I became acquainted with the nightshift in the winter of 2009.

Sleep, back then, had become a problem. Formally friends, we were, that winter, two adversaries who circled my college dorm room like cage fighters. Finally, a semester away from graduation and unable to stare at my ceiling for another sleepless night, I took my coat, laced my sneakers and set off down Broadway. The pavements were chapped with long cracks that’d deepened during the harshest snows the city had seen in ten years.

My daytimes were too loud. New York going about its business: the jackhammers, the fire engine klaxons, the helicopters whapping low overhead the whining, grinding, masticating of a garbage truck partaking of its feed as buses rumbled and horns honked and always an insistent car alarm. Incoming trains came to rest with a squeak and a hiss of air brakes. The ground note of the traffic noise, more tire whoosh than engine sound, punctuated every now and then by the clank of a car passing over a manhole cover. Foot noise: the clacking pop of high heels. And chattering of hundreds of conversations weaving in and out of one another. And above everything, like a flattened organ chord, the heavy breathing of idle bus engines. But at night, the frantic daytime streets became glowing, dotted lines. In the darkness specific things were illuminated: a pink hand on the back of plum-coloured coat guiding her into the theatre, the tiled doorstep of a Diner with ruby-coloured booths, the window into a basement apartment where a woman stood at the kitchen sink behind metal taps. I had longed for this simplicity and was soothed by the continuity between the black of the sky and the dark pavements. A glass of milk on a white counter top: grey shadows on white. Exhausted after my first night’s exertions, I collapsed into bed with my shoes on—forgoing my usual wrestle with sleep. Subsequently, I walked every night that semester—for two, three, four hours. And sometimes, till dawn.

I took no music on these walks. Nor did I want company. I walked in the rain. And the snow that fell one night while most of the city slept and the buildings shimmered verticality—a gossamer veil hanging against the black sky. As I walked, I knew that all around me people were sleeping under blankets on beds that were wrapped in sheets. Their heads were on pillowcases that were wrapped around pillows. Closed curtains faced the street like unblinking eyelids. This nighttime world was tucked, folded, shut: secure. I gained a particular fondness for street lamps and the little puddles of light they so easily cast. The very specific area they lit. That was all they were responsible for, and they achieved it.

I saw people with backpacks, no bags, and plastic bags inside plastic bags.  With shopping trolleys full of cans and empty baby strollers full of old shoes.  I saw a group of pigeons attack a mouse. I saw a seagull swinging low with a pigeon in its beak. There was a woman at 72nd Street who did the same sidewalk drawing of the same person over and over. When the rain washed it away, she did it again. A group of men on the corner of the park displayed their coin collections but wore shoes that didn’t fit and dug in the trashcans for food. The sides of busses caught my reflection and carried it away down the street as I watched myself go.

The buildings around me were stacked floor on floor like towers of books in a library. And the avenues were the aisles between Economics (Wall street), History (The Bowery), Philosophy (Alphabet City), Mathematics (Hudson Heights), English (the poetic East and grimy West Side). Harlem was Hughes and Hurston country with the clackety-clack of trains wheels and boom boom bust pop of cars. Midtown was Truman Capote’s sucked orange. The Hotel Chelsea had busts of Twain, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller in its windows while Mailer, Nabokov, Vonnegut and Irving’s portraits were in the foyer of the 92nd street YMCA— peeking palely out the front door. The rhythm of the city  had been defined by Kerouac’s leather-healed boots and destruction of the best minds of Ginsberg’s generation had howled naked in the dark on 42nd street. These ghosts were everywhere—still moving in the night—and I considered them good company. Surely, I thought, they too would have walked the night.

By February, I could walk the city with my eyes closed. The smells of Morningside Heights—with its green copper-rusted rooftops—giving away to the booming 50s where restaurant doors were open late and the women with all their perfume wafted by.  The air got closer together in the mid-30s, tighter as the streets got smaller and everything started to smell of candied pistachios and the damp of the subway. Times Square smacked of dry hotdogs and damp plastic. As spring arrived, I smelled my way from one side of the city to the other—like a mole.

There were three groups of people on the street at night. The first were homeless. Walking with their hands outward and upward, they prayed to themselves or asked for change. Next were the crowds that flooded the pavements from the restaurants and theaters. Clutching each other’s arms, they flashed teeth and eyes and trailed stray ends of conversations like fading jet fuel. Wasn’t he handsome? They said of the male Lead. She would break your heart, they said of the understudy. The chicken was dry, they whispered.

The third group on the pavement were the regulars: the nightshift.

Members of the nightshift were always alone. They never had dogs. They had no bags or backpacks. Their tops rarely matched their bottoms: pinstriped trousers and a tracksuit top. A pencil skirt and an old jumper. Blazer and running trousers.  These layers, I knew from experience, were hastily chosen—their convenience to the front door trumping all questions of style and appearance. Members of the nightshift were never on the phone or eating. With hands neither out nor up, they walked with heir arms at their sides with slow, steady steps that anticipated potholes and irregular pavement gradient.  They didn’t pause to look at street signs or consult maps—they didn’t take photographs and they didn’t wheel bicycles. The nightshift had no purpose other than to walk.


