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...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Three New Yorks

I came to New York to write. Millions upon millions have come to New York to write. As I wrote in an earlier post, I came to New York specifically to write in the tradition of Joseph Mitchell, though he died a few years before I arrived. I assert to anyone who will listen that he was one of the best nonfiction storytellers ever. Mitchell, it seems to me, gained much of that storytelling skill by growing up in the south – and by being an outsider in New York. I think that from these two bits of his biography he learned that crucial part of storytelling too many reporters miss when they’re seeking The Story: he learned to listen. And listen. And listen. He learned to not be in a hurry to find The Story. He learned to have patience. He learned to observe the cadence of speech, the rhythm of life, and the quotidian miracles overlooked by anyone in a hurry. Thus his writing on New York, a city too often rushing forward for its inhabitants to savor the stillness of a single moment, captures details, people, occupations, and preoccupations many miss in the bustle.

When he was writing for The New Yorker in the 1940s, for example, the oyster bedders and lobster baymen were already part of a dying profession in the constantly-changing city. Many a reporter would’ve skipped over them in favor of profiling a newer profession, finding a better story. Or they might’ve turned the story into one on the perils of those dying professions on the water. Mitchell took another tack. He simply sat with them long enough to immerse himself in their world: how they spoke, what they wore, the smells they smelled, and the topics that emerged as important to them. He cared less for The Story than their story or, rather, saw that the one was the other.

Though I graduated from college aching to come write in New York, I found myself first in Boston, and then Oxford, England, and then a rough-and-tumble port town on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Each successive move took me further from my strengths and supports, and taught me how to tell a story by first being quiet. In Limón, Costa Rica, stripped of my language, culture, and every comfort, I finally learned to listen. I learned that while someone may be slow to answer my questions, I need not follow with more rapid-fire questions but instead to wait and, in that waiting, to observe.

When I finally arrived in New York, a decade ago this June, I’d had six years away from my southern roots, living amidst various languages, accents, occupations, and preoccupations. I knew I could never know more about New York than a native New Yorker. I knew I could never move (or speak or write) faster than a native New Yorker. But I knew that I had the patience to listen. And listen. And listen. I knew how to not be in a hurry to find The Story. And in so listening, waiting, and observing, I knew that their story, if not The Story, would reveal itself to me.

Why tell you all this now? Two reasons: WNYC and E.B. White. When Leonard Lopate interviewed us on his NPR show on WNYC a few weeks ago, many called in and many more have since written us to say that we’d captured what they’ve experienced in New York. We couldn’t be more gratified, and humbled, by those words. So I’ve wondered how the three of us – Russell, Corey, and me, outsiders each and every one of us – could possibly have rendered New York City in a way that resonated with native New Yorkers (though of course that was one goal). This led me to think of Joseph Mitchell, another outsider permitted to sit awhile and write things down. And it led me to recall these lines from the iconic Here is New York, from another of my favorite New Yorker writers, E.B. White:

There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter – the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something … Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion.

Indeed, Russell, Corey, and I came to New York in quest of something. We’re settlers here. But we have poured all our passion into this book, and this city, and we’re grateful that you’ve found something in its pages that resonates with what you – native, commuter, settler, or even just occasional visitor – know to be true of your New York.

No comments: