“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”

Vincent Van Gogh

Sign in a gas station somewhere in central Maine, that caught my eye and touched my heart.


Wow! If I were looking for work, I think I would apply. The third shift. What we used to call the graveyard shift. Wow!

That shift is the coolest, unless it really is a graveyard job. I wouldn’t be into digging or tending graves in the wee small hours of the morning.


But I’m clearly well-suited to handle the third shift. I’ve had years of experience doing so.

My best summer job, at age 16, was working that shift as police switchboard operator in the 9th Precinct in North St. Louis. Ordinarily, it would not be a job given to a teenager, but I was tall for my age, a good speller and had “connections.”

Once I learned how not to shock myself with the phone plugs, it was an easy job. In those days, cops walked a beat and called in from a call box. I checked them off and, after a while, kept a hidden list of phone numbers where they could be reached on cold wet nights.

It was a fun job, but with an occasional unpleasant surprise. One night a young woman came running in carrying her son. He had a Tootsie Roll pop stuck in his throat. He was turning blue and clearly couldn’t breathe. The desk sergeant, a tall thin old man who looked like Jimmy Stewart, grabbed him and stuck his hand down the kid’s throat and saved him. If I wrote about every incident that happened that summer night, I would have a book. Maybe someday.

There was the 11-to-7 job on the E.J. and J. railroad with my brother in Waukegan, Illinois. Great summer job. Winter sucked. It was a union job. I never had any other kind, and it paid well. I worked it until I got a draft card.

The worst shift I ever pulled was on the base at Shepard Field in Texas. I drew the all-night guard duty standing up in a tower, making sure no one escaped from the stockade. The watch sergeant, a short thick man with a wet brow and thick border accent, was crisp and precise.


“If somebody cuts out and makes it to the top of the fence, you must shoot.”

“You mean kill?”

“Of course, otherwise you have to serve the last of his sentence.”

That night until break of dawn up in that tower, I mumbled maybe 150 Hail Marys with my sweaty finger perched on the edge of the trigger. In the morning I discovered I had been punked; there was no clip in the weapon. The guard house staff had a great laugh on the newbie. True story.

I worked the late shift at dozens of hotels in Manhattan, and then got my toughest job, as night admission clerk at a Jewish maternity hospital in the Bronx, where food, drink and behavior were kosher.

I had found the job in a Bronx paper someone left on the subway.


Each night, I had to pound out difficult Polish and Russian names on an old-fashioned typewriter. I thought the middle of the night in the Bronx would be a sleeper gig. You have no idea how many Jewish babies are born in the middle of the night in the Bronx.

When I asked the night manager, a tall curly-headed wannabe writer who was addicted to a pocket inhaler, why they hired an Irish Catholic boy for this job, his reply was priceless and unforgettable. “No Jewish mother would let her son work for this kind of money.”

I liked that guy. He always wore the same shiny blue suit with brown shoes and a plaid tie. He made me wear a yarmulke while I worked. Sometimes I wore it home on the subway in the morning. It was blue velvet, and I kept it for years. The job only lasted for couple of months, but I kind of liked being Jewish from 11 to 7.

The late shift in the big cities flows quickly from boring to dangerous. Births and sudden deaths elbow each other aside for a snapshot and paragraph in the morning papers. The cities of my youth were gritty neon landscapes of shifting moods filled with courageous, heroic men and women: cops, nurses, firefighters, what we now call first responders.

The night people, God bless them, the coffee shop girls, bartenders, dancers and actors, the hookers and the homeless looking for that sign in the window somewhere to save them:


J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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