NYC's Graveyard Shift
December 23, 2016 2:21 PM   Subscribe

The men and women who work while the rest of the city sleeps.

"My time of day is the dark time, a couple of deals before dawn / When the street belongs to the cop, and the janitor with the mop / And the grocery clerks are all gone,” the suave gambler and night owl Sky Masterson sings in “Guys and Dolls.” The grocery clerks may be in bed, but the janitor and the cop are hardly the only New Yorkers on the job throughout the wee hours.
posted by poffin boffin (38 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I spent a year working the night shift in a supermarket bakery. I remember getting up a midnight and watching Letterman with a cup of coffee to start my day. It can mess with your mind.
posted by jonmc at 2:34 PM on December 23, 2016 [13 favorites]

That description would work for any city except NYC! It is the city that does not sleep!

Wonderful post though, thank you
posted by clockzero at 2:35 PM on December 23, 2016

A postscript to my previous comment: the owner of the aforementioned supermarket later did time for tax evasion. I didn't see anything.
posted by jonmc at 2:36 PM on December 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

In my early 20s I used to work 8 PM - 8AM, 4-5 days a week at a sex shop in the West Village and it almost killed me. I remember doing push-ups and just wandering in circles tryig to stay awake. But 3-4 AM is also when things would get extremely weird on a very, very regular basis and I got to meet a lot of other usually odd people who had late-night jobs or were just either still out or already out.

One time my coworker and I were silently smoking cigarettes in the store doorway at like 6:00 AM sunrise just counting the minutes down and an old friend, who I believe had one of those intense Devil Wears Prada-type fancy Manhattan office jobs (thanks Facebook), walked by and didn't recognize me. I was too wiped out to even try to get her attention but damn if it didn't feel like we landed in two jarringly different worlds in the same city.
posted by griphus at 2:36 PM on December 23, 2016 [40 favorites]

i spent 10 years on the night shift and i'm still not really good at getting up in the morning anymore. the worst part was occasionally having to go to the dentist/doctor/etc at 9am after a long exhausting night. i will always love the city best during the small hours of the morning though.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:42 PM on December 23, 2016 [7 favorites]

I've spent most of my life working graveyard shifts and love it. (Other than on nights like Halloween and New Year's Eve when all the amateur up late crowd is around makin' with the noise and bother.) Nothing better than heading home after a night's work feeling good and watching all the sleep-eyed grouches who just woke up caught in a traffic jam going the other way. Gives one a real feeling of freedom that.

Working night only works for people who can sleep anytime, no matter how sunny or what else s going on. I worked with guys who never could manage that and spent years on four or less hours a sleep a day when they were working. That ain't healthy. No night life either, so social butterflies might not care for it, but you can schedule your days and sleep in ways that make getting anything else done pretty easy, which 9-5ers can't always do. The only real problem is that there just aren't that many good jobs that are overnight ones, so there ain't no money in it, and it definitely isn't the kind of thing for someone who likes socializing, which explains a lot about most dedicated night workers once you get to know them.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:47 PM on December 23, 2016 [14 favorites]

Appropriate that in reading this as I'm about to start my 6 to 6 shift.

3-4 AM is also when things would get extremely weird on a very, very regular basis

That's "peds o'clock" in the ER. When all the parents who were hoping they could make it into morning to see their regular doctor finally break and give up. They're weird in a different way.
posted by Panjandrum at 2:52 PM on December 23, 2016 [26 favorites]

25 years in the bar business? Yeah, I've been there...
posted by jim in austin at 3:27 PM on December 23, 2016

Just like everyone should have to work a customer-service job early in their lives, everyone should have to work at least a couple of months of swing and graveyard shifts.
posted by Etrigan at 3:52 PM on December 23, 2016 [19 favorites]

We've got a small swing shift and a smaller graveyard shift, mostly voluntary. There are people you couldn't force to days with any amount of threatening, they'd quit first. I can see what there is to like about it. It seems to attract the people who like it quiet, don't like office politics, just want to do their job and be left alone. They feel like they get more work done without all the "interference" of management. Which can be true; by the time they come in, the plan for the night has already been argued about and changed 15 times. They just have to execute it.

I hate it because when something happens, you're on your own. Someone called in sick on you? Sorry, you're going to have to make do. Nobody else has spares for you to borrow. And I like being able to get a damn question answered when I have one by just picking up the phone. I feel left out of the loop on important decisions by not being there on day shift when the discussions happen. Email is not a good substitute.

Luckily, there are people who don't hate those parts, because someone's got to do it and I don't want it to be me.
posted by ctmf at 4:24 PM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Many years ago I worked graveyard shift (midnight - 8 AM) at a news service that delivered daily briefings at the end of our shift. My mental health, social life, and ... everything else ... was in ruins by the time I quit. Some people made it work really well but not me.

