Workers at all-night diners, laundromats and subway-station token booths all get their 15 minutes of fame in this slightly overdrawn exploration of a mildly intriguing topic.
“In the night, nothing is what it seems,” write the Sharmans (Russell: Anthropology/ Brooklyn Coll.; The Tenants of East Harlem, 2006; Cheryl is a freelance writer/researcher). “A taxi turns out to be a police car…A homeless man turns out to be an outreach worker, and the dapper man in the suit turns out to be homeless.” Transplanted to New York City, the couple was fascinated by the second life its streets seemed to take on after normal working hours were over. Becoming “sluggish and soft” from eating in the middle of the night, forsaking many of their daylight-loving friends, the pair spent a year interviewing denizens of the night in order to chronicle their lives. The authors encountered some noteworthy people, from Yemeni immigrants working in delis to South Indian nurses on the night shift in outer-borough hospitals. The details of these lives are interesting enough, but some of the minutiae the authors present is not. Steve, who works at the Skylight Diner, seems like an amiable enough guy, though not necessarily book-worthy. It’s not exactly riveting to learn that when he places a paper cup upside down on one of the coffee-machine spigots, “this is diner code for don’t-use-that-spigot, as they have to be cleaned out between batches.” This kind of material smacks of academic ethnography, focusing on the mundane rather than the extraordinary, and it frequently brings the narrative to a screeching halt. Still, the photographs are lovely, and for every dull paper-cup-over-the-spigot explanation there’s another, more engaging moment. The Sharmans’ earnest infatuation with the project is endearing, and they’re to be commended for exploring the class and racial factors that come into play on the night shift. If only they explored them with more vigor.
Could use a jolt of caffeine.