Thursday, November 16, 2006
Inside the Denny’s in downtown Monterey, a red-rimmed clock with the chain’s logo hangs above the front door and reads 12am. Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” plays over the sound system as the employees serve a handful of customers and take their midnight lunch breaks.
Tonight, I’m attempting to stay up until sunrise to meet the people who work after midnight. I want to know how they stay awake and keep busy in the early morning.
I pulled my share of late-nighters during the college years, but the current task of staying up all night is somewhat terrifying. Maybe that’s because if I don’t get a full eight hours of sleep these days I can’t even remember my address.
What I expect to find are a quirky bunch of folks who survive the late night hours by becoming crossword puzzle experts or connoisseurs of cheap pornography. I find something totally different.
**Sunshine at Night
Denny’s waitress Sunshine Stevens—an ironic name for a late-night worker—is three hours into her shift at midnight. She has another four hours of work before her evening ends at 4am.
While her manger tells a handful of the other servers that he will be leaving early tonight to drive to Fresno for a funeral, Stevens gets her tables’ orders from the floor and then punches them into a touch screen monitor facing the kitchen. Meanwhile, a middle-aged man who resembles a Hindu swami, with a bald head and a long white beard, walks back and forth in the uncrowded restaurant.
Stevens says she chooses to work while most people are sound asleep in their beds for two reasons. First, she has an eight-month-old daughter, and working late at night allows her to spend the whole day with the newborn. Second, the night shift draws workers from the hospitality industry, who know how to leave a good tip.
Stevens, who blinks slowly and frequently while we speak, says she downed a Red Bull energy drink before starting work this evening. She supplements that kick with another five cups of coffee a night.
Since I’m going to be staying up until morning light, I gulp two cups of coffee and exit into the Monterey evening air. I’ll be back in a couple of hours to see how Stevens is getting along, but right now I stare at a near full moon that is making shreds of clouds look like party streamers.
**The Cabbie and Lavender
Yellow Cab driver Andy Luersen lets me in on one of his secrets to staying awake and working well past midnight. From a bookbag that is crammed between his seat and the front passenger seat, Luersen pulls out a plastic device that is shaped like a marijuana pipe. He takes a small bottle of liquid and pours some of the substance on the ball-shaped top end of the object and then plugs it into his vehicle’s cigarette lighter. Slowly, the interior of his car begins to smell like eucalyptus.
Luersen uses the aromatherapy device—which is called an infuser—for more than helping him keep his eyes open and stay awake. He says that sometimes he pours calming oils like lavender into the infuser when he picks up a group of inebriated bargoers. He says that even though they might enter the cab boisterous and obnoxious, a few moments of being immersed in a cloud of lavender will settle them down.
There’s also another very practical reason for using the infuser. “People bring all matters of funky odors in here,” he says.
I have been riding around town with Luersen for an hour, and I am having no problem staying awake.
Tonight is a slow night, so Luersen, a former New York City cab driver with a ponytail and a goatee, keeps driving a big loop that takes us down Monterey’s Alvarado Street and then along Del Monte Avenue into Seaside.
As his front windshield starts to fog up, a green streetlight on Del Monte Avenue blurs through the glass like an object in an abstract painting. Luersen takes a left turn by the La Quinta on Del Monte and points to the small body of water spread out in front of Seaside’s Home Depot. “It’s Roberts Lake,” he says. “That’s one of my hobbies—finding out what these things are named after.”
When not unearthing the story behind local place names—he is still excited by his discovery that three New Monterey streets were named after prostitutes—he listens to baseball on the radio, reads books like and writes in his journal. “It can get creative,” he says of his late-night writings. “It can get introspective. It can be venting.”
A couple minutes past 2am, Luersen pulls his cab in front of The Dunes, a bar on Seaside’s Broadway Avenue, and three intoxicated Latinos enter the cab.
“How was your evening?” Luersen asks.
While two mumble back and forth in Spanish about “panocha,” the oldest one answers Luersen’s question.
“The women there are bad, bad, bad,” he says.
The English-speaking passenger tells Luersen that they need to go to an apartment complex on Casa Verde Way, and then he stares out his window at the city’s almost vacant streets. “Where are the Americans?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” Luersen replies. “Maybe downtown Monterey? It’s a slow night.”
After Luersen drops the three off, he recalls one of his longest cab rides: an intoxicated man who decided to take the money from his tax return to a casino in Reno. “It wasn’t bad,” he says. “I was paid $800 for that trip, and the guy was passed out for most of the drive.”