As a side note the job did let everyone telecommute, so the truly smartest coworker I had packed up, moved to Europe, and worked from there.
posted by aperturescientist at 4:25 PM on December 23, 2016 [12 favorites]

I had a retail job that involved regular 4am starts to take deliveries and get it out on shop floor before we opened up. Well, in theory it shouldn't have been regular, but management had something if a hard-on for fucking me over, so it was me four days a week (with one late shift thrown in in the middle because fuck you). Walking to work while the clubs were kicking out and the kebab shops closing up was... Interesting. I got in a few altercations on the way to work over those two years. If I'd had regular shifts (ie no 'fuck you' lates, same four/five days each week) I'd've loved it, though. You do eight hours' work and you're still knocking off at lunchtime, and being able to break up your shift with breakfastand coffee five hours in was a joy.
posted by Dysk at 4:34 PM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I worked graveyard at a convenience store when I was 18/19, and it was the sketchiest job ever. It was in this dark, largely unpopulated area. There wasn't much besides our store and an abandoned gas station across the street, but the store was on a little backstreet that connected a few bars to some apartments, and it was a couple of blocks or so from a brothel (which I only found out later). So I'd get an unusual number of drunken assholes stumbling in, often to display their genitals or try to paw at me.

I was young and have always been a bit nocturnal, so the hours didn't bother me, but in retrospect, I'm pretty pissed that they scheduled a scrawny teenaged girl to work graveyards alone like that.
posted by ernielundquist at 4:56 PM on December 23, 2016 [9 favorites]

I've never worked nights. I'm a light sleeper at the best of times, so it would probably destroy me in short order. My husband was the night janitor at a truck stop (the kind of truck stop with, like, showers and stuff), which to me sounds like quite possibly the sketchiest job of all time. He's seen a truly astounding variety of B movies because on his nights off he still had to keep up his schedule so he'd stay up all night watching the kind of stuff that's on TV at 3 a.m. He's seen every shitty Death Wish sequel, multiple times.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:46 PM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I spent several years working midnight shifts at a paper mill. Pure hell, but there's a related memory I cherish - falling asleep at 7:00 AM on a bright summer morning with Bob Marley's "Exodus" playing on a boombox beside my bed.
posted by davebush at 7:58 PM on December 23, 2016

I loved working the 11 p.m.-to-press shift at a newspaper. It would start bustling and gradually quiet down as writers and then copy editors and then layout guys left until it was me and a couple of other section editors and then I'd give the paper to our press driver, lock the door, and go home to bed. If it was an early night I'd gloat to my co-editors who landed the shitty nights; if it was a very late night I'd wait for my roommate to get up, go out to breakfast with her, and then go to bed.

Plus when you work at a newspaper and start at 11 p.m. there's plenty of time to pre-drink.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:17 PM on December 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

I meant to say, I liked working when there were few distractions or interruptions. And I liked being free during 9 to 5 (well, I slept until noon, so noon to five) to do errands when everyone was at work. I could meet friends for dinner when they got off work and I was getting ready to go on. Blackout curtains and it was GREAT.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:18 PM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

My entire 20s were spend in nightlife jobs , performing, bartending, emceeing, the afternours bars you'd go to cause it was 6am and you just got off work, to this day still have trouble along up before 1pm
posted by The Whelk at 8:19 PM on December 23, 2016

I loved the night shift when I used to work for the phone company. Few customers. Got a lot of reading done. Also liked it when impossible deadlines meant I would stay late at my development job. Didn't like the deadlines, but did like having the office to myself. Coding away and trying to ignore the creepy sounds coming from the dark part of the cube farm. If other people stayed with me, I'd get them to join me in dropping shit off the roof at midnight. "Scares the demons away. Hand me that watermelon."

Some of my favorite days were when it was around the winter solstice, and I could schedule things just right so I'd get to bed before sunrise and get up after sunset. "The sunlight will slay me, but the darkness cannot hold me...Lo, I am Vampyr!" was my happy thought while walking to my very boring job as an operator.
posted by honestcoyote at 8:46 PM on December 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was young and have always been a bit nocturnal, so the hours didn't bother me, but in retrospect, I'm pretty pissed that they scheduled a scrawny teenaged girl to work graveyards alone like that.

