When they first moved to the Big Apple ten years ago writers Russell Leigh Sharman and Cheryl Harris Sharman were renting an apartment in East Harlem from a man who was landlord by day and a custodian in a Times Square hotel by night. It was during this time that the Sharmans began to find an understanding for those who work the graveyard shift in the city that never sleeps. Through the years whether it was because of trying to stay quite during the day in respect of the man who’d been working the night away or because of the countless other graveyard shift workers they’d met in immigrant dominated East Harlem where 24 hour businesses are a commodity, the Sharmans developed a need to explore and expose the rarely noticed but ever present crew of workers who toil away in NYC, going to work when the rest of us are at play. Nightshift NYC is the story of transformation where the changing of the hours from light to dark transcends vice in an eternal game of role reversal. It is the story of suspension when the rules of the day no longer apply and the men and women who scratch their living within these hours.
At 3:30 am on a brisk November night, dozens of bodies are strewn about the waiting area of the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) in Penn Station. Couples lie passed out in each other’s arms, young women sulk in clusters of three and four, and young men vomit into trashcans. These are the casualties of Manhattan nightlife waiting for the nightly “drunk train” to carry them back to the Long Island suburbs. A backlit board of train routes and their track numbers shines overhead, and the few alert passengers wait impatiently to learn the track number for the next train to Long Beach. Several strands of white twinkle lights hang overhead, premature holiday decorations. Metropolitan Transit Authority and state police officers stand nearby, bemused by the display of semipublic drunkenness, especially the young women who’ve long since ceased to care whether or not their tiny dresses are covering anything important. One young woman passes by, talking to her friends about her high heels, “I’m seeing stars but I’m not taking mine off.” Penn Station, on the west side of Manhattan just south of Times Square, is a city within the city. There is a main street with its row of shops, half of which stay open around the clock. There is a police station and a small army of officers on patrol. There is even a plaza, a place to gather if not actually interact. And there is, of course, plenty of transportation—it is the busiest train station in North America. There is all of this, and despite the baroque muzak piped into speakers throughout the warren of passageways, there are few places more deadening to the senses in the nighttime city.
It was not always so.
New Yorkers of a certain age knew Pennsylvania Station as a stone temple to transportation. Starting in 1902, it took nearly a decade for legions of laborers to complete, and when it was finished it had consumed a half million cubic feet of granite, hundreds of buildings, and eight acres of real estate. From 1911 to 1965, Penn Station welcomed travelers to New York City with soaring columns and the full force of the sun piercing a web of iron and glass 150 feet overhead.
Built to last for generations, it barely made it past the age of 50. The efficiency of air transportation undermined the dominance of railroads at midcentury, and office space was at a premium. It took less than a year to dismantle the old building and only three to sink the new one into the ground. The destruction of Penn Station outraged many New Yorkers, and inspired the founding of the Landmarks Preservation Commission that would eventually save Grand Central Station from a similar fate.
Pete Hamill, in his book Downtown, writes of what it was like to pass by the demolition in 1965. “I was not alone,” he writes, “gazing at this immense act of municipal vandalism and whispering, You bastards. You stupid goddamned bastards.”
Now Penn Station is a maze of underground platforms serving Amtrak, the LIRR, and the New York City subway system. Low-slung corridors serve the various levels, connected by a range of chain stores and eateries, a handful of which stay open all night. A diverse crew of nightshift workers keeps the trickle and flow of off-hour commuters fed and entertained until the last train whisks them away.
A number appears on the big board in the LIRR waiting area, the 3:49 to Long Beach, track #14. The lifeless partygoers miraculously rouse themselves and herd down the steps and onto the departing train.
The train itself is overcrowded and already starting to smell of sweat, liquor, and the pungent odor of alcohol-infused vomit. Young women sit on their dates’ laps, and dozens stand in the aisles. Some are jostled into sleep again; others recount the misadventures of a night on the town.
“Where ya been? In the city? Whadya do?”
“Fuckin’ clubbed it up. It fuckin’ sucked.”
