Working The Night Shift
CW spends the night on the streets looking for the folks who keep our cities going.
Thursday, October 8, 1998
I''m a lumberjack and I''m OK, I sleep all night and I work all day.
--Song from a "Monty Python" sketch.
LUNCH HOUR. The work day. Rush hour traffic. "I''ll meet you after work."
We all know what these phrases mean. They''re part of our culture, a culture that expects us to sleep at night, and get up in the morning to go to work. Time-sharing and home offices mean that the rigid 9-to-5 mold is beginning to melt around the edges, but we still expect to work during the daylight hours.
It goes further than that. There''s something a bit suspect about nighttime work, something off-beat, shifty perhaps, even a little nefarious. Nighttime is when witches gather, when thieves and whores prowl the streets. Good, Christian men and women stick to regular sun-determined schedules--Ben Franklin was only giving poetic form to popular morality when he wrote, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."
But life doesn''t stop when the sun goes down. And as our societies become increasingly complex, there are more and more services we need and expect round-the-clock. Hospitals have to function. Police stations must be at the ready. Telephone operating systems, emergency road services, convenience stores, hotels, toll booths, street cleaning, garbage collection, radio and TV stations, they''re all 24-hour-a-day operations.
On one recent Friday night, Coast Weekly took to the streets in a midnight-to-dawn search for the night folks, the men and women who turn their worlds around to make sure our cities are up and running all night long.
IT''S 12:20AM in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Natividad Medical Center. Registered Nurse Mitzi Contreras is soothing a day-old preemie, rubbing his bulging stomach as he scrunches up his face and bawls in a tinny, high-pitched screech. Two clear feeding tubes disappear down his nostrils, and his wrists are swaddled in soft bandages.
"He''s hungry, poor thing," Contreras murmurs. "He gets all he needs through the tube, but he still feels hungry."
Contreras has been working with newborns at Natividad for six years, but just moved to the night shift last November. She''s on the job from 10:45pm until 7:15 the next morning. "It was kind of hard to adjust, the first month," she admits. "It''s hard to wake up in the wee hours."
Still, she has no one to blame but herself, because she requested this shift. For one thing, she enjoys the quiet. "These babies are getting stabilized, so it''s quieter in here," she says. "Except for when emergencies come in from [Labor and Delivery.]"
It also makes it easier to take care of her two children, aged nine and five. When she finishes work, she hurries home to get the kids off to school, then she sleeps until just before noon, when her youngest comes home for lunch. She prepares dinner, helps with homework, and goes to sleep for another few hours after her husband comes home for dinner at around 6pm.
"My husband is happy, because I''m home the whole day," she says. "I''m in control of the house, I''m there for the kids. My mother-in-law comes over to help, but even if I''m asleep in the next room, the kids know I''m right there."
AT 12:55AM, all the lights are blazing at KION-TV, out by the Salinas Municipal Airport. The building looks as if everything stopped suddenly, in mid-motion: The desks are scattered with papers, chairs are parked haphazardly here and there, and all the TV screens are on, the images flickering and dancing in eerie silence, as if a giant hand swooped down and removed all the people, leaving their trappings in place.
Go through the silent corridors, up and down the empty halls, and into the master control room, where a lone figure sits fiddling with dials, facing a huge black board filled with TV monitors. That''s Joe Migliori, master control board operator, and the night is his kingdom.
From the time the late night news finishes at 11:35pm, until well after the 6am local newscast, Migliori is in charge of what goes out across the station''s broadcast signal and makes its way to your living room. Right now, he''s watching one monitor out of the corner of his eye to keep track of the on-air show, while dubbing an infomercial on a second monitor, trimming tonight''s episode of "In the Heat of the Night," set to air at 4am, and receiving the network feed on a fourth.
It''s a job that requires precise timing and constant attention. "As long as I hit network on time, I''ll be cool," he says, eyeing the jumping sprite on the info-mercial as he lines up two tapes for dubbing.
Migliori has spent most of his adult life working at night, including 10 years as a broadcast technical director, and a graveyard stint at a Maine wool mill. At the TV station, he likes that he''s his own boss. No one''s looking over his shoulder. "I prefer it at night," he says. "There are less people around. You have more under your control. I can run a tight ship without worrying about other things breaking the flow."