Yeah, that isn't a great plan. The night jobs I've had have been open to the public in some fashion, hotels mostly, and the people that come in can be a real problem even in nicer areas. I couldn't even guess how many times I've had to call the police for all sorts of disturbances; injuries, comic cons, robberies, bear spray loving masochists abusing prostitutes, counterfeiting, fist fights, drugs, high school hockey players, and on and on. That's over many years though and its just part of the gig working alone at night without much else around. It definitely isn't something I'd just throw anyone into without some serious consideration about their safety and making sure they knew what the job sometimes entailed at its worst.

At it's best though, some night jobs can be pretty sweet too. Like the one I had working at a luxury Inn in Death Valley. It only had 45 rooms and everyone was asleep almost every night before i got to work since most activities happened in the daytime. My actual labor for the night took no more than 40 minutes at the longest, so I had around 7 hours a night that I had nothing I needed to do, which mostly meant I sat outside watching the moonlight light up the valley below and drinking coffee while listening to classical music play and then maybe read a book for a while if that got old, which, really it never did since it was a knockout view. Other hotels were not much more demanding, maybe two or three hours of work and a lot of time to do whatever I wanted, within reason, while getting paid for it. It was pretty much a UBI lifestyle with only the demand of showing up and running some reports to keep it from being what I'd do on my own anyway.

There are other downsides, no real career path to any job that might be actually fulfilling as an activity versus ones that allow for relative freedom of action, not much money, and, at a certain point, minimal chance to shift careers even if I did want to. So, no, I won't recommend it to anyone, but I won't really complain about it either.

On preview: Yeah, dropping things off the roof is another time honored tradition of the night shift. See how high a large super ball will bounce from 28 floors up, or how far one of those big foam airplanes will fly. Good times.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:23 PM on December 23, 2016 [10 favorites]

For awhile, an old friend of mine worked the graveyard shift at a convenience store.

To me, the craziest thing about it all was: the scratch-card lotto players. I swear 90% of the overnight business was folks who would come in, buy their scratch tickets, and then head next door to the 24-hour Dunkin Donuts to scratch 'em. Rinse, repeat. After awhile I felt like the whole convenience store (cigarettes, milk, snacks) was a front for this sad scratch-ticket business preying on people who didn't have that much money to begin with. Of course, I sort of blame the state-lotto system for that, more than one convenience store. It did make me think, though. Oof.
posted by Zephyrial at 10:13 PM on December 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

The exhaustion and social isolation of night shift are balanced out by the ability to drink as much coffee as you feel like without worrying about winding down, and the euphoria of that brief moment when youre walking out of work and the sun is coming up and the birds are singing and you get to go home and sleep.
posted by supercrayon at 10:14 PM on December 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have delayed sleep phase. I love working nights.

Drove 12-hour taxi night shifts for a while (4pm-4am). Good times.
posted by flabdablet at 10:47 PM on December 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Wow, that Coast Guard photo.
posted by Sauce Trough at 2:49 AM on December 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

After awhile I felt like the whole convenience store (cigarettes, milk, snacks) was a front for this sad scratch-ticket business preying on people who didn't have that much money to begin with.

That's not fair. They also sell cigarettes and dip.
posted by officer_fred at 5:53 AM on December 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I spent years doing overnight tech support. There were a lot of things I liked about it, but it basically made creating and maintaining relationships with people who didn't also work night shifts impossible and I was not strong enough or able to work hard enough to overcome that.

I've been back on days for about 18 months now and there's still things that weird me out- grocery stores always seem to me to be slammed, even when it's just regular daytime business, and traffic always seems awful to me because I'm just not used to there being many people on the road. Overall, though, I think it's for the best.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:02 AM on December 24, 2016

It's (yikes!) 20 years old at this point, but I thought A Day in the Night of America was a good read on the topic of night-shift work.

(And nice post, poffin boffin. Those are some great photographs.)
posted by soundguy99 at 7:27 AM on December 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just like everyone should have to work a customer-service job early in their lives, everyone should have to work at least a couple of months of swing and graveyard shifts.

Ok, I mean, if this night shift job has literally zero consequences for the public or coworkers or company or anyone, then maybe. But otherwise asking me to work at night is asking for trouble. My body does not function at night. Even as a youngster it was always hard for me to stay up late at parties, etc. Never pulled an all-nighter in college; preferred to get up early the next morning to finish last minute papers.
posted by misskaz at 7:33 AM on December 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

I've been working midnight-to-8:00Am for eight years. I love it and can't go back. I'd quit if they asked me to work first shift.

The night time is the right time.
posted by ELF Radio at 8:17 AM on December 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Aside from jobs that occasionally asked me to come in for the graveyard shift on an emergency basis (which can be the worst, because my body doesn't have time to adapt; it's basically artificial jet lag), I've only had two graveyard shift jobs. The first one was at a local paper that had a not-completely-automated press system and needed people to run the flyer-stuffer and manually stuff the Sunday papers; I ruined a couple of my favorite T-shirts before realizing that fresh newspaper ink does not completely come out of cloth, ever.