There were rules, I deduced, to being a part of this group. No eye contact. No pause. No break in step.  And, most importantly, no questions. The warm, inside world—living rooms, restaurants, bars and theatre lobbies—belonged to the speaking world. If members of the nightshift wanted to talk about what had brought them into the Manhattan moonlight, if they wanted to describe whatever battle was too large to fight in their small apartments, they most certainly had somewhere to have such a conversation. But they had chosen the avenues. And silence.  And the great tide of fellow walkers who wanted to be spoken to as much as they wanted to speak.  Which was not at all.  Thus the nightshift operates under its members’ non-acknowledgment of each other, an unspoken pact of anonymity between strangers who flit from streetlamp to streetlamp, never looking up. Membership to the nightshift involved becoming an expert in walking through crowds. I learned how to navigate through groups of people without touching them—anticipating the turn of an elbow or an impromptu dance step. I learned to wave at strangers located behind the maitre d’ upon entering a restaurant in order to gain access to the restroom. Won’t be a second, I called to my imaginary friends while enquiring about the location of the facilities and afterwards, making a swift exit to resume my walk. Members of the nightshift know what time supermarkets haul their rubbish out onto the street. They know what hour the streetlamps go on and off. And they know where the ineffective storm-drains are located. They know not to respond to catcalls, taunts or jeers—pleas from the homeless or the cries of an animal. Swit-swoon, a group of men called to my unflinching profile each evening that I walked past their stoop swit-swoon.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve felt as though everyone had been given a secret manual on how to behave like a young person, everyone except me.  This secret manual outlines, among other things, how to achieve confidence through jeans and a jumper, how to hold a glass in a room of crowded people and how not to blush when embarrassed. And how to sleep.  I lacked an awareness — a solidification in my mind— of how I looked and, as such, touched my own face constantly, moved my shoulders too much and looked at my hands as if to assure himself they were there.  Any handsomeness on my part was diminished by my anxiety that something was missing.  But in the nightshift, I had found rules that I could follow and people with whom I belonged. I felt at home in the anonymity— the soundless, wordless crowd.

I abided by the rules and can’t tell you anything about the faces of the people I walked with that winter in New York. I knew them by their hazy outlines—their approach and gait. I knew their shoulders, the sounds of their feet and the color of their coats. A man at Lexington and 102nd wore a denim jacket and baseball cap over his suit trousers. He smelt of fresh paint and put more weight on his right than his left leg. There was a woman who, regardless of weather, always carried an umbrella between 63rd and 79nth.  Another man— in a pinstriped blazer and running trousers— paced nightly between 33rd and 34th street all the while looking up at a window high overhead. He wasn’t old. A woman in red trousers occasionally crossed my path on 21st street—the outlines of her hands shoved into her pockets. Most nights, I drew level with a pair of turquoise cowboy boots as I waited to cross Columbus circle though, I never looked up at their owner. The toes of the boots had painted, golden snakes.

The May evening before my parents were due to arrive for my graduation, I had gone out for a final walk.  By that time I had lost most of my friends—shunning their attentions for my desire to walk—and needed to think of an explanation to offer my parents when they wanted to meet Kitty or Molly or Sue.  I had worn through three pairs of shoes—their soles becoming too thin to withstand the asphalt—and needed to go out early the next morning to buy flats for the ceremony. I had also lost a substantial amount of weight. These were the things on my mind as I put one foot in front of the other and tried to contrive stories about my lack of company, footwear and fat. But crossing the intersection at 77th street, I found myself walking towards someone who was wearing my jacket: the exact shade of magenta in cropped denim.  Found in a charity store in Houston, my mother was fond of calling it, The ugliest jacket God did ever see. But I had never seen another. And because I was looking at her jacket—it was an easy shift up to her face. I looked without thinking.

The girl was making no move to hide her tears nor was she seeking attention. She was quietly weeping because of the rules that said she could without any interference. And my head, which had been so quiet for months, was suddenly so loud that I covered my ears. Where moments before there had been space—as wide as the avenues—questions jostled like people on a subway platform. I shouted, my voice ricocheting off the nearby buildings that I imagined tumbling down, like books on our heads.

Did you notice the difference in the smell between 62nd and 63rd? Did you see what was written on that wall back there? The graffiti? Why are you walking? Why are you out here at night? I have no idea why I’m here, I was hoping you could tell me, but I understand if you don’t want to.

The girl paid me no mind and kept walking, the same even pace though, I heard her rhythm break as we crossed mid-street. A momentary mid-step pause. Maybe she realized we were wearing the same coat. I headed to my parents hotel and sat in the lobby until dawn broke like a yoke over the park.

I graduated from Columbia the next day in a sea of baby blue mortarboards and gowns.  I remember little about the ceremony and saw only the summer stretching before me like a line of white boxes with black space between them. I left New York with my parents and spent the next few months at their home in Texas. My father set the security system each night and I couldn’t get out without sounding an alarm. So I remained in bed—toes curled and gripping the side of the mattress.  Gradually colours became more bearable and sounds returned to their normal decibel. But the girl in the jacket walked back into my thoughts every night—and I wondered if she was still there.

I have since found myself walking in other cities. I exist in the daytime but am often drawn, on those sleepless nights, to the nightshift that moves out there in the darkness.  But I abide by none of the rules. I look at the wandering tide of people and sometimes pause to stare. In my mind, I ask them their stories. I ask about their families. I ask their addresses. I ask about their jobs, schools, careers, routes, roots and what they had for breakfast. I’ve walked in Paris and London, Rome, Oxford and Florence—Berlin and Chicago. The purposeful steps, the downward faces, the lack of music or company or food or drink or phone or matching clothing: the city changes, the nightshift does not.


Art credit: Ed Yourdon

Jess Lowry is studying for a D.Phil. in English at Oxford University. She has studied creative writing at Columbia University and the University of East Anglia and is currently working on a book of essays. More from this author →