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Night Owls

the night shift
Janet Orsi

Graveyard shift workers brave death, danger, and boredom after dark

By Zack Stentz

SCIENCE FICTION is replete with stories of parallel universes, entire worlds that exist alongside our own, but remain unseen to the oblivious inhabitants of this mundane reality. But an alternate universe actually does exist, right here in Sonoma County. We see its inhabitants every day, buying groceries at 10 a.m. with bleary eyes, or passing us on the highway late at night, heading to work in pressed suits or nylon clerk uniforms while we're coming home from a late evening out on the town.

They're the workers of the night shift, the folks who keep Sonoma County running while the rest of us slumber. And while we may not always recognize them, they can usually spot each other. "You get into the night routine, you see the same people," says Bob Pitkin, who often works the night shift at Santa Rosa Billiards. "Sometimes we acknowledge each other."

"Yeah, we all talk to each other," agrees service station clerk Fred Atkinson, "'cause we get the same freaks. One of us will say, 'Hey, did the old guy missing a finger come in tonight?'"

Atkinson says he was lured into his shift by the prospect of higher wages, but has come to relish the calm and solitude that often comes with the territory. "I took this shift because I needed the money, and night shift pays a little more," he says. "Some parts are nice. We get very few customers, and there's no boss to bother you. You get time to yourself, to think."

"I prefer to work at night," agrees Santa Rosa police officer Rider. "I can respond to a call a lot faster without the traffic. I'm less of a slave to the radio, and have more of an opportunity to discover crimes on my own."

"I don't mind working this shift at all," agrees Jenny, a waitress at a Santa Rosa coffee shop who declines to give her last name. She describes her regular late-night customers as "pretty normal. It's mostly elderly people, and teens who have come back from parties but don't want to go home yet."

"During the day shift, there's an abundance of people and energy, which creates a lot of stress for everyone," confirms Michele Adelman, a Petaluma nurse who has worked the night shift in various Sonoma County hospitals on and off for 15 years. "Night people are calmer people, and you don't have administration breathing down your neck."

Adelman also enjoys the other benefits that come from bucking society's diurnal focus. "It frees up other times of the day for me, which really works well for me as a single mom," she says. "I can pick up and drop off my son at school, and spend evenings with him. We end up having six or seven hours a day together. It's also the best shift for having a social life. I can socialize, have dinner, or go to a movie before I go to work."

Her most unusual nighttime perk? "It has to be when the midnight babies are born on New Year's morning," Adelman replies. "We had one born four minutes after midnight one year."

Adelman is aided by what she admits is the rather extraordinary ability to function well on less than 5 hours sleep per 24 hours. "It's great I can function like that," she says. "I feel like I've got eight or nine days in each week."

Much more common is the case of fellow Sonoma County nurse Laura Close, who says: "I wouldn't say that I enjoy it, but you learn how to make it work. It's a matter of training your body. Most of us don't do it full-time, but revert back and forth between the day and night shifts."

Adelman recognizes that not all of her fellow night-shift workers function as smoothly on a nocturnal cycle. "I do have to be very clear, concise, and direct with physicians. A lot of them aren't used to being awake and at work at that time of night."

That a nocturnal falling off of abilities takes place isn't difficult to believe. Looking at my own notes from interviews with night-shift workers, I see my penmanship get steadily sloppier and more crabbed as the evening progresses. By 4 a.m. or so, it resembles a page of diagonally etched cuneiform writing more than anything approaching written English. And my coherence, as revealed by the tape recorder, degenerates into slurred syllables, non sequiturs, and sentence fragments by the pre-dawn hours.

With this foe of drowsiness in common, it's unsurprising that a feeling of comradeship would develop between those who battle sleep together. "There's definitely an understanding between people who work at night," says Close. "A lot of conversations center around how much sleep you've had. You know, 'How many hours did you get?'"

THE BIOLOGICAL reasons behind nighttime lassitude are well documented and include a drop in core body temperature and fluctuating levels of hormones like cortisol, ACTH, and human growth hormone. One of the most famous sleep-inducing hormones is melatonin, which many night-shift workers use to help reset the body's internal clock to be ready for sleep at odd hours.

Short of tinkering with one's hormonal balance, Dr. Donald Greenblatt of the Sleep Disorders Center in Rochester, N.Y., recommends that night-shift workers stay alert by keeping their surroundings brightly lit (so much for bartending!), lowering the temperature of the working environment, keeping as physically active as possible, and taking brief rest periods. Many night-shift workers have stumbled across these and other techniques independent of the academic research, as anyone who has switched on the air conditioner to keep alert during a long nighttime drive can attest. "I try to take a few minutes to rest," says Adelman. "And I use a sleep mask when I sleep during the day."

In spite of these preventative measures, even a certified night owl like Adelman can sometimes succumb and fall into the arms of Morpheus. "I remember one night I was working at about 1 a.m. and was just exhausted," she recalls. "I had a full board of patients, and I just leaned my head against the counter for a second. Before I knew it, I had fallen asleep standing up."

But the consequences of bucking the human body's internal clock go far beyond sloppy handwriting and social embarrassment. Tick through a list of major industrial disasters in recent years, from Chernobyl to Bhopal to the Exxon Valdez, and you'll find that each occurred at night, with fatigue-induced sloppiness being implicated as a cause of the accident.

The Australian Department of Labor, for one, seems to take a perverse pleasure in collecting anecdotes of nocturnal industrial accidents that approach urban legend in their gruesomeness, as with one case when a night-shift supervisor at a textile mill went to check on a missing worker. "To his horror," the Department of Labor's bulletin melodramatically reports, "the deceased's body was hanging from the beam, only partly visible, and completely wrapped in the yarn."