While it would be easy to spend the rest of the evening with Luersen, I realize I need some other late night workers’ perspectives and ask to be dropped off at Denny’s. As we drive up to the restaurant, Luersen rubs his goatee as he explains why he chooses to work late nights. “It’s hot and bright during the day,” he says. “I just find it far more interesting, far easier at night.”
**Dreams and Paper Coffee
It’s 2:34am. Across the street from Denny’s, a handful of yellow cabs look like a swarm of yellow jackets in the Travelodge parking lot. I walk into the restaurant, which is now packed with drunken diners feasting on eggs and waffles, to see how Stevens is dealing with the evening. “There’s been a lot of drunk people tonight,” she says. “It’s dollar drink night at the bars.”
Right now, she is cleaning up her stations. She makes sure each table has 16 sugars, eight Equals and eight Sweet ‘n’ Lows. She flips over every placemat to the side that shows a picture of a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice.
“I just keep moving,” she says. “I’m burned out and tired, but I still go.”
While making each table look like it was never inhabited, Stevens divulges her dreams of attending nursing school and buying property in Big Sur. Stevens also tells me of a recurring nightmare she has while she gets her daily dose of sleep, which never numbers more than five hours. In it, she is working a hectic graveyard shift at Denny’s while holding her eight-month-old daughter in one arm. In a possible reflection of reality, a voice tells Stevens that if she messes up on the job then she will harm her baby.
At a booth in Stevens’ section, a middle-aged man wearing thick glasses lays a Clive Cussler paperback and a Walkman on the table in front of him. “A meat-lover’s over hard and a glass of water?” Stevens asks him. He simply nods his head affirmative. I ask him his name, and he points to his throat and shakes his head. I hand him my notebook, and he writes that his name is Joseph. Then, he scribbles: “I did it for 25 yrs. Graveyard.”
It is 3:05am, and my eyes are getting heavy. I walk into the Nu-Art Theater on Fremont Street. I approach the adult store’s counter person, hold out my hand and say I’m from the Weekly. The clerk, dressed in a black-and-yellow button-up shirt with scenes of ninjas doing karate maneuvers, says he never touches the hands of anyone who enters the store. He then admits that no store employees ever do interviews. The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” plays on the radio.
It’s almost 3:30am, and my mind is succumbing to delusions. Or maybe it’s just that a visit to the Seaside’s Walgreen store this late at night is so surreal. The drugstore’s fluorescent lights make the place feel like a gigantic tanning booth, while vents in the ceiling suck air like an asthmatic huffing on an inhaler. This evening, slick pop music plays over the store’s sound system as one female shopper fills a cart with toilet paper and cleaning products.
When I see an elf stocking the store’s toy section, I know the late hour is starting to get to me. The individual is actually Adam Jones, a short, lively service clerk with bushy eyebrows and dyed blond hair combed to one side.
Within just seconds of meeting me, Jones starts excitedly talking about 2003. That year, Jones, a Polish immigrant, made $40,000 with three minimum wage jobs at K Mart, Target and a Fremont gas station. “For that, I should receive ‘Employee of the Year,’” he says. “To reach that on minimum wage is very hard. Forty thousand dollars a year? Who would do that? On minimum wage?”
Jones admits that he is able to stay awake for the shift by simply immersing himself in work. “Everyone has own,” he says as he snaps his fingers trying to find the right words. “Has own skills to do.”
Before heading off on his 3:30am lunch break, Jones says that he can work the 11:45pm to 8:15am Walgreen’s shift because he only needs four or five hours of sleep an evening. It also gives him most of the day to hang out with his two young children and ride his bike.
**Early Morning Pilot
My evening takes a turn for the worse after leaving Walgreen’s. Unlike the graveyard shift workers I have had the pleasure of meeting this evening, I find it near impossible to get my job done when my mind keeps wandering back to the comfortable cotton sheets on my bed.
I strike out for the Pilot Travel Center, an all-night gas station, restaurant and convenience store on the east side of Salinas, but end up lost due to some road construction. Eventually, I realize the only sane route to the Pilot involves driving my car over a median in the middle of the street.
When I arrive at the Pilot, John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me” blares over the speakers above the gas pumps. Inside, at 4:13am, the massive Food Mart is a beehive of activity: a Frito Lay distributor hurriedly re-stocks an aisle of potato chips; Jose, a Pilot employee, wipes down seven tube-shaped coffee pots that sit side by side on a counter like pistons; in the adjoining Subway restaurant, Luis Hernandez cleans an already immaculate workstation.
