Call it a night: Meet the people whose work days begin in the wee hours

Call it a night: Meet the people whose work days begin in the wee hours

Charlottesville’s never been known for its nightlife. Sure, there are some late-night restaurant-bars, and concerts, dance parties, and other entertainment events that go past midnight. Those who venture out in the dead of night, onto Charlottesville’s open streets and empty sidewalks, past closed businesses and dark houses, might say that the city is, well, dead.

But that’s not the case at all. Plenty of people are awake and active, particularly those working the night shift.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 15 million people in America work regular or sporadic night shifts—that’s about 5 percent of the country’s total population. For some, it’s a choice (they prefer to work at a time when they’ll mostly be left alone), for others, a necessity: A number of workers in this story have two, or even three, jobs. In some fields, night shifts do pay slightly more than day shifts.

Here in the Charlottesville area, many people work all night to make life easier, better, or safer, for others. Their labor often goes unnoticed and unappreciated, though, because it’s done when most people literally have their eyes shut.

Over several recent nights, photographer Eze Amos and I took at a peek at some of the things that go on in town long after the sun goes down. It’s a chance to get to know some of the people who do that work and see, just briefly, what their lives are like.

Photos by Eze Amos, words by Erin O’Hare

 

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Kroger

The Kroger at Barracks Road Shopping Center is open 24 hours a day. And while the store’s not exactly humming with customers overnight, it is bustling with hustling employees.

Between the hours of 10:30pm and 7am, Kroger’s overnight staff restocks bags of potato chips and boxes of Pocky, cans of beans and bottles of beer, piles of apples and containers of almonds. They update price and sale tags, clean up the back room and storage areas, create end displays, unload nightly truck deliveries, and make sure in-store machinery runs smoothly. And, of course, they assist customers (like a Domino’s delivery guy) who shop after their own late shifts.

Mike Page has worked the night shift at Kroger for about four years now, and he likes it quite a bit. It pays better, he says, and having fewer customers in the store gives the staff a chance to build a really unique camaraderie. “We play when it’s time to play, and work when it’s time to work.”

Page is a shift lead, but he still straps scuffed knee pads over his work pants to push pallets and stock shelves alongside his colleagues. He manages truck deliveries, too, and on this particular night, he’s facing an unprecedented situation: both trucks (it’s a two-truck delivery night) are stuck in the shopping center parking lot, a mere few hundred feet from the Kroger delivery berth.

 

For safety reasons, the Department of Transportation limits freight and truck drivers to 11 hours of driving time before a mandatory 10-hour break. Page has had delivery trucks stop a few towns, or even just a few miles away, but never this close to the store; the trucks cannot legally drive the final few feet until the following morning. It might mean a longer in-store shift for Page and some other folks, but Page says he understands. They’ll make it work.


 

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Newspaper delivery

Every Tuesday night, Dale Anderson waits for the call.

It comes late, usually around midnight, the indication that a few thousand copies of C-VILLE Weekly are hot off the press and ready for him to deliver. For the next 12 hours, Anderson will drive all over Charlottesville, putting weekly papers into blue boxes and designated racks, picking up any left over from the previous week’s delivery, and seeing which of C-VILLE’s magazines, such as Knife & Fork, Abode, and Unbound, need to be restocked at which locations. Then he stocks those, too.

He has to be purposeful about where he delivers, when: While most news-paper boxes are in public places, a number of racks are located inside buildings and businesses that aren’t open until the morning.

In addition to distributing for C-VILLE, Anderson delivers Crime Times and the Blue Ridge Buck Saver. He also owns and drives a taxi.

“It doesn’t hurt me none,” Anderson says about working night shifts that often extend into the morning, or even afternoon. “I’m only a four-hour sleeper anyway. I’m just used to it! My body likes four hours of sleep.” Maybe, he wonders out loud, because he and his wife have seven children, so he’s “used to being up and down” at all hours of the day and night.

Anderson started delivering more than 20 years ago, “back when newspapers were king” and daily deliveries kicked off somewhere around 2am. He worked for The Washington Post, and then The Hook (which merged with C-VILLE in 2011); now, he’s delivered for C-VILLE for so long that he knows every route by heart and is often the one to pick up other drivers’ routes when they’re on vacation or call out sick.

“The thing about working late at night is that it’s much easier. You don’t have people in your face, you don’t have traffic,” he says, laughing. “Charlottesville’s not a super happening town in the middle of the night.”


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Emergency Communications Center

When Lisa Fitzgerald applied to work at the Charlottesville-UVA-Albemarle County Emergency Communications Center 31 years ago, she thought she’d just be answering phones. But during her yearlong training, she realized that taking 9-1-1 calls is a way to actively help people…just without the blood and guts. Now a public safety communications supervisor, she not only works a full-time shift load, she helps train new hires for the job she’s come to love.

Fitzgerald has worked days but she prefers nights, in part because night calls tend to be more urgent. “And it’s never the same night twice.” A couple weeks ago, she delivered a baby over the phone. The next night, she took a call for a shooting.