THIS ISN'T THE BEST place in the world to be a night person. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Sonoma is more like the county that gets a little cranky after 10 p.m. It wasn't always like this, recalls Santa Rosa Billiards worker Sandy Dettling, as she watches her customers rack up for a few midnight rounds of pool. "This town used to be a really neat place to be at night," she recalls. "But that all started changing about five years ago. Now it just dies out after 8 o'clock."

Dettling's own establishment stays open until 1 a.m. most of the time, and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. "We could stay open till 4 a.m.," says fellow worker Pitkin, "but it's not worth it to us to have to deal with some of the jerks who come in that late. Some of the people at that time of morning, let's just say their headlights are on high beam."

But the chemically altered folks who seem to form such a large portion of the clientele at many nocturnal establishments are nowhere to be found at Gold's Gym on Fifth Street, where an ascetic commitment to self-improvement reigns instead. While Gold's is not open 24 hours like some urban fitness centers, a surprising number of exercise enthusiasts can be found going through their solitary routines right up until the gym's midnight closing. "The people here right now, they're not here for the social scene," says employee Miles Hadden, motioning to the patrons who grunt and strain with only their reflections in the wall mirrors for an audience. "The night people are the ones who are serious about working out."

Indeed, evicting the late-night fitness enthusiasts this night proves more difficult than last call at a meth users' bar, leading Hadden to jokingly threaten to release poison gas unless the patrons hustle out the door within five minutes. The last do at around 12:15 a.m., wandering off to their cars and, presumably, home.

By 12:30 a.m., the streets of Sonoma County get even quieter. Even the Domino's Pizza in Rohnert Park, last resort of SSU potheads with the late-night munchies, is closing down. A knot of local youths hangs out at the liquor store next door, looking to buy alcohol and beef jerky. Asked what nighttime recreational opportunities Rohnert Park offers him and his friends, a teen identifying himself as Jason Thompson says in disgust: "Nothin'. Drive around, smoke blunts, drink 40s [malt liquor]."

Soon they too head off home, leaving the night to the people Atkinson calls "spunions--you know, meth users and freaks are usually the only people awake. Coffee, cigs, and donuts, that's all any of them order at that time of night."

Launching into a speed-rap reminiscent of Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs or one of the characters in Kevin Smith's Clerks, the fast, funny, and vulgar service station clerk Atkinson makes his early-morning customers sound like extras from a Fellini or David Lynch film. Atkinson says he sees many of the same people night after night, and anoints them with nicknames that make them sound like the punch lines to a series of tasteless Native American jokes. "Yeah, we've got 'Leaky Face,' and 'Guy Who Talks to the Doughnuts,'" he says. "One of my regulars, he came in the other night and there was this awful stench. It was only when he turned around to leave that I saw that he had shit himself and was wearing his pants on inside out.

"Cops also stop in every once in a while, and so do ambulance drivers. The worst is when the bus transporting the prisoners to Pelican Bay [the ultra-maximum security prison in Del Norte County] stops in so the prisoners can use the bathroom. It's so disgusting in there when they leave."

Asked about the most bizarre nocturnal visitors he's encountered, Atkinson thinks a moment, then replies: "There was this one time these two chicks tried to pick me up. They were asking me if I wanted to go into the back room, but I took one look at them and thought, 'Not with my brother's dick, man.' They were missing teeth and stuff."

Aside from the prospect of such close encounters, there's also the specter of robbery and violent death lurking in the background of the night shift, especially for these workers who toil alone behind the counter at 24-hour retail establishments. "I get scared sometimes," admits Atkinson. "I've never been robbed, but the Shell station down on Cleveland Avenue was."

Atkinson's fears aren't idle ones, but in fact are borne out by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration's statistics. According to OSHA, clerks in small retail establishments made up 50 percent of the 1,071 workplace fatalities reported in 1994. Of those victims, fully 69 percent were killed while working between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. That's 370 dead night-shift clerks over the course of a year. When stacked up against the 162 police officers killed in the line of duty in 1995 (including deaths from on-duty heart attacks, car crashes, and other causes, not just homicides), it would seem that those danger-seeking souls lusting to put themselves in the path of a bullet would be better off tendering a job application at the local mini-mart than the police force.

Some night workers seem downright fatalistic about the risks they take. "I'll probably get robbed someday," says Lance, a night-shift attendant at a Windsor service station. "But I don't worry about it. We get all the local gang members in here, but I'm mellow to them, and they never give me any problems. A lot of night-shift workers cop an attitude with their customers, and that's where the trouble starts."

To a disturbing extent, the victims of this trouble are those other pillars of the low-wage night shift, cab drivers. While retail clerks have a shockingly high occupational fatality rate of 23 per 100,000, cab drivers come in at over 50 dead per 100,000, which puts them in a risk category with coal miners and deep-sea divers.

So, as 4 a.m. approaches with the first signs of dawn only minutes away, I search the streets looking for a taxi driver to interview, hoping for one who'll give me lots of Travis Bickle-like quotes about all the animals coming out at night and rain washing the scum off the streets. Luck is on my side. A lone taxicab idles along the side of Santa Rosa Avenue, near the downtown transit center. I approach slowly, hoping he won't mistake me for a late-night crazy, but stop short of rapping on his passenger window when I see him slumped against the wheel of his vehicle. OSHA's mortality statistics fresh in my mind, I recoil in shock and panic before realizing that the driver is the victim of nothing more sinister than his own circadian rhythms. The poor man is fast asleep.

Time to call it a night.

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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