Working Midnights: The Graveyard Shift

It’s four in the morning and fatigue tugs 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 move is so gracefully executed by the Sand Man you hardly notice it.

Thinking about your family asleep in a warm bed, 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. What can you do? And, someone had to mow the lawn this afternoon, right? Oh yeah, tomorrow is the day your third-grader wants you to come in to talk to her class 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 the alley as feral dogs and cats scramble out of the dumpster that sits behind a bakery like an old and tired dinosaur. The knot of animals scatter loaves of two-day-old bread in their haste to escape the human intruder who dared meddle with their nocturnal feeding. A mutt with three legs hobbles 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 in the black sky.

The night air is damp with fog, dew, and city sweat that reeks of gasoline and garbage. Mannequins stare at you from 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 wine.

Four more hours. If I 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.

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 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 dead screaming for help from below the ground. When they dug up the 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 a bell and a long string that reached to the inside of the buried coffin. 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 police officers who have cemeteries to patrol in their precincts.

Working the midnight shift is difficult 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. 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.