practiced banter and an infectious hiccupping chuckle that sounds disarmingly similar to that of Popeye the Sailorman.

“At four o’clock, forget it,” Sunny says, his English tumbling out in a thick Ramallah accent. “You can’t even talk to me, it’s like a tuna fish in here.” His malapropism of the more familiar “sardines” still captures nicely the tightly packed crowds that fill the narrow space after the bars and clubs begin to close on a Friday or Saturday night. He motions toward the front of the store where his partner and two or three Yemeni employees man the register for the goods on the shelves. “Monday to Friday, their business at nighttime is like $500 or $700,” he explains. “It’s not bad.” Sunny smirks and leans in close, “But on the weekend, I kill! From ten o’clock at night to five in the morning, almost two grand.” With a sly shrug of his eyebrows, he adds, “It’s like big business.”

According to a 2007 report from the Center for an Urban Future, foreign-born New Yorkers have always been more likely to start their own businesses than native-born. In some neighborhoods, the rate is two to one. As of 2000, the foreign-born population was still only 36 percent of the city’s total population, yet half of all self-employed workers in New York were born outside the United States. Immigrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel and Lebanon all start businesses at more than twice the rate as native-born New Yorkers, in some cases four-times as often.

The orders have started to pour in, but Sunny remains unflappable. In an uncharacteristic moment of carelessness, he knocks several dishes to the floor. The crash of thick porcelain almost drowns out the loud Jordanian music and the impatience of waiting customers, but only for a moment.

“I’m sorry, not my fault,” Sunny says to no one in particular. “I’m the one gotta pay for it, it come out of my pocket anyway.”

1 comment:

Dazy said...

Like my kids, I too am crazy about Tuna. Still it's difficult to get fresh ones. In the weekend we're planning to visit seaside - planning to get some.