SMOKE: The Graveyard Shift
Originally published: 22 June 2004
I've never been one to keep regular hours. I'm a full-on night owl, preferring the pleasant cool and stillness of the early hours of a morning to the mad, hot frenzy of the daytime, and I reckon it all started as a result of laziness.
I could never prepare a school project in advance - no matter what the scale of the project I would always leave it until the afternoon before it was due. It would be a long, hard slog late into the night - usually with my exasperated mother helping out - before the thing was done.
I've always submitted deadlines on time but I work best when there is no time left and the brain requires overclock mode. Which is usually somewhere around 01h30 on any given Tuesday.
When I went to varsity we would work all day and rehearse for plays at night, after which we would go out until the grey dawn and increasing noise of traffic announced the new day.
It was pretty much the same for most of the five years I spent working as a professional actor, and when I gave acting up in favour of more profitable pursuits I somehow always seemed to find myself working the graveyard shift.
One such job was at Telkom, working in their corporate data networks division for hours that were highly unusual - but brilliant.
A shift was 12 hours - which is pretty damn long - but it was made up for by the structure of a working week. You would either work 7am-7pm, or the other way around, and how it worked was you would work two day shifts followed by two night shifts, followed by almost four days off.
That amount of time off was always worth the long shifts.
The shifts weren't that bad, since there was very little to do. We had these great big 21" monitors with a map of the corporate networks that we had to monitor, and free access to the Internet.
We also had a television and video player, so a typical evening would consist of stopping at KFC on the way to work, picking up four videos, getting to work at 7pm, checking to make sure everything was in order, then sitting and watching four movies on end while chowing down a Streetwise 5.
In between we would surf the 'net and I even spent my time doing extra proof-reading work for another company (they had translated the entire Scottish constitution dating back 400 years - from Latin. I had to check their translations and be sure they matched up to the final text, and it was an absolute bitch - but well-paid. And I could spend 10 hours a night doing it, so I got a lot done).
There were only two of us on a night shift, so I always took over other folks's night shifts - I've never been one for crowded offices and managers who can peer over your shoulder when you least need them to.
Most of us night owls were smokers, so once the day staff had gone we would light up and puff the night away, leaving an hour in the morning with the door open to get the place fresh again.
I was often paired with a girl who enjoyed her sleep, so I was happy for her to park off on the floor and doss for eight hours while I watched pretty much every movie that was ever made.
But my absolute best was taking my pack of cigarettes and going out to the foyer of the building, which was located in downtown Cape Town. There were glass doors that were kept locked at night and I would park in the lobby and smoke, looking out onto the still night just across the way the carcass of a new hotel that was being erected at the time.
Sometimes I would ask the security guy to unlock the doors and I would go out and stroll around the empty streets alone, although a nasty little incident with some tsotsis soon put paid to that idea.
There's just something incredibly surreal about working while the rest of the world is asleep - we'd talk to folks in the USA who were in the middle of their working day and you could hear all the noise and chatter about them.
And when you put the phone down it was like a ghost world - all the humdrum of life in an office was absent and the only sound was the purring of the long fluorescent lights that were stapled to the ceiling.
Watching the street - unobserved yourself - is a whole story in itself. You can tell who the skollies are a mile away at night, and it's fascinating to watch them at work.
Small gangs of street thugs would cluster in a corner right outside our building and I could have touched them had the glass not been in the way. They couldn't see me, so I could watch their activities in complete anonymity from a few feet away.
Then there were the lonely, dark cars with seemingly no purpose. A car would drive very slowly up the road and stop on the side of the road. Nothing would happen for a long time, then it would slowly cruise off again. Someone looking for a hit.
The cops would drive by every so often and I always wondered what they were talking about. What do you talk about after yet another night 10 years down the line?
A storm was a special treat, because there is something intensely appealing about the loneliness of an empty street being whipped by wind and rain - all the sodden packets and debris being swept into rusted barb wire fences, trees bending their thin backs and lashing their leaves and branches about viciously, and the squalls of rain.
There is something satisfying in sharing an intimate moment like that with Mother Nature, when you know nobody else is seeing it. By the time folks wake up the storm has passed and the streets are wet and none will have seen precisely how it happened.
And as the sun rises over the graveyard shift - and touches the top of the Absa building at precisely 7am as you exit the doors on your way to the train station for a Metrorail Special - the world is always such a bright, happy place, having been rescued from the loneliness of the night before.
After a while the night shift starts to mess with your body a bit and there comes a time when the last thing you want to do is work at night.
Ever since starting my own websites we have worked pretty much all nights, and some nights until dawn. The neighbours are asleep early and with the window open you can actually hear sounds late at night. Sounds that during the day would be lost to the din of other human noise - at night a car driving by is noticed, since there are so few cars driving past.
So I enjoy these quiet moments I have when the world has turned out the lights - somehow work just seems that little bit lighter.
And in case you were wondering why it is called the Graveyard Shift - here's an explanation from Michael Quinlon of World Wide Words:
"Graveyard shift is an evocative term for the night shift between about midnight and eight in the morning, when - no matter how often you've worked it - your skin is clammy, there's sand behind your eyeballs, and the world is creepily silent, like the graveyard."
A pretty apt description.
All Smoked Out,