A Guest in the Night City

April 28, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 1 5 min read

I used to be much more at home in the night city. Half my memories of Toronto and Montreal are of quiet night hours; empty streets, traffic lights changing quietly from green to yellow to red in abandoned intersections, the profound quiet of an apartment at three a.m. I lived in those cities from the ages of eighteen through twenty-two. There were very long nights.

At eighteen in Toronto I used to stay up all night writing html code. At nineteen I was going out dancing twice a week. At twenty-two in Montreal, I kept very strange hours. My job required me to wake up at five thirty, but when I didn’t have to work the next day I’d sometimes go to sleep at seven in the evening and wake up at two a.m. I would dress carefully, pack up my computer and go to the open-all-night Café Depot at the corner of St. Lawrence and Prince Arthur, where I’d drink tea and stare out the window and write until morning.

My characters in my first novel were insomniacs, and I liked watching the progression of night on St. Lawrence Boulevard. The walls in that place are all glass and the street was a theater; at first the club kids in their finery, later wave upon wave of taxis and then the three- and four-a.m. stragglers with bleary eyes and fishnet stockings, clutching slices of pizza and making tired plans; soon afterward the first of the dayworkers, the bakery truck. At other times there were jobs that kept me working until one or two or four in the morning, long summer nights behind martini bars or making lattes or stocking shelves, nervous walks home on empty sidewalks.

But now? I’ve moved to the city that never sleeps, but I’d just as soon be in bed by midnight. I glimpse the night city rarely and in passing; I stumble out of the subway in Park Slope at two a.m. because the party went late and it took an hour to get home from uptown Manhattan; I stare out at a deserted Brooklyn through sedan windows on four thirty a.m., en route to LaGuardia long before sunrise, because early-morning flights are the cheapest.

I’m no longer a citizen of the night city, but a fascination remains. The desktop image on my laptop is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. On the rare nights when I can’t sleep I sometimes stand for a moment at the living room window, looking down at the street four stories below; there are Con Edison trucks and police cars parked outside the 24-hour diner across the street from my apartment at all hours. I’m not naïve enough to really want to go down there at four a.m., but it’s impossible not to notice how peaceful my neighborhood is at that hour, how quiet.

coverThere were times in my life when I lived in the night city, but I was only ever passing through. The night city has always felt like a separate territory to me, a place quite removed, with its own culture and rules of interaction. I’ve found convincing depictions of the night city in fiction—Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, for instance—but two years ago I was beginning a novel that I knew would involve at least one nightshift worker, and I needed a somewhat more solid guide to the territory. I bought a copy of Nightshift NYC.

Nightshift NYC is the work of the husband-and-wife team of Russell Leigh Sharman and Cheryl Harris Sharman. For a little over a year, circa 2006, they spent their nights in the company of New York City’s night shift workers. They interviewed and observed dozens of workers—over a hundred, by project’s end—at sites all over the city. They spent hours in 24-hour diners and went out on fishing boats out of Brooklyn, lingered in the foul depths of late-night Penn Station and talked to taxi drivers.

The result is impressive. Each chapter is organized loosely around a profession or a place; some are focused almost entirely on a single worker, while others follow everyone at a given worksite. If night is a territory, Nightshift NYC functions as both an anthropological guide and a history.

The diner across the street from my apartment never closes. Nightshift NYC puts the establishment in context; the first diner in the city was “a horse-drawn ‘night lunch wagon’ operated by the Church Temperance Society in hopes of drawing business away from bars and their ten-cent meals. For thousands of old-world immigrants, mostly young men, the night lunch wagon was a surrogate for home and a moment’s rest. They were so successful they became the charitable beneficiaries of wealthy New Yorkers such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, who endowed a night lunch wagon in Union Square.”

The thought of Vanderbilt-sponsored charity diners is fascinating to me, as is the perpetuity of society’s desire to put a stamp of morality over the chaos of the night city. Equally interesting are the lives portrayed in this book; the Upper West Side doormen and diner waitresses, third-shift nurses and nightshift deckhands. There are heartbreaking failed immigrations—an exhausted nighttime cleaner in Penn Station who longs to return to Turkey—and any number of workers who have no intention of staying here; variations on I’ll stay here for a while, I’ll be a part of the machine that keeps the city running through the nights, and when I’ve saved enough money I’ll leave and never come back. “I am very tired,” the undocumented dishwasher in the west side diner tells the authors, “but I want to save a little more money.” I find myself wondering what became of him, in the years since the 2006 interview; did he return to Mexico City that year, as planned? It was his third time living and working in the United States. He said he wasn’t coming back.

There are common threads; some work the night shift because it allows them the greatest possible amount of time with their children—it’s possible to come home in time to have breakfast with the kids and get them off to school, sleep for a while, and see them again when they arrive home in the afternoon. Others are in it for the money; the night shifts of certain jobs pay better. For some, the nightshift is a lifestyle, and several workers insist that they prefer to work over the night hours—there’s more autonomy at night, it’s quieter, fewer customers and less traffic, the boss is asleep. “But,” the authors point out, “few chose the nightshift for any of these reasons. For many, it is the only shift available.” Available might mean it’s the only shift they can get in the absence of a working knowledge of the English language; available can also mean that someone has to be there to get the kids to school, and working the night shift is the only way to make that happen.

There’s an odd coyness that appears every so often, as when a street food vendor is described as spending his shift fending off offers of “um, relationships.” There are moments that ring false. Getting anywhere on the subway after midnight in NYC is frankly a nightmare. Trains sit in the station for twenty minutes at a time, with no announcement as to when or if they might start running again. Or trains run in sections, which means being ejected into a sketchy neighborhoods to wait endlessly for shuttle buses in the rain, the heat, the freezing cold. R trains appear inexplicably on F tracks; F trains become C trains running via the A line. But the most startling thing about the MTA’s night chaos, the Sharmans write, “is that no one complains.” Really? No one? We must live on different subway lines.

But for its small flaws, Nightshift NYC remains an essential guide to the territory.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn. www.emilymandel.com.

One comment:

  1. I worked for a dot.com where those with the most seniority had cubicles against the windows. The view out the windows was onto the Flatirons behind Boulder and the glorious Rockies beyond.

    The rest of us worked in the center with the only light coming off flickering fluorescent tubes. You would think that those of us in the middle would be more miserable, but that was exactly the opposite of what I observed. Those with window views were constantly reminded of the difference between where they were (typing code into a computer) and where they could be (wandering up in the mountains.) The rest of us were saved from this soul-crushing comparison.

    I have only worked at night a few times. I found that the night acted like a warm, fuzzy blanket pulled over my head. It blocked out all of the other possibilities and allowed me to focus on my work. When I finished my shift and walked out into the dawn, it felt as if my efforts had something, however negligible, to do with the rising sun.

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