The Graveyard Shift: Bagels, Diapers, and Bell-Ringing Dead Folks

It’s four in the morning, the time of night when fatigue begins to tug on your eyelids. It’s a subtle move, like grasping the string on one of your grandmother’s window shades, slowly pulling it down. The Sand Man is a pro, having performed the eyelid trick millions of times. He’s persistent and sly, and his technique is so carefully polished and gracefully executed that, well, his victims rarely know he’s paid them a visit until it’s too late.

Thinking about your family sleeping in their warm beds, you turn onto a side street trying to find a place to pull over. Five minutes. That’s all you need. Shouldn’t have spent those three hours today playing with the kids when you could’ve been sleeping. Still, that’s the only time you get to see them awake. And, someone had to mow the lawn this afternoon, right? Oh yeah, tomorrow is the day your third-grader wants you to come to her class to speak about police officers. It won’t take long, two or three hours at the most.

Sleep. You need sleep.

Your headlights wash over the back of a deserted alley, prompting feral dogs and cats to scramble out of the dumpster that’s sitting in the far back corner like an old and tired dinosaur. On the greasy pavement next to it are two bald car tires, a portable television with a broken screen, and cardboard box filled with what appears to be used women’s clothing. The knot of animals scattered loaves of four-day-old bread in their haste to escape the human intruder who dared meddle with their nocturnal feeding. A mutt with three legs hobbled behind a rusty air conditioning unit, dragging a long, dirty bag filled with crumbled bagels. Tendrils of steam rise slowly from storm drains; ghostly, sinewy figures melting into the black sky.

The night air is damp with fog, dew, and city sweat that reeks of gasoline and garbage. Mannequins stare out from their tombs of storefront glass, waiting for daylight to take away the flashing neon lights that reflect from their plaster skin. You park at the rear of the alley, stopping next to a stack of flattened cardboard boxes, their labels reflecting someone’s life for the week – chicken, lettuce, disposable diapers, and cheap wine.

Four more hours. If you can only make it for four more hours…

Suddenly, a voice spews from the speaker behind your head, “Shots fired. Respond to 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Back up is en route.”

“10-4. I’m 10-8.”

And so it goes. Night after night after night…

It’s believed by some that the graveyard shift (not this blog) got it name from people who accidentally buried their loved ones while they were still alive. Thinking their dearly departed had gone on to their reward, these folks unknowingly fitted an unconscious or comatose, and very much alive, Uncle Bill or Grandma with a new outfit and a spiffy pine box. Then they buried them in the local cemetery where night workers claimed to hear the recently departed screaming for help from their underground resting spots. When the workers dug up the noisy coffins, they sometimes found scrape marks on the casket lids indicating the person inside had tried to claw their way out before finally succumbing to a lack of oxygen.

To remedy the situation, caskets were fitted with long strings that reached from the inside of the buried coffins to a bell situated atop the freshly covered graves. This enabled the “dead” person to ring the bell should he awaken after his burial. Workers could then quickly rescue the living dead.

It’s debatable as to the validity of this tale, but it makes for an interesting story, especially for fictional police officers who have cemeteries to patrol in their precincts.

*     *     *

Working the midnight shift is a difficult assignment for anyone. In fact, a study conducted by a Lexington, Massachusetts consultancy firm, Circadian Technologies, shows that companies operating a graveyard shift may be losing money, to the tune of $206 billion dollars annually. Why? Because workers are simply not effective when working these late-night hours.

The study also showed a higher divorce rate among midnight shift workers, more gastrointestinal problems, higher stress related disorders, and a higher accident rate. The study also concluded that there’s a much higher turnover rate among night-shift employees.

A Hutchinson Group (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center) study reports that women who work the graveyard shift may have a greater risk of breast cancer. The results of this study were first introduced in a 2001 Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Anyway, working the graveyard shift is a tough assignment no matter how you look at it. So, tonight, before you turn in for a good night’s sleep, take a minute to think about all the people across the country who are walking out the door at that same moment to protect us and our property so that we may sleep safely.

*     *     *

 * The article above is a previously published, but updated blog article. I’m away from home this morning, attending a ceremony for fallen officers. This is National Police Memorial Week.

7 replies
  1. 1015 Adam Henry
    1015 Adam Henry says:

    Park the unit under my favorite tree and wait for the calls.

    Hats off to the hose jockeys. To go from a state of rest to fight/flight within a span of a few minutes over a course of a career can be taxing. And to residents who have to do 24-36 hour shifts. To recall the amount of knowledge to address a patient’s needs at that time of night after so many hours is huge. Same for the EMS guys.

  2. Mary Lee Barton
    Mary Lee Barton says:

    Beautifully written, Lee. I will say a prayer of gratitude for all those who keep me and my loved ones safe during their graveyard shifts.

  3. Lisa P
    Lisa P says:

    I’m working thirds right now too. 2100 to 0700. Sometimes I wish I was a patrolman because then I would be moving. Being a Forensic Tech, if I’m all done with reports and processing evidence then I’m sitting in the PD, looking at the board and listening to the radio and trying desperately to not let my eyes droop. It’s that 0200 to 0400 stretch that is the hardest. Once I pass 0400 I seen to always get a second wind.

  4. Kris
    Kris says:

    I’m one of those odd folk whose brain operates on a natural graveyard shift; I’ve always stayed up until the wee hours, risen late and loved it. Worked graveyard shift on most of my jobs; for me, early is 10:00 am and dinner is at 8:00 pm.(Or sometimes later)
    Sometimes I’m still up when the sun comes up and I hit the sack when the majority of poor souls are just crawling out of bed for another day at the office.

  5. William Simon
    William Simon says:

    A long time ago, things were scrambled at the Major Oil Consortium where I was working. Got a call late one night and had to head in to deal with a slight emergency. Sad to say, I was kind of *smoking* it on the Beltway when The Lights went on behind me.

    Followed protocol; pulled over immediately, turned on inside light, lowered window, turned off engine, hit emergency flashers, had DL and insurance card ready, and kept both hands on the wheel in his sight.

    Officer approached. “Good evening, sir. Is there a reason you were going XX over the limit?”

    “Sorry, Officer, I wasn’t paying attention. There’s an emergency at the office, I got the call, just trying to get there.”

    He frowned. “Who the hell rushes to work at 12:30 in the morning?”

    Me: (Silence, fighting grin)

    Officer: (realizing what he said) Crank it down a little, okay, sir?

    Me: Yes, sir. And thank you.

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