Back in 1986 when I was younger and life felt definitely good—perhaps because I never took things too serious—I lived in Houston, Texas. This was the first time I heard the phrase ‘Graveyard shift’.
I did not quite understand, but my oldest sister explained it to me—I have two older sisters ahead of me. Both of who were members of this night time crew. Their schedule was school, work and then back to school— this was working while the rest of the country slept.
Somewhere in this routine there was fun, goofing around and being home sick. As their younger sister, I was sort of scared to be left in the apartment all by myself. So I usually ended up at work with them. They both worked at the local dinner, Denny’s.
Back then Denny’s was quite popular. Their store was located at the busy intersection of 59 and the Summit; home for the Houston rockets back in the day. Now, this was a rather good experience for teenage girls, because every once in a while, the likes of Akeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe would pop in for breakfast around 3am.
There would be excitement and autographs were sure to be signed for the lucky. The lucky waitress who served them would get a huge tip. I used to sit in the corner at my sister’s station and write poetry and silly romantic stuff. Other than the NBA stars; our regulars were fellow grave-shifters just getting in or off work and truck drivers on a quick stopover to tuck-in before continuing on the lonely highways and interstates.
I was a dreamer back then and it used to be that I would make up quite a few interesting tales about the bright lights from downtown Houston and beyond which used to mesmerize me, to entertain myself. They were the coolest things for a bright eyed teen just in from Nigeria. That was then, this is about now.
Ever wondered what happens when you go to sleep at night? Does the whole country sleep with you? Okay, I know most people do realize that life does go on: the police department, fire houses, nurses and doctors in hospitals, factories and shops.
I never used to worry about stuff like this until a certain point in my life; when I worked nights in London’s West end. Then I looked after three kids all day. I never knew that years down the line I would have four more, life…full of many pleasant surprises!
We had one car and parking was hell back then and still is now. I decided the night bus 18N from northwest London to Baker Street was the best solution. I was a shelf-filler for a big retail departmental store. I was rather proud of my job and took it too seriously. Hubby used to wonder why I even bothered, but after dealing with three children all day, I needed sometime to myself away from home and work was the only way I saw this happening for me.
Night time life had many new discoveries and I was pleasantly surprised with them. I am not talking about the ravers or pub-hoppers, but about true nocturnal people of the night: hardworking men and women who came out late at night. Some do this by choice because it was the best thing that fits in with every other thing in their lives, while some others opt for the night to feel protected by the shroud of dark.
These are the ones with the big hearts and even bigger dreams. Many of which are educated with various degrees but owing to pitiful conditions in their home countries, seek the UK as an escape; a place perhaps of better chances to a better life. Some have no choice but to do these jobs because it is all they know how to and they do it with dignity and pride.
Objectively and subjectively, society has always placed certain value judgments on certain jobs. In places such as hospitals, police stations, fire houses etc. these jobs are considered dignified. Then there are the lesser beings; considered so because of the work they do: cleaning the streets, subway toilets, and sewers, garbage collectors and sanitation workers. Under the shroud of night they toil so that we can once again wake up to an orderly sweet smelling world.
My job involved shelving various items; one day I would be putting up Allsorts Liquorice, the next sexy lingerie. Sometimes it would be Baked Beans and Cock-a-leekie soup cans or pretty dolly night dresses and funky suede frilly boots for ten year olds. I did not matter what I did, I loved it, as long as it was work and it was outside our home: this was me time and it was precious.
Okay in the process I did suffer many a humiliation and insults from supervisors and managers, who clearly had IQ’s of patio furniture and colleagues who thought ‘denial’ was a river in Egypt; still I loved it. My most cherished memory of this period was the bus rides to and fro from work to home.
The 18N travelled Harrow road all the way down to Euston and would stop at Baker Street. Seated on the upper deck, I feasted on everything. Memories of my observations are sharp and acute: images of the homeless in cardboard makeshift shelter to hide from London’s bitter harsh winter and those of young lovers in denim and tweed jackets, giggling as they chase the bus down to the next bus stop.
At times it would be folks drunk to a stupor, either sprawled on the pavement or hunched over a lamp post, stewing in their own vomit and you could see the vapor of their breath like a cloud of smoke in the cold winter air. At other times, it was the rich ones with their imported luxury sports cars and designer clothing, laughing without a care as they stepped out of some posh eatery, blowing fake kisses in the air at each other as they departed.
On a good day you would see the odd good Samaritans going about handing out cups of hot soup and blankets to people huddled up between entrance enclosures of closed stores trying to keep out of the cold.
From my spot on the top deck of bus 18, I would smile and say a prayer of thanks; thanks because it is uplifting to know that in this cold harsh world there are some who still care about their fellow man and because I am grateful that I have a warm house and loving family to go home to.
Those days now seem so far away, but I cherish the memory of it all. I witnessed numerous things that left indelible impressions on my mind and a few poignant ones with rather bold footprints in it too. Of all of these, one of the boldest prints was that of laughter. My night crew family was one of many a laughter.
The street cleaners, sewer workers, bus drivers, drunken homeless and even my up market store all had fair share of characters. The competitors: these were the beat your neighbours type who had no preference to their victims. If they felt threatened in anyway, they cut you down. Then there were the uppers…always on a high and infusing life to those around. And finally the downers: those who had no choice but to spread misery or dampen spirits. We all had our share of laughter. To all of us our time together was normal, real and timely; despite the harshness of various situations and reasons, we always had the time for laughter and we laughed really hard.
My experience of the graveyard shift back in Houston and then a decade later in the city of London is one of awe. I was hooked from my very first exposure and you would be right in saying I romanticized my experience. Initially young and impressionable, I had neither the interest nor wisdom to view my experience any other way.
As an adult in London, my experience was more real; I could relate to many things I observed. London was a different kettle of fish in comparison to Houston: life without the glamour. People change, technology advances, but fundamentally, the demographic dispersion of human beings in big cities remains unchanged. People are drawn to bright lights and big cities where life stumbles on, one foot in front of the other.