Over the years, he''s learned the tricks of living when the rest of the world is asleep--how to get your errands done, the importance of having dark shades in your bedroom to block out the sun, that kind of thing.
Migliori works a four-day week, and then turns his world around 180 degrees on his days off, so he can spend time with his girlfriend. As if working in TV wasn''t enough, in his free time he enjoys watching videos. He has no interest in moving to a day job--the night suits him just fine.
"If I were home at night, I''d be up late watching Letterman anyway," he says. "I''m not a game show, soap opera kind of guy."
AT 2:22AM, the last batch of bagels are just sliding into the 500-degree oven at the Bagel Bakery on David Avenue in Pacific Grove.
Night supervisor Stephanie Schiefelbein has spooned the 60 raw bagel rounds in and out of the huge vat of boiling water, which sizzles their crusts to a hard golden sheen, and is hoisting the heavy tray into the giant oven for a final eight minutes of baking. She and her team of two bakers have just three hours each night to prepare 2,400 bagels. By 3am the bagels are ready, and Schiefelbein puts on her driver''s cap to deliver them to 50 different local hotels, grocery stores, delis and schools, where they are served up fresh and hot that same morning.
"The hotels like them early," she says. "Everyone wants ''em in the morning. It''s a bagel!"
Schiefelbein has been on the night shift for two years, and says she won''t go back to days. "Nine to five? With that hustle and bustle?" she says, shaking her head. "I like these hours. When I''m driving to work at night, everyone else is partying, or just going to bed. I like driving on the streets at this time. It''s so quiet. Nine to five, the streets are so hectic."
When she worked the day shift, the hours seemed to drag by. "But at night, the time goes quick," she says. "You''re almost asleep the first half, then you spend the second half waking up."
Schiefelbein''s husband also works the night shift, at a different Bagel Bakery, and the couple have no children, so they manage to spend a lot of time together. But she admits her hours don''t encourage a lively social life.
"The bad part of the job is people don''t understand you have to sleep in the daytime," she says. "And I never get to see primetime TV. People talk about the new shows, but I don''t watch them. I just get the re-runs." Recently, she was selected to take part in a Nielsen''s rating, where viewers are asked to give their opinion of various new shows. "I looked at the list and didn''t know any of them," she says.
AT 3:15AM, the Denny''s on Fremont Street in North Monterey is booming. The tables are filled and there''s a line at the door. "It''s the bar rush," says night manager Ted Black. "We were busy after the [Monterey County] Fair closed, until about midnight, then it died and picked up again at 2 o''clock, when the bars close."
After three years on the 5pm to 3am shift, Black still gets a kick out of the late-night crowd. "I like it," he says. "I like to be involved with the activities that go on at night. You get to hear everything. And the people are happier--they''re drunk! Or maybe they''re tired, after a long day''s work. How ever they are at 3 o''clock in the morning, it''s not for us to question. We give them all the same good service."
What do folks order in the middle of the night? "Breakfasts, mostly," Black says.
Before his job at Denny''s, Black worked nights at Burger King. "I''m a night shift guy," he says. It''s hard on his wife, though. "She gets more emotionally involved with me working nights than I do," he says. "I miss sharing time with her and the kids in the evening. But society deals its deck of cards out to you, and that''s how you have to take it.
"And I love the food business, as you can tell," he confides with a wide grin, patting his plump gut. "You meet a lot of people, interesting people. You get to know your community better. And we keep the city moving all night."
AT 3:45AM most mornings, Yellow Cab night dispatcher Kesha Turner can usually take a breather. But tonight, the phones are ringing off the hook. "At 2:30, I had 19 calls waiting," she sighs.
Turner has been on the job five years. She started out driving a taxi, but after two days, was asked to step in temporarily as night dispatcher. "I got stuck," she sniffs.
Turner works a 12-hour shift, 6pm to 6am, working out of the company''s dispatch room on Imjin Road in Marina. After Joe''s Taxi shuts down at midnight, she''s in charge of cabs for the entire Peninsula and most of Salinas Valley, from Marina to Soledad and Big Sur, running up to 40 cabs at a time. "It can get kind of crazy with 40 drivers yelling at me for directions all at once," she says.
"I deal mostly with bar people, or people going home from dinner," she says. "From 3 to 5am, it''s a dead time. We get calls from bartenders, people working on Cannery Row, people going back and forth to the 7-11 in Seaside. On Sunday mornings, it''s people going to church, or catching early flights."