Fire, police, and EMS workers are often heralded as “first responders” for being the first to arrive on the scene of an incident. But “we’re answering the phone. We’re really the first ones,” says Fitzgerald of emergency call takers and dispatch operators. Depending on how an incident is handled over the phone—if she’s able to calm down a hysterical caller and get more information to relay over the radio—it can make a big difference for when fire, EMS, and police do arrive on the scene.

Full-time ECC employees like Fitzgerald work 12-hour shifts, and it’s not an easy job—each call is unique, some are very stressful, and call takers are under a lot of pressure to respond responsibly and well. It takes a year to be fully trained, longer if the ECC is shorthanded (as it has been recently) and needs experienced workers to take calls instead of teach trainees.

There’s often a personal price paid, too. Sleeping during the day can be difficult. It’s noisier, and more people are apt to contact Fitzgerald via phone or email, expecting an immediate reply. “People who don’t work the night shift don’t understand,” she says, adding that “family life suffers a bit, too,” though she says her two children have come to understand her unconventional schedule. For instance, she says, “Christmas is whatever day I’m off around Christmas. But I think I’d be bored doing anything else.”

 


 

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Planet Fitness

Nighttime isn’t terribly busy inside the 24-hour Planet Fitness gym located inside 5th Street Station, says front desk clerk Christian George, with just a handful of people coming in after their own late work shifts. Activity picks up around 3:30am, when folks start to trickle in for their pre-work morning workouts. The televisions are always on, as is the music, and George is always busy—when she’s not greeting people who walk through the door, checking them in and tidying up the desk area, she’s doing gym-related paperwork. The 10pm to 4am overnight shift works well with her schedule—it’s a part-time gig for her; she also works at UVA hospital. During her shift, she often chats with Planet Fitness custodian Carl Monroe, who cleans during the overnight shift five nights a week.

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“I love working in the gym because I talk a lot,” says Monroe (to knowing laughter from George). He likes to chat with customers as he cleans the 90-or-so machines, plus mats, mirrors, floors, bathrooms, and locker rooms. Monroe, who’s 62, worked at Gold’s Gym on Hydraulic Road for years; when Gold’s closed, he was worried that, at his age, he wouldn’t be able to find a job, as businesses seem to prefer to hire younger workers. “How are older folks supposed to live?” he asks.

“This is one of the cleanest gyms out there,” says Monroe. “We take pride in it, but we don’t get the credit for it.” He notes that when he’s not at work, people ask where he’s been.

It’s true, says George. Customers want to know if he’s okay…and they notice when the gym hasn’t received Monroe’s golden touch.


 

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Omni Hotel/UVA Hospital

Joseph Sesay arrived in Charlottesville in August 2004. One month later, he started working as a bellman at the Omni Charlottesville Hotel, and he’s been there ever since, working the second shift, 2:30 to 11pm. He escorts guests to their rooms, gives them the rundown of amenities available at the hotel (indoor pool, outdoor pool, bar and restaurant, fitness center, etc.) and in the immediate vicinity. He makes sure guests have their luggage, enough towels, anything else they may need or want. It’s not heavy work—talking with guests is mostly quite enjoyable, says Sesay, who came to Charlottesville as a refugee from Sierra Leone.

Sesay’s heavy work begins after his Omni shift, when he heads directly to his second full-time job as a housekeeping team lead at the University of Virginia hospital. He inspects all of the recently vacated rooms on floors three through eight, assessing whether they’ve been cleaned well and with the appropriate chemicals based on what’s happened in the room. Sometimes, as is the case with labor and delivery, there’s a lot to clean up—extra sheets, blood, other bodily tissues and fluids. When the morning shift takes over at 7:30, Sesay’s done with room inspections, but he still has to do payroll. He gets home around 8:30am, goes to bed around 9:30, and manages to sleep for about 4 hours until he gets up to return to the Omni.

Working two full-time jobs, Sesay’s got to be tired. “At times, I am,” he admits. But he does it to support his family—his wife and daughter here in the States as well as his sister and her three children back in Sierra Leone; all three kids are doing spectacularly in school and in their trade programs, Sesay says, smiling.

On his precious days off, he cooks.


 

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Lucky 7

Lucky 7 is the only 24-hour food spot in downtown Charlottesville, so it’s a bit of a destination. The 10pm to 7am night shift isn’t slow, but it’s not terribly busy, either, says Ron Jude, who’s worked at the convenience store for a few weeks now. “It’s something to do to keep me occupied, keep me out of the house,” he says.

There’s a fairly steady stream of customers and a nightly pre-midnight rush when folks come in to buy cigarettes and alcohol before sale of the latter is prohibited per state liquor laws. Things pick up again a bit after 2am, as bars let out and customers are looking for a bite to eat, or for more alcohol (when they can’t buy it at that hour, says Jude, some people try to steal it). Many of the store’s nighttime customers are homeless folks or people stopping in after working their own late-night jobs.

Jude’s lived in Charlottesville off and on for about 30 years, and he says that while Charlottesville’s not as “crazy” as other places he’s lived, Lucky 7 customers still manage to surprise him, like a guy who recently came in flamboyantly dressed, fresh from a rave (yes, a rave…in Charlottesville).