A girl of no more than twenty coughs into her mobile phone a few minutes past 4 am, “I think I’m gonna call it a night.”
The train rolls out into the night air just past Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and continues out to the edge of Queens, stopping here and there along the way. Conductors make their way down the crowded aisles, doing their best to check for tickets and collect the fare from those who did not purchase a ticket in the station. Inevitably, someone refuses to pay. This time it’s Vince, a thickset young man still pulling from his last beer in a brown paper bag. Two more conductors appear from either end of the car, large men who somehow look even larger in their boyish uniforms and pert conductor hats. Vince unwisely challenges their authority.
The train makes an unscheduled stop and the three conductors manhandle Vince off the train, along with a couple of his friends. The conductor explains, “He didn’t have a ticket and he didn’t want to pay for it. That’s what happens when you get a little beer in you.” With the excitement over, the conductor is able to laugh about it. “It’s alright,” he says. “We don’t like to throw them off but he wanted to get thrown off.
Usually they’re just blah blah blah, but if they get up,” he pauses, then adds simply, “He got in my face.”
The train rolls past the edge of the city, out onto Long Island. The crowd thins and quiets down with each stop.
Valley Stream, 4:23 am.
Lynbrook, 4:26 am.
Beer, pizza crusts, and other detritus litter the floor, along with a fair amount of bodily fluids. A few guys standing near the door recount some of their favorite drunk train stories, most involving sex on the train. Like the couple who stripped bare and had sex in the seats of a crowded train.
The reaction of the crowd? “They threw money at them.”
Two couples in their forties sit near the end of one of the cars, scandalized by the carnival on display. They are on their way back to Oceanside from a fortieth birthday party in Manhattan. One of the women tries to speak, but hiccups violently, the other describes the scene back at Penn Station: the couples passed out on the floor, the young kids getting sick, and one girl she remembers in particularly bad shape, “A Chinese girl, oh, excuse me, Oriental.” The men accompanying them say nothing, amused grins on their faces.
Oceanside, 4:32 am.
The train pulls into Long Beach at 4:45 am with only a few passengers. The others disembarked all along the line, trudging home to sleep off the night. After a few minutes, a new train pulls out of the station heading back into Manhattan. Cups of coffee replace cans of beer, and the clubbing clothes have been changed for briefcases and hard hats.
Jill, a bright-eyed, red-haired conductor in her forties, makes her way down the aisle of the jarringly quiet train punching tickets and greeting passengers. “Good morning,” she says with a smile. It’s the end of her nightshift on the LIRR and she is looking forward to a day off. With a laugh she says, “I say ‘Good Morning’ all night long. It’s morning twenty-four hours a day!”
Jill’s been on the job for seven months and does not seem to mind the nightshift hours. “It took me awhile to get my train legs,” she says, standing firm against the swaying of the fast-moving train, “but I have them now.” Before this she worked days for a large company and never worked a weekend. “It was a normal job. I wore suits, stockings.” But according to Jill, there was no future and, as a single mother, the job at the LIRR offered opportunities for advancement. “I wanted stability and look what I got,” she says laughing.
Her shift varies day to day, but she works six and sometimes seven days a week. As winter approaches, conductors who’ve been on the job longer will return from vacation and her shifts will become even more unpredictable. Usually she works the overnight shift, or the occasional “half night,” 5 am to 1 pm. She admits this variability can wear on her. “I lose track of days, hours.” But she can always tell when its approaching 4 am, especially on the weekends. “I heard the kids were pukin’ all night,” she says, referring to the train that pulled in from Penn Station. She also heard about the incident with Vince. None of it seems surprising, she’s seen it all herself. “Halloween. That was the night you had to ride the train! That was the best night to ride the train. It was like a circus train.” She laughs and recounts stories to rival those of fellow passengers. “I’ve seen girls helping out their boyfriends,” she says. “She just holds up the ticket.” She shakes her head and says, “I mean, we all like to do that in the privacy of our own homes, but . . .”
The train rolls through the same stations it passed on the way out before it plunges into darkness beneath the East River. Penn Station is moments away.