Monday, April 25, 2005

Night and the City and Me

When most people go home, I go to work.

I work the night shift at a market research firm in Manhattan, where I am paid to watch TV shows I wouldn’t normally watch under the threat of death. From "Yes, Dear" to NASCAR, I’ll look at anything for 20 bucks an hour. Call me a media whore if you want,I won’t be offended. I’m too tired.

It’s only three nights a week, but it feels like seven. I’ve only been there a month but it feels like years. My schedule varies so that I work weekends, holidays, and all the other times normal people are having fun.

Going into the office, I have to fight a line of day workers streaming out of the subway station on their way home. Some nights, if I’m covering a late show, I won’t actually put my fingers to the keyboard until 11 pm. Most nights I don’t get home until 2 am. I’ve stayed out this late, even later, before but never for a damn job.

When I was a kid going out for a night on the town with my buddies, my mother would always say “don’t come home mezzanote,” using the Italian word for midnight. With this gig, coming home mezzanote would be a blessing.

Coming out of the office, I find the streets of this huge city are surprisingly empty. On weekends, the town is buzzing with herds of rushing taxis and packs of cell phone wielding club-goers. But early in the week, the city that never sleeps does slow down a little. The other night I didn’t leave the office until 3 am—even the rats had called it a night.

The wind blows cold at night, even in the spring. Stores are shuttered, saloons are empty. Routine noises are magnified, so a sound that is just a member of the crash chorus during the day becomes a solo performer after sundown. Glass breaking, brakes squealing, people shouting, I hear it all.

I take on a dual personality walking through these barren canyons, an invisible king, lord of all I survey, and a potential target, wary of approaching strangers and sudden moves.

I like to walk by the Met Life building, where the limo drivers hang out to smoke while people much more successful than I am move and shake things until it’s time to catch a luxury ride home.

I always look up at this point, to the passageway that connects the two buildings on the street, and higher, to the clock tower, standing tall over the street like a medieval watch tower. It’s so surreal, especially when it’s raining and misty; I almost forget how late it is.

The subways are scarce and thinly populated. Station workers hose down the platforms, which doesn’t seem to help much. When a train finally does arrive, it moves so slowly, as if it's trying to tiptoe into the station without being seen.

Work crews ride the trains from one job to another, sitting in the same seats that will hold harried commuters a few hours later. Last night I was the only person in my car who didn’t have a hard hat and a sledge hammer.

Most of the other people on the train this time of night are quiet, suspended somewhere between sleep and consciousness. I caught myself one evening reading a newspaper over a woman’s shoulder, which was not only was it rude, but also a little strange as she was reading a Chinese paper.

One late Sunday night, an elderly black man got on board at Eighth Street, bowed to the handful of passengers and launched into a ranting lecture about the need for people to be kind to one another. He managed to cover such diverse topics as the death of Pope John Paul and old school dances like the Mashed Potato and the Hucklebuck.

“We live in the hood,” the old guy said repeatedly with great emphasis, “not Hollywood.”

He maintained his right to speak, declaring, "I bite my tongue for no man." I reached into my pocket, anticipating a plea for change, but after he finished, the N train orator shambled off to the next car. Some people just need a stage.

I was leaving the office last week when the elevator stopped dead after going down only one floor. For a second I thought I was trapped, but the door opened and a young woman got on board. She looked surprised at seeing another life form and a little nervous about being alone with a stranger for a late night elevator ride.

But she also had the sympathetic look I’ve seen from other night people, a mixture of disbelief and reassurance that says, what, you, too?

“I didn’t think anyone else was working this late,” she said finally.

Me neither. We chatted briefly on the descent to the lobby and I wish I could tell you that this chance meeting blossomed into a beautiful romance. But when we reached the ground floor, she said good night, quickly walked out the door and turned right on Park Avenue South while I went left.

I hate this job, I hate working these hours. Every night when I go into the office, I swear I’m going to quit, but I know that’s a lie. I can’t do that, not until I find something else, so it looks like I’ll have to bite my tongue and keep coming home mezzanote for the foreseeable future.

I live in the hood, not Hollywood.

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