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, January 12, 2009

The Space Between Night and Day

When we were on the Leonard Lopate Show, a man called in to say that he always feels more creative at night. That’s true of a lot of artists. There’s something magical about the night that makes it a worthy subject or source of artistic output, or both. I wrote about Hopper’s fascination with night and light. Van Gogh, too, sought to capture the luminous light of the night.

Much of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying takes place at night. Addie Bundren watches her oldest son Cash building her coffin, turns to look at her youngest son Vardaman, and then dies, at twilight. Cash comes into see her. “He is looking down at her peaceful, rigid face fading into the dusk as though darkness were a precursor of the ultimate earth …” Faulkner writes. Cash and neighbor Vernon Tull then toil the night away to finish the coffin. Flashbacks tell the story of Addie’s third son, Jewel, who stealthily worked nights, “by lantern,” clearing a field in order to buy himself a horse. On the eighth night after her death, en route to bury her in Jefferson, Addie in her coffin sits under a moonlit apple tree. Also at night, that same moonlit night, Addie’s second son, the strange one, Darl, sets fire to another man’s barn. On the ninth night, her mother finally in the ground, the lone daughter, Dewey Dell, meets a boy whose promises will do her no good.

Night wasn’t only the setting for much of Faulkner’s story. It was also the source of much of the story. He wrote it while working nights at a power plant. He was a fireman and night watchman at the University of Mississippi plant. He kept vigil over the sleeping – and sleepless – of Oxford, Mississippi, waiting until the last lights turned out. And then, at the tail-end of his nightshifts, in the quiet mornings, he wrote. He later said he wrote it in six weeks, some reports say seven weeks, and the 1987 Vintage edition I’ve carried around since high school says it took him eight weeks. Whichever, he wrote it quickly. And he wrote it in that liminal space between night and day, neither one nor the other. I like to think it’s that in-betweenness of how it was written that contributes to its being so murky and powerful and radiant and opaque all at once.

Mainly I like to contemplate the context in which it was written and the contribution that one particular nightshift worker made to the world. According to my weathered Vintage copy, he began writing it on October 25, 1929. Four days later, the world fell apart. On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, sending the economy spiraling, costing countless people their livelihoods if not their lives. Though he worked nights, though the world as everyone knew it came crashing down around them, Faulkner did not despair. He wrote this novel. One has only to scan a few pages of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible or Suzan-Lori Parks’ Getting Mother’s Body to catch a glimpse of his contribution to their work, and to our world. So, nightshift workers, nightowls, writers, workers everywhere: Do not despair, though the world crash down around you. Work on, write on. It’s worth it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would like to read your blog but the white type on black background hurts my eyes. Though I understand the color scheme is in keeping with the "nighttime" theme of your book, I would urge you to please change it to a black on white, which is much easier on the eyes. Thank you.