 

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Red Carpet Inn

Travis Hilton says his job is “pretty boring 99 percent of the time.”

The 11:30pm-7:30am front desk shift at the Red Carpet Inn on Route 29 is relatively quiet. Hilton, the night auditor, spends most of that time doing the hotel’s general accounting, though he’s occasionally summoned to check in guests (between three and eight on a regular night, upwards of a dozen on UVA basketball and football game weekends), and tote bottles of shampoo, extra towels, and rollaway beds to one of the hotel’s 115 rooms.

Hilton started working hotel night shifts when he was in high school. In his 20-plus years in the industry, he’s learned that those hotels with ballrooms, event spaces, and full-service bars and restaurants are more active at night (this isn’t the case at the Red Carpet Inn). He’s seen his share of drunken antics, and at least one room completely destroyed by cats (it required a complete reupholster). He’s seen a drug bust go down, too, but he says his stories aren’t nearly as flashy as those his boss has told about working at a hotel across the street from the Pentagon, where there were tales of car chases and briefcase switches.


 

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Parking lot cleaning

From about 9pm to 7am most nights of the week, Brian (who asked that we not used his last name) drives a truck for Sweeping Corporation of America, sweep-cleaning the asphalt and replacing garbage can liners in shopping center parking lots all over town (like 5th Street Station and Barracks Road Shopping Center, to name just a couple). It’s a fairly quiet job, one best accomplished at night when there’s not a lot of traffic in the lots. But there’s always someone in every lot, he says. People traveling in RVs often park in shopping center lots overnight, as do people who live in their cars. Teenagers, he’s noticed, tend to hang out in movie theater parking lots.

Brian is quick to point out that “everything in life requires a job to be done.” When he brings his truck back to the garage at the end of his shift, someone else is going to wash it, he says. A third person will put air in the tires and make sure that everything’s running smoothly under the hood. And so on, and so on.


 

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Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport

By 3 o’clock in the morning, a few passengers are already waiting to check in for their flights at Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport…but there aren’t any staff in the place yet. That is, except for Steve, the morning shuttle bus driver who picks up airline, runway, and TSA staff from the employee parking lot and delivers them to the terminal to prep for the first flights.

Steve, who lives in Culpeper and has driven the CHO shuttle bus for seven years, wakes at 1am in order to arrive on time for his 12-hour shift. He knows every staff member who gets on the shuttle, greeting almost all of them by name and asking if there’s anyone left in the parking lot so as not to make them wait 10 minutes for his next loop. He inquires after children and grandchildren, and happily answers questions about his own grandbaby (who just turned 2).

Most airport workers have two jobs, Steve explains. One man works on the runway from 4-8am before heading to work at CVS, where he’s a manager. One young airline desk and gate attendant is a high school student, who comes in to work that 4-8am shift before heading to homeroom. “He’s an amazing young man, really intelligent,” says Steve, and damn good at his job. “One day, we’ll look back and say ‘we knew him when.’”

Most of them also do it for the flight benefits. One airline gate agent who drives over from Harrisonburg every morning says that her airline job allows her to visit her daughter in Houston a few times a year, something she might not be able to do otherwise. Hers is a pretty common story, says Steve.

By 4 o’clock—just one hour later—CHO is up and running. Taxis and hotel buses and cars pull up to the terminal doors to drop off travelers. Desk agents check bags and boarding passes as TSA agents run security checks. Concession stand workers brew coffee and make breakfast sandwiches near the gates, and out on the runway, more workers (including air traffic control) ready the planes for takeoff.


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Insomniac

The older Sean Tubbs gets, the more he yearns for an early bedtime. Most nights, he can get to sleep early, but he can’t seem to get the recommended eight consecutive hours.

After working as a journalist for many years, where he often had to stay up very late or wake very early to cover an event or make a deadline, Tubbs is used to running on maybe four hours of sleep a night. And while he’s no longer a journalist (he currently works as a field representative for the Piedmont Environmental Council) he says he still can’t manage to sleep more than a few hours at a time and is often awake at 3am.

At that hour, he tunes in to the industrial hum coming from the nearby UVA hospital, or the sound of the Pegasus helicopter whirring to its landing pad. Most nights, he hears the rumble of a dump truck, or a fox screaming in the field behind his house. In the summer, he hears mockingbirds.

Tubbs knows he’s not the only insomniac in town: Through his windows, he notices a “surprising amount of people” awake, driving and walking through the neighborhood.

He prefers to wander around his house in the wee hours, “relishing” his thinking time. He resists picking up his phone to tweet about public transportation, and while he tries not to work (something he’d have done were he still reporting), he does allow himself to think about work.

“I think about what my day’s going to be, the challenges I’m going to have. It’s useful, that kind of worry.”

After a couple hours, Tubbs is sleepy enough to return to bed.

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Malissa

What an insightful article! I loved reading about the ins and outs of these dutiful people who keep our city running through the wee hours.