Observations from the late shift, after I spent a week working 8 p.m. till 4 a.m. in an ill-fated attempt to gather input from night workers on how to improve our production processes when all they want to talk about is how under-appreciated they are, how sleepy they are, and when are we going to do something about that guy who works in the corner and is always pissing people off:
- Prepare to be sickened by your fellow workers and their choices for foods appropriate to the middle of the night. Since they’re already used to an evening schedule, they have no trouble at all eating pizza or popcorn or leftover fish at 3:30 in the morning. I tried to be a nice guy by bringing in a dozen Domino’s pizzas one night, ostensibly to encourage their participation in my suggestion-gathering project. My generosity yielded at least two proposals — one was my own, and involved never bringing that much garlic into your car if you ever expect to get rid of it; and the other was that I shouldn’t believe the new Domino’s advertising campaign, because their pizzas still taste like crap.
- If you can hang on until about 2 in the morning without taking a break, you can accumulate your time for an hour-long power nap in your car. This is how most third-shifters spend their lunch period, and it’s surprising how few are found draped over their steering wheel with carbon monoxide poisoning the next morning. There are several important strategies to consider if you try this. Move your car away from the spots nearest the building entrance, so you don’t have co-workers pointing and laughing at your gaping, spittle-flecked maw. If you don’t want to lose that coveted parking space, simply encase your head in a paper bag, or sleep in the trunk. Tune your radio to the BBC World Service, so you can be soothed to sleep with English-accented reports on the European sovereign debt crisis. With our current heat wave, it was also essential to keep the car engine and air conditioner running throughout my nap. Be sure to place the transmission in park and set the brake, however. Due to my physically active sleep habits, I was tossing and turning and at one point, awakened to the gunning of the car motor when my foot slipped across the accelerator. You don’t want to wake up to find yourself barreling down the interstate with a bag draped over your face. This is certifiably unsafe.
- Sleep masks, while effective at blocking out the daylight, work poorly for someone who, like me, is a restless sleeper. On successive attempts, I awoke with it draped over my head like a toupee, wrapped several times around my left ear and, most troubling of all, binding my throat to my genitals.
- One afternoon, I awoke to find I had lost my pillowcase. I was pretty sure it was there when I went to bed around 6 a.m. but it was nowhere to be found seven hours later. I looked under the mattress, under the bed, in my pajamas — no sign of it. I did, however, have a disturbing fullness in my stomach, despite the fact I had snacked only lightly during the hours before I turned in. Fortunately, my wife revealed that she had laundered and failed to return the pillow case the previous evening, just in time for me to cancel the emergency intestinal surgery I had scheduled.
- If you do find yourself with little appetite when you wake up, try my recipe for a wonderfully light beverage I call “Air Coffee”: Add two tablespoons of coffee in the filter; pour fresh water into a separate measuring cup; turn on the coffeemaker; then carry the water down the hall while you use the bathroom. When you return a few minutes later, you’ll enjoy the faint smell of slightly burned coffee, a hot but empty coffee pot, and the distinct feeling you emptied the wrong liquid into the toilet.
- Realize that on third shift, the world is upside-down: today is tomorrow, breakfast is dinner, day is night, and the employee to your left is watching TV telephonically with her husband. If your loved one is up by the time you get home, you’ll talk about something that needs to be done “tomorrow” but you really mean “today.” Mondays begin at 11 p.m. and don’t end until after you wake up well into Tuesday. When people arrive for work at midnight, you say “good morning” and when they leave at 8 a.m. you say “good night.” You tell your supervisor that you really like your job and that the hours don’t bother you at all, when in fact you want to kill him.
- The topic of sleep becomes an all-consuming obsession for those who don’t get much. You’ll hear stories about the time in 1984 when a particular individual slept for seven-and-a-half hours straight, or reports that someone once had a dream. Monday conversations usually consist of a recounting of when and where weekend sessions of slumber took place (“I had the best nap during my daughter’s valedictorian address,” reported one mom. “I’m told I caught an 18-pound catfish out on the lake Saturday,” said one man. “And I tend to believe it because of the way I smelled.”) Any sign of rain portends what they call “good sleeping weather,” which I guess means they can wake up in the morning and not bother with a shower if they’ve slept in the yard.
- If nothing else, the lack of sleep makes for a wonderful set of excuses to be used in all kinds of occasions. After just a day or two of staying awake all night and struggling through a few uneven naps during the day, you can get away with virtually any error in judgment. Accidentally get engaged to a Palin? You were so tired that maybe you did, though you didn’t mean it. Chair the board of an oil-spilling energy company? Sorry, but you were so groggy you forget to consider basic safety regulations. Provoke a nuclear confrontation with North Korea? You didn’t think your argument at the corner market over getting the wrong change was going to escalate to quite that level.
Fortunately, there is assistance out there for those who have to work nights. A booklet titled “The ShiftWorkers Handbook,” published by the people at SyncroTech who espouse the patented ChronoCare approach to help the sleep-challenged, urges the frequent use of running two separate words together while keeping the second one capitalized as one method for managing your circadian rhythms. They also blame the arrival of indoor plumbing for the need for round-the-clock work, discuss “zeitgebers” as our body clock’s time cues that double as tasty German chocolate bars, how many people choose to work nights so they can hunt and fish during the day, and the need to be on guard for “penile tumescence” if you grab a quick catnap in public.
It also helps that the book is so useless and so boring that it’ll knock you right out.