Despite the late hour, everyone is so busy that they can only speak to me for a few seconds. “What do you do here so late?” I ask Jose, who declines to give his last name.
“Cleaning, sweeping, stocking, many, many things,” he says, before walking away to finish some other duties.
It is 5am when I leave the Pilot and try to find some more late night workers to talk with. I walk into a Salinas donut store, but an elderly woman is mopping the floor and seems too busy to talk. I drive to a 7-11 on Reservation Road in Marina, where a late night female employee is making a pot of coffee for her morning customers. She says I will have to come back in an hour when she is not so busy and she has permission from her boss to answer my questions.
Even though I have failed to see the sun rise, I head home, barely staying awake as my windshield wipers move back and forth in the rain like a hypnotist slowly swinging a stopwatch.
With four solid hours of sleep, the next day is painful. The sunlight feels like acid tossed into my weary eyeballs, and during a full workday at the office, I produce about two sentences. The real problem is that I know that in a few hours, I will return to the late night work scene once more. I dread it.
**The Walking Zombie
In the kitchen of Monterey’s Paris Bakery, owner and chef Jackie Jegat moves like a character on a DVD that is being fast-forwarded. While local “R&B and old school” station KOCN plays on the radio, Jegat quickly separates and lays out metal baking pans as fast as a Vegas dealer would throw out a deck of cards.
He takes spoonfuls of an almond paste from a plastic container and plops them one by one on a baking pan. Jegat then mashes the goo on the pan with a metal fork. These little clusters will become the bakery’s tasty almond tuile cookies.
Jegat is only a couple hours into a shift that stretches from 9pm to 6am. He plans to keep this frantic pace through the whole evening, helped by assistant Greg Dangio and watched by wife and bakery co-owner Sonja Jegat. Jackie, who is a short bearish man with white hair and a white beard, tells me what keeps him going late at night in his strong French accent. “We have the work to be done,” he says. “The work keeps us busy.”
Meanwhile, Sonja confides to me that her husband’s late-night hours take their toll. She thinks the lack of sleep—Jegat only gets about four or five hours of rest in the morning—might have contributed to his recent diagnosis of diabetes. Also, staying up all night definitely cuts down on his energy levels during the day. “Don’t ask him about daytime,” she says. “He’s a walking zombie.”
Jegat says there are two reasons why he works late night. One is that he enjoys making bread and croissants that his customers can buy fresh every morning. Also, he likes the fact that he doesn’t have to deal with crowds. “I’m not a person people,” he says.
**The Graveyard Guard
While Jegat’s night moves in fast forward, security guard David Dolan’s graveyard shift seems to move in slow motion. The Monterey Bay Security employee is spending his evening making sure no one tries to break into the Sunridge Farms warehouses and business offices in north Monterey County.
We are parked in Dolan’s black Isuzu Rodeo, which is adorned with a handful of Oakland Raiders stickers, watching the organic food company’s workers leave the gated compound one by one. Another security patrol driver wanders over to Dolan’s vehicle.
“What’s up, Hacking?” asks Dolan, who has a mustache and a closely cropped head of white hair that resembles the feathers on a baby bird.
“I’m terrible,” Hacking replies. “I can’t even breathe right now.”
While Dolan explains that listening to KPIG is one way he keeps himself entertained at night, Hacking walks towards the back of the Rodeo and starts retching. After a few painful-sounding minutes, Hacking returns.
“Fuck, it hurts,” he says. “I can’t handle migraines anymore.”
“It’s like life,” he continues. “It doesn’t always work out the way you expect it.”
Hacking wanders into the nearby two-lane road that is devoid of any traffic. “I gotta go,” he says to no one in particular, and then hops into his truck and drives away.
From then on, the evening becomes less exciting, which I guess is a good thing if you are a security guard. I accompany Dolan on a perimeter check, making sure that every door in the compound is locked. Things heat up when we discover one unlocked door to a pump room. After we confirm that there’s no one around trying to steal dried organic fruits, we lock up and the excitement recedes to a non-existent level.
While doing the 40-minute perimeter walk, which he will do seven more times this evening before getting off work at 6am, Dolan admits that the graveyard shift is rough when a man has a family. He says he hasn’t seen his son at all in the last few weeks. But, he says, the late-night shift can have its advantages. “The good thing about here is it’s quiet, and you are your own boss,” he says. “Also, you can’t get in trouble for staying out late.”
After leaving Dolan to the rest of his evening, I drive home and get under the covers. It is approaching 3am. The almost full moon outside my window beams down like a stage light on a cast of graveyard shift characters. They keep moving. **