The other one was cleaning a Target with a crew overnight, which, amusingly enough, was the subject of a comedy, Career Opportunities, which had literally not one single thing to do with the reality of the job. The job itself was pretty standard sweep/mop/vacuum/bathroom-cleaning stuff, but the crew was a rotating collection of marginally-unemployables, seemingly composed of two main groups: people who had been in the army and not been able to make that work for them, and extremely bitter people who were convinced that life was out to screw them over, a by-and-large self-fulfilling prophecy. (And, yes, those groups did overlap to a significant degree.) There were also a number of people who lasted exactly one night and decided that they weren't that desperate. I eventually transferred to another cleaning location that was second-shift, was cleaning offices rather than a department store, and had relatively sane co-workers. I've always liked second-shift work better, as it seems like the best of both worlds; largely having the place to yourself, sleeping until noon, and being able to get shopping and chores done in the afternoon.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:36 AM on December 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been off and on the morningside shift in TV news for the better part of 4 years. 10:30pm to whenever, as a producer (in the case of breaking news after the AM show, you're there until they don't need you anymore). I like that there's a whole morning news reporter/producer/anchor community that's built up on Twitter under the #AMNewsers hashtag. There are people who I chat with regularly who do the same job as me on the other side of the country -- producers getting into their newsrooms at the same time as the reporters are rolling into mine to start their days. We just had an #AMNewser secret santa. A deep feeling of meeting fellow travelers. (A lot in common with MeFi in that way.) I missed it a lot when I was dayside.

I did forget how hard it is to go to work in the dark and come home in the dark.
posted by none of these will bring disaster at 9:18 AM on December 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

traffic always seems awful to me because I'm just not used to there being many people on the road

YES THIS. i am totally incapable of judging traffic by any sane normal metric. i'm used to it taking like 15-20 minutes to get everywhere.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:18 AM on December 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Plenty of graveyard shifts in a hospital, all you night owls! And many of them pay very well: RN, MD, etc
posted by Pocahontas at 12:28 PM on December 24, 2016

I work a self-inflicted swing shift (or rather go to bed at 4, though up at 9. One thing that immediately goes away is a sense of what are appropriate hours for things like phone calls or texts. Especially puzzling are people who go to bed at say 930 at night. "Going to bed? It's not even lunch time."
posted by maxwelton at 1:45 PM on December 24, 2016

I love this. Reminds me a bit of "New York Is A City Of Things Unnoticed" by Gay Talese.
posted by SisterHavana at 1:57 PM on December 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've had intermittent insomnia pretty much all my life, and just recently, during an unusually long stretch where I'd been sleeping through the night, I realized that I missed it.

I don't know if it's just an adaptation to being up anyway or what, but I like the world at night, when it's dark and quiet and just generally more subdued (I mean, for the most part). I also really miss how it used to be a totally different world. Back before you could stream media on demand, when TV and radio stations would either go off the air or be taken over by stoners playing weird movies and music and their own goofy amateur shows, talking about stuff they didn't talk about during the day. If you weren't up at 2 or 3 AM, you just didn't get to know about any of that stuff. There are so many social benefits to being diurnal, it was just this one little thing we dirtbags who couldn't pull that off got.
posted by ernielundquist at 2:56 PM on December 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I used to work 7-7, 3 or 4 days a week. I remember how much mental effort was involved planning on when I'd sleep, either the first day off or the last day off, in order to go to social events, doctor appointments, etc. And how angry we'd get if someone called in the morning or midday. I don't know about guys, but women in their 20s tend to have baby showers and bridal showers at lunch time, which is prime sleeping time when you work nights.

No caffeine after 2am. I'd take half a sleeping pill as soon as I got home and had to be in bed by 8:30, otherwise I wouldn't get to sleep. Having west-facing windows in my bedroom was essential, along with blackout curtains.

I agree with what was said above: you got a lot more work done without all the corporate politics to bother you. But you also had less pull with any of the day-shift business decisions because they didn't know who you were. And if you had a question, the job goes on hold until morning.

I met my husband while on that shift. We played a lot of Star Wars Galaxies back then. Daylight is unnecessary when you're tanking Night Sisters. ;)
posted by jillithd at 2:44 PM on December 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I loved working over-nights. When I was in college, I had a full time job that started at 10:30PM and I got out between 6/7:00AM. Then I went to class until 3ish, went for a swim, a run then home to collapse until 10PM. Repeat for 6 1/2 years all the way through grad school. Best time of my life.
posted by james33 at 5:26 AM on December 26, 2016

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