The light seeping in through the blinds, the slam of car doors sounding the start of the workday, and the soft patter of my housemates’ drowsy, dragging footsteps downstairs signify the end of my nights.
Nighttime lends itself to a certain quiet, a certain clearness that the day just doesn’t have for me. While others are happy to crawl into a cozy bed at an hour close to midnight and far from dawn, I am content and revitalized by the prospect of the long stretch of time ahead. I’ve always attributed these vampiric tendencies to some innate interest in the under-working of a city and its inhabitants, a fascination with the pun-ridden “darker side of things.” (This has been my excuse for years, anyway, whenever someone sees me stumble out of bed just as the sun is going down.) The isolation that I often find at night is also just more conducive for work—it’s a lot easier to hunker down and write an essay or a story when no one is awake to provide me with a distraction that I would undoubtedly welcome more often than not. But still, it is disconcerting at times to realize that everyone else is in my house is waking up as I’m trying to get to sleep, and it’s often frustrating that everyone is going to sleep when I’m done with my obligations and raring to go.
I look to other creative minds for consolation; Karl Marx, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kafka all worked during the night. Sometimes I think of these people as the clock ticks away towards morning and wonder if they felt the same way, if they needed the backdrop of darkness to illuminate their work, if they fished something out of that dense expanse of night and twisted and chiseled it into something for themselves. There are no pretenses once the sun goes down; the bright, orderly appearance of the day is gone.
Night owl Frank Loesser, the American songwriter best known for his scores to Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, simply and eloquently captures a certain feeling that all night-dwellers can relate to:
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 nighttime is an intimate setting; it is occupied by few, and few want to regularly occupy it. Loesser conveys the tone of this sparsely populated time of night and describes a reclaiming of sorts. Whether by choice or by necessity, the night owls are taking their share of the world around them; part of the 24-hour cycle is theirs, too. This “dark time” is Loesser’s time of day.
Perhaps this feeling of simultaneous singularity—of being lone and independent against the vastness of the night along with the unity of being in the company of the few others who occupy the day’s darker side—is what makes the night so appealing, especially for artists. This duality parallels the artist’s mindset; the ultimate goal of any creative thinker is to be a unique individual (and distinct from the rest of the artsy hipsters). Yet at the same time, artists need a sense of community, a feeling of common purpose and connection with like-minded people. Achieving a balance between these two sentiments is difficult, but the night allows some momentary harmony.
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks illustrates this balance. Hopper depicts three customers and a worker in a late-night diner. It is an evocative piece, one that conjures up a lot of feelings at once. The bright, fluorescent-lit interior of the diner appears as a haven, a beacon in the dark, sleeping street surrounding it. The customers, the last remnants of the city’s unsleeping world, have gathered here and are brought together by their common seclusion. They are at once isolated and united.
But this concept of the night as an artistic equilibrium is not just a speculation; science also comes into play. Recent studies have shown that night owls are simply just more likely to be creative thinkers. Although a full explanation has yet to be formulated, researchers say that this could be the result of an adaptation to living outside the norm. In short, it may not always be the creative mentality that causes an inclination towards nighttime. In fact, the inclination towards nighttime might be what causes a creative mentality. “Being in a situation which diverges from conventional habit—nocturnal types often experience this situation—may encourage the development of a non-conventional spirit and of the ability to find alternative and original solutions,” wrote psychologists Marina Giampietro and G.M. Cavallera in their February 2007 study, “Morning and Evening Types and Creative Thinking.” (This can be found in the psychology journal, Personality and Individual Differences.)
Hans Van Dongen, an associate research professor at the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University, has also contributed important findings towards the study of biology-based sleep preferences. He and his colleagues discovered that a small group of brain cells (suprachiasmatic nuclei, for any biopsychology students), sends signals to the body that synchronize our sleeping patterns with the time of day. For “evening types, their “biological clock” is essentially set two hours later, and for “morning types,” two hours behind. This internal clock may be partially determined by genetics.
The science of sleep is intriguing, no doubt, and also provides a legitimate-sounding excuse for a lot of us late-risers, but for graveyard shift workers, this research may be meaningless. Although we may not associate the waitress taking our bleary order at 3 a.m. with the typical idea of a nighthawk—the test-cramming college kid, the drunk, or the starving artist painting into the wee small hours—she is more immersed in the undertow of society, that unconventional society of the night, than any of us. The number of graveyard shift workers has been steadily increasing over the years. While the night shift was originally reserved for security guards, bakers, factory workers, etc., it has now come to include a wider array of positions, like computer programmers, technical support workers, and health care workers.
To work nights is to inhabit another world entirely—a Bizarro World, the day turned upside-down. Tracy Niece may be a familiar face to many of you; she works nights at Parkside Diner, usually from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., and sometimes 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Niece has a full head of blonde hair and such a droll, relaxed way of talking that she may first strike you as aloof. You soon realize, however, that her manner has no edge to it; she is just unaffected.
“[Working the night shift] is hard to get used to at first,” Niece said, “and then when you get home you don’t wanna sleep.” Niece said that her schedule is completely turned around, but she must adjust on her days off. Niece has an eight-year son, which makes napping impossible. “Sometimes you stay up for days,” she said. Niece spoke about the people who came in during the night—as expected, a lot of drunk and high people stumble into the diner for a post-party snack. She was lighthearted as she related this, suggesting that they were easy targets for selling pricier menu items. “Yeah, you want some pork chops?” she laughed.
Other night workers also frequent the establishment—doctors, correction officers, nurses, etc. One is likely to encounter an eclectic mix of people going to Parkside late at night; the clientele is a diverse bunch, spanning a wide range of ages, races, and demeanors. And the closer one gets to dawn, the more likely one is to encounter an older crowd, presumably the retired, settling down for breakfast. It is a modern day Nighthawks, a sundry crowd of drunks, insomniacs, and early-risers, all brought together for one reason or another at a small, well-lit diner in Trenton. The romantic ideal of the night owl is hard to shake, but Niece provides us with a more sobering perspective. When asked if she had any last comments, she simply replied, “Don’t work the graveyard shift.”
The hours after midnight are both expansive in their possibilities and limited in their practicality. For some, they signify neither, and represent only a necessity of living—the graveyard shift is not a popular one, and most people take night shifts due to the lack of competition and better chances of employment.
I write this now as the sun is rising. Pulling back the blinds, I see neighbors heading to work, a garbage truck rumbling down the street, and birds lighting on the telephone wire. It’s a new day, and I’m not even done with the old one yet. Staying awake through the night allows for a strange mixture of observations—you see the day, you see the night, you see the night give way to day again; the whole metaphor-ridden cycle of the world is before you. Van Gogh once said, “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” Closing my blinds again against the glare of the early-morning sun and crawling into bed, I have to agree.