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...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sleep Sweet Sleep

My cousin’s husband works nights as a police officer in a town of about 200,000 people. While you might think his nightshift experience a stark contrast from those we interviewed in NYC, he shares with them a consuming need for sleep.

Nightshift workers must accommodate a life out of phase with the rest of us. Sleep is put off until daylight, if not sacrificed entirely to make time for the family, friends, and commonplace responsibilities that still run on a dayshift schedule.

Like many nightshift workers, PICU nurses Jessica and Tamar try to return to a “normal” schedule on their time off. They are not always successful. “If I don’t have anything to do that night,” says Jessica, “I’m like, ‘Forget it, I am sleeping until 5 o’clock or whenever my alarm wakes me up.’ But then I miss the whole day sleeping.” Tamar nods knowingly, “That’s the frustrating thing about working nights is that you waste a whole day of your week catching up on your sleep.” Jessica adds, “That’s why we work three days because we technically work four, one of them sleeping.”

Many nightshift workers cite variations on this awkward calculus of three days equals four due to lost sleep. Esther, a NICU nurse, often sleeps as little as an hour or two between shifts. James, a doorman, sleeps just three hours before returning to work again. “My wife and my kids, they say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’” he says. Billy, a deckhand, explains his schedule this way: “The other night crew on this boat works Sunday night for Monday and they get off on a Thursday morning. We come in Thursday night for Friday. They do four nights on the boat, but there are only seven days a week. So we do three plus one.” He smiles at the complexity of his explanation and says, “See, I tell people I live eight days a week, and they look at me like I’m crazy. I work four nights, I get off Monday at 6:45 in the morning. I don’t go back to work until Thursday night at 10:30. I have four full days off and I work four days. It’s like living eight days a week.”

Other nightshift workers find ways to sleep within the grueling schedule. Tim, a fish salesman, has built a life that allows about 8 hours of sleep during the day before returning to work. “If there’s stuff to do during the day,” he says, “you just cut back on your sleep. You still want to be involved in your kids’ lives, as well as have some sort of a relationship with your wife.” Hassan, a deli cashier, sleeps four or five hours every afternoon before working every night 11 pm to 11 am. “I’m very tired. I can work but, somehow, I’m so weak getting up, I can’t do it very fast. The alarm clock can ring for hours, and I don’t care. I don’t even hear it. Sometimes, I turn it off and I’ll say I’ll sleep for ten minutes, and then three hours pass.” John, a cashier at an overlit café near Times Square, stands at the register each night from 7 pm to 7 am. His sleep strategy? “I’m slim but my calves are strong. I can sleep standing.”

My cousins husband can't sleep standing - he's often behind the wheel of a patrol car in the wee hours. But his struggle to maintain a healthy family life, and get enough sleep, is not all that different from the men and women of nightshift New York (who, by the way, outnumber the entire population of his town).

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