Spending the Night with the Graveyard Shift

Nov 30, 2011 at 12am

Nm_story-26For some at San Francisco’s local newswire, the stint lasts a few months – for others, a few years. I lasted 10 nights.  

It only took that long for me to realize that I’m a terrible day sleeper. The morning after my first training, I stepped out of the office at 7:15 a.m. feeling nauseous and tingly all over. Bleary-eyed, I inched upstream like a dying salmon past the hordes of sharply dressed commuters to catch the BART train heading away from downtown. Once home, I stared at my computer for as long as my eyelids would stay open, slept for a few hours, and spent the rest of the day trapped in a perma-zombie daze until my next shift. 

It wasn’t a good situation for me, but a handful of people actually enjoy the odd hours. And, in retrospect, if I had been tough enough to stick it out, I think I would have enjoyed getting to know a different side of San Francisco – a much quieter, more shadowy city than most people get to see.

 The following collection of photos by Joseph Schell and my accompanying descriptions is both homage to San Francisco’s night shift workforce and an attempt to capture some stories from people who know this side of the city better than anyone.  

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Pinecrest Diner is one of four 24-hour food joints located near one another off Union Square. Morena Hernandez has worked as a waitress at Pinecrest for the past 19 years – four of which were spent on the night shift. Highlights from her experience include breaking up drunken brawls, waking up customers who have fallen face first in their food, and developing a close working relationship with local law enforcement. These days she gets to pick and choose when she works overnight. She comes in occasionally just to help out because, “I know how to manage all the drunks.”  

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Working overnights in the Tenderloin, there’s not much Dave Thompson hasn’t seen. Dave keeps track of the comings and goings of the roughly 75 tenants who live in the city-funded SRO called the Pacific Bay Inn. Dave said that about five of those tenants are “night people” (“I call them vampires,” he added) who go out only at night. After eight years in the same building, Dave has built a rapport with local residents. At the same time, “they know I’m no nonsense,” he said. “This is my job and I have to explain that to them. I’m not their friend. But I talk to them. Because I’m a people person. How can you not be when you work with so many people?”

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Melinda Moran was hired to work the night shift at the ballpark to provide extra support during World Series games. The graveyard staff combs the stands after all the fans have cleared out and then sorts the 20-plus tons of trash into piles of compostables, recyclables, and dump-bound items. Some of the more interesting tidbits Melinda has found so far include a pair of underwear, a dead rat, $300, and poop in a cup. After working a full night shift, Melinda heads straight to school, where she is training to become a dentist. She says she gets a few hours of sleep in when she’s not doing homework. Melinda’s 75-year-old grandmother also works overnight maintenance at the ballpark. “She doesn’t want to quit,” Melinda says. “She loves the Giants.” 

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At midnight, the postal service plant is bustling. Mail goes out around 4 a.m., so by 12 the deadline is approaching. The fluorescent lighting and constant cacophony of the mail sorting machines help workers like Michael Lam stay awake. Michael has been working the night shift on and off at the postal plant for the past 25 years. Although the holiday rush never changes, he has seen the number of employees shrink over the years with the increasing popularity of email. 

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Sleep deprivation does not appear to be in Uriel Escoria’s vocabulary. “This is my office,” he says, cheerily listing off the amenities of his ambulance. He had already been up for 24 hours plus and had at least seven to go. Granted, Uriel has been working the night shift for only a few months now (he has been an EMT with American Medical Response for two years). But he shows no signs of slowing down. He and his shift partner, 29-year-old Brian Kim, say their busiest nights are typically the first of the month when welfare checks go out to the homeless, and during full moons. “This job isn’t for the faint of heart,” Uriel adds. 

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“Will” (not his real name) started his driving career at 19. Four years ago he started working as a driver for Haydar Alhakim’s taxi service. San Franciscans know Alhakim’s cab as the “Disco Taxi,” which is an understated descriptor for anyone who has ever taken a ride in the virtual club-on-wheels. The vehicle is equipped with a spinning disco light and lined with tubes that glow and sparkle to the beat of the surround sound Lady Gaga or Darude, or pretty much any club favorite you would ever want to hear. Will says the most difficult overnight shifts usually involve customers passing out in the backseat and the best ones involve smooches from good-looking lady passengers. 

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