It''s hard dealing with the bar crowd sometimes, she says. Folks will call for a cab from one bar, get tired of waiting, and move to another bar, where they call for a cab again. Meanwhile, the taxi is circling the first bar, and everything gets balled up.
"The great thing is, we have these amazing computers," she gloats, twirling in her chair to show off the monitor. "When someone calls, the computer shows me their address right away. They''re pretty impressed with that."
Turner says her job cuts into her social life, but she still wouldn''t work days. "I''ve always been a night person," she says. "The night shift is more my pace--calm. People get rowdy, but we know how to deal with it. In the day, they get people going to the doctor''s, the grocery store, errands. At night, it''s people going to bars, looking for a good time. So, I don''t get a social life, but I deal with their social life, you see?
"When I have 30 calls waiting, and I have to find them all cabs, it can get stressful," she says. "But somehow I get them all where they''re going." To relieve the stress, Turner rides a bike to work--kinda strange, maybe, considering she could take a cab for free. "But I live close," she says. "And sometimes, I call a cab."
IT''S 4:51 AM, you can''t sleep, and you''ve got a hankering for a hot dog. Where do you go? The 7-11, probably, one of the few places locally open 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Neil Schweitzer runs the Monterey store on David Avenue from 11pm to 7 am, five days a week, but he often works six, seven, even eight nights in a row. It''s hard to find employees willing to work all night, and he doesn''t want to leave the franchise owners in a pinch. But they return the favor, he says; "If I want to go to a ball game in the middle of the week, they try to work around me."
Although the rest of New Monterey and Pacific Grove is locked up pretty tight by this hour, cars are always pulling in and out of the 7-11 parking lot. "It gets busy just before 2am with people from the bars," Scweitzer says. "That''s the only rush, people trying to buy beer before we lock it up at 2 o''clock. I''m real busy until 2:30, then it slacks off. By 4 or 5, the morning coffee crowd starts."
Schweitzer figures he goes through 40 carafes of coffee from 5 to 7 in the morning. "People are in more of a hurry in the daytime," he notes.
Schweitzer has only been on the 7-11 night shift for a year, but night work is nothing new to him--he used to own a bar, and before that, he worked the graveyard shift building furniture in a Seventh Day Adventist factory in Washington.
"People stop by a lot to ask directions," he says. "After 2, 3 in the morning, it''s mostly local people. They come down for cigarettes, whatever. After a year, I know most of them by name."
AT 5:25 AM, an American Airlines pilot is striding out the front door of the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Monterey, on his way to an early morning flight.
Inside, Gonggi Thao and Hazel Lewis are close to wrapping up their night''s work at the front desk. As night auditors, not only do they balance the books from the day''s transactions, but they fill in as front desk clerk, concierge, operator, housekeeper and anything else guests need in the middle of the night.
What are some of the more unusual requests they''ve had? Both shrug. "A glass of milk?" Lewis offers. "We can do that." "Or hot water to make a Cup o'' Noodles," interjects Thao. Lewis has even pressed a guest''s clothes in the middle of the night. "We''re just like that," she says.
A more frequent request, and one they''re not able to handle as well, is when guests want to go out on the town in the wee hours, and are looking for a hot all-night club or dance spot. "We say, you''re in Monterey," Lewis says, laughing.
Both women chose the night shift so they could be at home with their young children during the day. "My husband wasn''t very happy at first, but I told him it''s for the kids, so we don''t have to leave them with strangers," Thao says. "I don''t trust anyone else to take care of my baby."
Lewis likes going to the supermarket when no one is there. Thao likes being able to watch her boys'' soccer games, take them to violin lessons, eat dinner with them, and still get to work on time.
"It works out really well for me now," says Thao. "But if I wasn''t a mother, maybe I''d have second thoughts about this shift."
BY 6AM, the first rays of light are beginning to peek out over the Salinas hills. Kesha Turner is on her bike, headed home. Stephanie Scheifelbein is out delivering bagels. Mitzi Contreras and Neil Schweitzer have an hour to go on their shifts, and Joe Migliori is getting ready for the early morning local newscast. Ted Black should be sleeping like a baby, unless he''s still up watching "Gilligan''s Island."
There are a few more cars on the road, and a couple of early risers are already waiting for buses at the Monterey transit station. Another day has begun, picking up where the night left off.