One of the great things about NYC is that it runs on a 24-hour cycle. At any given time you can find a complete meal, get assistance for any kind of emergency, or find quality entertainment (which holds a wide range of interpretations).
Keeping the city open to all kinds of possibilities means that there is a workforce standing by at all hours to assist in making it easy to find a ride or a sandwich, or in the case of my job, immediate medical care. We are like vampires, coming out when the sun leaves and going into darkness during the day to attempt to rest. These unnatural sleep habits transform us into another undesirable creature: the mindless zombie who is hungry, slow, and, of course, exhausted.
As a paramedic who works these unconventional hours, I often hear people say things like, "I could never work overnight. My body isn't designed that way." Or they indicate that they believe the body can adjust to the time change or you get used to it. None of this is true.
The circadian rhythm is ingrained in our mammalian bodies. There are many reasons why human beings are designed to follow the patterns of lightness and darkness that rotate with the sun and the moon. Our species functions better in the light. It's the reason behind jet lag and seasonal depression. Our bodies desperately want to sleep when it's dark outside and if we don't comply they will turn us into benign and cranky monsters to punish us.
There are many reasons why we choose to work these unusual hours. In my case, and that of my Emergency Medical Service coworkers, we do so because of better working conditions. Sure, we might be bleary-eyed and perpetually tired but we get paid a little more, there's less bureaucratic supervision, and the call volume is generally lower and far more interesting.
For many of us, working while sleep-deprived is an acceptable trade-off. It's also more than that. We feel a camaraderie with each other. There are fewer of us and it makes us more loyal to one another.
The zombie-vampire hybrid that is created under these somewhat extreme conditions understands the adaptations needed to function like regular people. We have a universal appreciation for the extra-special role caffeine plays in our lives. We dislike the same things (leaf-blowers, loud music blaring from car windows, any sounds that we feel are unnecessary). We've tried every method invented to allow us to function when we are awake. We know all about pharmaceuticals geared to us. All of us have difficulty scheduling things that seem routine, given our erratic sleep schedule, and we have to plan out certain events to make sure we don't accidentally sleep through them.
Our well-rested paramedic cohorts do the same calls as we do but at night a certain underbelly makes itself known under the cover of that darkness. The shortage of disapproving glances from respectable peers (who are getting their rest at home to prepare for their daily responsibilities) allows certain individuals to make questionable decisions and engage in activities they would normally steer clear of. The result of these activities often makes up the bulk of my job responsibilities.
As I start my next shift in the rotation I think about how different the city is for me and others like me. It feels as if the roles we all play are only secondary characters to the part-time revelers who have chosen to join our neon-lit reality.
My first call of the night involves alcohol. It often does.
The sun has barely exited our existence in this section of the planet and already a drunk driver has crashed into a row of parked cars. The inebriated woman started out being the only person we were dealing with until a few of the residents came out of their homes to look at their vehicles. More than one of the car owners is visibly furious with the woman who seems oblivious to the thousands of dollars in damage her irresponsibility caused.
One of the men who comes over to survey the damage works for a budget car service. His shift was supposed to start in a few hours and without his vehicle, he is unable to earn his living. He is clearly distraught, wondering how much insurance will payout for the older car. The police officer offers advice about engineering a civil suit with the insurer but you can tell that both of them are aware that the car service driver is probably going to be screwed out of his livelihood. His immediate and future plans have all changed thanks to the careless act of a drunk woman who, at the moment, is talking on her phone about her persecution by city agencies who are adamant that she go to the hospital.
Although my entire purpose at this particular location is caring for the drunk driver, my loyalties are immediately directed towards the taxi driver.
The taxi driver is one of my people. He is a version of the zombie-vampire hybrid. He is someone who knows what it's like to try and sleep while beams of sunlight seek every available way in through drawn curtains and gaps in blinds. No doubt, we both share the same anger when a frivolous phone call interrupts those precious few minutes of REM or when a religious group decides to randomly ring the doorbell to distribute literature that could just as easily go in the mail slot.
His job is dangerous and he does it anyway, probably because he has few other options. Whatever his reasons, this poor man is essential. He is someone out here who provides an important service to people like me while the rest of the city sleeps.
I regard the drunk driver with disgust. She seems to have no idea that she's destroyed a man's livelihood, the livelihood of one of us night people.
If she is concerned, she's not showing it. I believe that when she's sober she'll rationalize that hers was a victimless endeavor. She's probably under the impression that everyone has full coverage and that insurance companies are quick to write a generous check. I want her in jail.
For the next few hours, the assignments are similarly disappointing.
It starts to rain during the exact hour that I get called to a fire. I have to stand outside with my protective gear as cold water drips down from the sky. I note a few bicycles driving by delivering things and I wonder how many deliveries take place this late. I also notice that they pedal their bicycles covered in plastic bags and I feel ashamed for having been annoyed about donning my heavy jacket and waterproof pants.
I go to a cardiac and to an asthma call. Everyone in the respective homes has been woken up out of sleep. They don't seem to be all that impressed that we can calculate drug dosages so quickly while our circadian rhythms fight us but we don't care. Internally we know this is an accomplishment and we pat ourselves on the back for it. I think there is a long list of normal tasks that require extraordinary efforts when you're working against thousands of years of evolution.
When I finally get a chance, I head to one of the few stores still open after midnight. My partner sitting at the desk calls me to say that the station needs a few miscellaneous cleaning supplies. Apparently, these are items that shouldn't wait until the next tour comes in.
