An eerie ride through the looking-glass world of city nights
“Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality. But… there is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit… a Darkside.”
— Opening narration, “Tales from the Darkside” (1983-1988)
is arms were blue up to his tiny biceps as were parts of his face, and the smell of burnt fabric and hair still hung heavy in the air. Cerulean rivulets ran down his cheeks and along the edge of his slackened jaw where they congregated and slowly dripped onto the concrete upon which he stood, and I knew…I knew that the cyanotic hues would wash away far, far sooner than the simple look on his face would.
The burning smell was from the fire he set on the construction site I was passing, which is what caught my attention in the first place; the blue was from him diving into the chemical toilet that he had set alight in the first place (and shirtsleeve along with it in the process), prompting the plunge into the deep blue poo.
“Come on, Kash,” I said. “Let’s get you cleaned up. Here…you can work the blue lights again.” He began to hoot excitedly as I covered him in a soon-to-be discarded blanket and allowed him into the front seat while Chattanooga’s Bravest ensured my fire extinguisher had done its job as they wiped the sleep from their recently rested eyes. (Kash and I had met before, it’s safe to say.)
A rookie fresh from field training stood nearby, pen and pad in hand, not sure where to start other than with his own slack-jawed expression, so I gave him something to work with.
“Welcome to midnight shift, kid.”
Third watch. Graveyard shift. Midnights. Where else could I have seen something like that during daylight hours (outside of East Lake, at least)?
Anyone who has worked night shifts for even a short amount of time knows two things: One, no matter what city you live in or near, it’s like this whole other planet at night compared to daylight hours. Everything is different.
The people you see, the cars, the businesses…it’s like the sun transports every normal human being in the world to some other place when it leaves the sky, and leaves only the freaks behind. Ever heard the phrase “It’s like night and day”?
Oh, and two: That staying up all night without being drunk and the unspoken promise of a sweet blackout to catch up on sleep and a return to a normal schedule just plain sucks. I mean, we live in an incentivized world, right?
Depending on where you work, every night is like a miniature Zombie Apocalypse. Don’t believe in zombies, you say? Let me take you on a little ride along sometime after 2 a.m. I’ll drive you down to a little unlit slice of heaven called “South Watkins Street” and I’ll show you the alternate ending to “World War Z” where Brad Pitt is nowhere to be seen, only the shambling hulks of slow-moving addicts and spaced-out hookers and you will re-think everything that’s made you scoff at George Romero’s mainstream creations.
Upset about the downtime between seasons of “The Walking Dead”? Well good news: We chill with the cast and crew every night at the intersection of 38th and Central Avenue in this town. It’s great, but you don’t want to keep any props from the set you may find. That includes ears. (No, literally. That intersection in particular is terribly uncivilized, and that’s in the daylight hours.)
Let me tell you about a prostitute nicknamed “Yo” (for Yolanda). She’s a third-shift whore (and yes, they really do work in shifts) who was peeing on a sidewalk under a street lamp the first time I met her, her left leg slightly hiked as her right hand hooked the bottom of her skirt up to keep it dry (I mean damn near standing fully upright while she cut loose, really impressive stuff) and she didn’t miss a beat as she said, “Hey, officer. I haven’t seen you before! Why, you must be new around here.”
She was right, I hadn’t worked that district before, but after seeing that, I felt like anything but “new.” Seeing a hooker peeing on a sidewalk from a standing position…that’ll age you prematurely, ladies and gents.
To me, she has always been the gold standard of both poor decision-making and emaciation; she looks like Gollum and the Crypt Keeper had a baby, with fewer teeth but a perpetual smile. Had she been lying down on the sidewalk instead of peeing on it, I would have instantly and justifiably presumed she was dead, and had been so for some time. Cocaine and low self-esteem beat movie make-up any day of the week. And again, micturition like that is just something you don’t see during the light of day.
Like any relationship though, I have to admit, those first few nights on shift are actually kind of magical.
You see things you’re unaccustomed to, like red lights cycling at empty intersections that are normally overrun, and parking lots of restaurants and stores you can’t see the pavement of during daylight hours are now empty, aside from the occasional orphan shopping cart and inevitable fast-food sack that for reasons rarely explained sits firmly in the face of gale-force winds. It’s a ghost town; every night is the Rapture, and in the back of your mind you just know you’ve missed the ride upward and are stuck with the rest of the heathens for God knows how long.
Eventually, of course, you will also realize one of the only perks to this opaque world: The ability to actually get places pretty damn quickly because there is no traffic. Period.
To work, from work, going from call to call…it’s like you’re driving a rocket ship (particularly if you’re Yasiel Puig), and it spoils you.
Statistically speaking you are going to have to drive again during daylight hours, and not only will you be pissed off because you physically and mentally feel like absolute crap from sleep deprivation, but there are all these damn cars all over the place getting in your way. The nerve! What took 12 minutes of driving at night takes 35 minutes during daytime hours, and someone owes you for this…but take it from me, folks: They will never pay.
Despite the desolation though, much like any good horror movie set you are not alone at night.
You have company that can generally be divided into two subsets of categories: Other service—oriented employees like yourself, and criminals. (And no, I’m not referring to all the railroad folks I run across at these hours, too.)
This is not so good for the third-shift waitresses, cooks, nurses and cleaning crews around town (crews that seem to get a disproportionate amount of punishment from the criminal element for some reason), but it’s great for the cops. It’s like shooting pension reforms in a barrel. If you’re out past 3 a.m., you’re probably a criminal (or in strong contention for becoming one).
The third-shift waiters and waitresses, though…there is something special about them I couldn’t put my finger on until just a few years ago: Their apathy, cynicism, and personal habits are nearly as powerful as ours.
Imagine it…night after night of feeling perpetually sick from the absolute destruction of your circadian rhythms, the smell of cooking oil and grease permeating your clothes both at work and home, and the bulk of your customers outrageous and disrespectful drunks that are as incapable of speaking quietly as they are of tipping. And what can they do about it? “Smile.”
It’s totally unfair because although we cops deal with the same people in the same inebriated states, we can at least address it with our hands as opposed to our own smiles, and we only smell like hash browns for the few minutes after we eat them, not all shift long. You’d think the wait staff would be bitter about this, but they’re not; they adore us and seem to relish living vicariously through our actions with their most frustrating clientele. This is fair enough, I suppose, but I have to tell you…few and far between is the Waffle House waitress I’d tangle with, dear reader.
My shift ends long before the courts open, so like all third-shift cops, I have to kill time between end of watch and the opening of the Courts building. These early-dawn hours are terrible hours to have to stay awake (after being up all night as it is), but I always appreciated witnessing the transition first-hand of the people that have just been re-deposited from wherever the sun puts them at night as daylight reclaims the city, and the cycle begins anew.
Hours before I may have been watching a pair of coyote lope across the parking lot of Hamilton Place Mall without another car or human in sight, the first ones I’d ever seen, the scene neatly framed by darkness for my imagination to fill in whatever it needed. Now? Now I could see everything with all this accursed “light” and it was making me crazy, overloading my brain. People were everywhere again. And yes, it IS terrible.
I sat at a red light pondering this, waiting to pass through, when to my left a car ran the light, a rear tire riding on a rim kicking up a giant rooster tail of sparks as it blew through the intersection past my marked police car in a rain of primitive fireworks. “Now that’s rude,” I thought, and I began to smile as I reached down to flip on my lights and siren. I smiled because I knew right away that this man wasn’t just drunk: He was still on third shift as far as he was concerned. We were both just up past our bedtimes.
We were going to get along just famously.