On line in front of me is a man wearing only yellow-stained tighty-whitey underwear and a pair of mismatched socks (no shoes). He's got a long, red beard with the remains of a few meals still being held in reserve within its tangled mass but he is otherwise hairless. The long-bearded man has apparently shaved his entire body; there are a few red bumps clustered in various areas which remind me that I am standing too close.
When he reaches the cashier, he places his intended beer purchase on the counter as he sifts through the front of his stained underwear for cash. The man behind the register gives me a look of mostly concealed exasperation that I recognize well. It's a look I'm sure I've projected myself on numerous occasions.
I place my items on a nearby display and wordlessly hand the cashier a pair of latex gloves I keep in my pocket. The cashier maintains his expression but I can feel his gratitude as he puts them on to accept payment.
When it's my turn, he mouths an exaggerated "thank you," and our eyes move towards the red-bearded man who is lingering near the exit. He has put his two six-packs on the ground, raises a fist in the air, and tilts his head back as if he is about to howl like a werewolf.
Instead, he yells at the top of his lungs, "I will have my revenge, Agamemnon!"
Then, he quietly picks up his six packs and exits into the freezing December air with a smug and satisfied smile.
I look at my cashier friend, the same man who always seems to be working whenever our station is in need of emergency cleaning supplies that can't wait until morning, and we exchange a telepathic bond of solidarity.
Regardless of whether he howled or not, werewolves are a different kind of mythical creature and not included in our dead-of-night work bonding. Those who embrace the nightlife, only temporarily and at the times and places of their choosing, are not part of the alliance. They are partying. We are dealing with their aftermath, for the most part.
My next call is an elderly woman. She has Alzheimer's and a neighbor called 911 because they thought she was being murdered. When we arrive we can hear her from behind the locked door. She doesn't say anything coherent and she can't answer the door. The reason becomes apparent after the police take down the door, which is a long procedure as it entails waiting for the Emergency Services Unit with their specialized tools.
We find the woman duct-taped to a recliner. No one else is in the home and nothing appears to be disturbed. Her upper body is wound with tape. Her hands can reach out and get the bottle of open water sitting on a tray near the chair along with a remote control and a phone. The offending roll of tape sits on a counter in the kitchen. Clearly, the woman didn't tape herself to the chair.
After more than an hour, it is discovered that her paid caregiver did so, before leaving. The caregiver left to pick up a few emergency supplies of her own. She didn't want to take the elderly woman with her. Going by the route she gave in her story, she seemed to take her time getting back. The caregiver must have been trying to relish her alternative night reality, in my way of seeing it. She was one of us but she wanted to feel like one of them, if only for an errand.
The caregiver was arrested and the woman went to the hospital with no apparent need other than for supervision purposes.
Next, I go on another call that makes me question humanity. It involved a child and neglectful parent and at the end of it, I feel a plethora of emotions that will probably file themselves away in my subconscious, awaiting the opportunity to disrupt what little quality sleep I get with terrible images to remind me of this night.
I know that I can get counseling to deal with these PTSD calls. My job makes the services available to me and on occasion, I've called on them. But I've often found that comfort from my peers works just as well.
Now, it's two am. There are still more than three hours to go in my shift. I am headed to my equivalent of the kindly bartender of lore. The shoulder I will cry on serves up caffeine with a heavy dose of sugary syrup. Sarah knows all about my sweet tooth.
All of the civil servants in my area know Sarah. She works at the Dunkin Donuts on Knickerbocker and she has the proverbial heart of gold. She is, most definitely, one of us. She works the overnight, serving up our all-important caffeine, with a smile that hides her sleep deprivation better than the rest of us.
She understands disruptive people because she deals with a big share of them herself. The same drunk people who get into fights and/or think harassment is humorous show up at her place of business with the same bravado and substance-enhanced confidence that we are used to. Some of her customers have been my patients. In fact, we've treated some overdoses in her store's bathroom.
Her friendly attitude gives the impression she's relieved to finally see us. Her overnight compadres have arrived. I sometimes feel that she is doing it for our benefit, to make our welcome extra special.
We refer to each other as coworkers, and I genuinely feel as if she is. I have the same bond with her as I do with my friends riding around in ambulances. We are part of the same sleep-deprived club fighting the same light-dependent rhythms.
Sarah and all the people I encounter during my shift, share a bond. They are not always as personal as the friendship I share with my barista, but they are important nonetheless.
The people I spend my evening-into-early-mornings with are my heroes. They deal with the same clientele, the same chaos, but without the same resources. Many of them did not choose to work these uncomfortable hours and many of them do not get an acceptable trade-off in extra pay and better experiences.
These essential night-time laborers often work alone, without someone to help them with a sudden problem or get them emergency supplies in the middle of the night. They can get overwhelmed and are frequently outnumbered by their customers. They do not have access to police protection that arrives as quickly as my radio would summon.
These essential workers don't get the same recognition my counterparts employed by the city do. Most are earning minimum wage without a night shift differential and there's probably no overtime. My fellow EMS people have much to complain about the way we are treated but they have even more.
My retail coworkers are often immigrants whose impressions of this country are being shaped by a different reality than those of their daytime counterparts. I would like to think they see a better city, but they get bits and pieces of the worst at a time when statistically they are more vulnerable.
There is much to love about NYC at night. We are proud of our "city that never sleeps logo" because some of us literally don't. We have amazing nightlife, interesting things to do 24 hours a day, and outstanding restaurants serving up food until the sun comes up. All of this comes with a staff standing by to make those experiences safer and more enjoyable. These workers are important. They are necessary. They are essential. And they are loved and appreciated by the rest of us who need them more than everyone else.