Third Shift Therapy

By Matthew Randall

December 11th, 2016

The phenomenon of working third shift for any occupation is a definite shock to the system. Human beings are designed to follow cicada rhythms, where our biologic clock tells us to be awake during the day and recharge at night. There are many calculable benefits for being awake during the day time: increased social interaction, exposure to the healing effects of the sun, and longer periods of activity are among these.

When left to our own natural sleep cycle we wake with the break of day, and sleep with it’s setting. Our bodies yearn to remain in synch with the sun. Working any shift that begins at 10 pm and extends through the night messes things up. When the world is getting ready for the day, third shift minions are ready for rest. Life does not line up quite right when sleep is required during broad daylight.

Within the inky embrace of darkness develops an ebb and flow to life uniquely it’s own; the night takes on it’s own rhythm. A completely different and fascinating society comes into existence as the blanket of darkness covers the world; one that most people never see. The opportunity to become a “creature of the night” is shunned by many people, but can develop into a worthwhile part of the human experience, if even for a short period of time.

When my life changed to the point where working third shift became an option, I somehow ended up on it. Being a natural introvert I figured that there would be less confusion and more of a learning curve working a third shift retail position. Additionally, the extra dollar per hour helped in the decision making. What I did not count on was how fascinating the experience would be.

I am a person who needs a minimum number of hours sleep to function daily. It must be regular, in complete darkness with total quiet or a source of white noise, under a heavy blanket, and seven hours in length — no more, no less. Flipping my sleep rhythms to occur during the daytime I figured would be a harrowing endeavor, but I adapted well from the start. The job itself was fairly straight forward; process goods to be stocked on the sales floor, stocking the sales floor, or the major task…folding clothes disrupted by customers during the day to make the place look neat and orderly for the next day of business. Not exactly rocket science.

My vision was that the workforce on third shift would be largely made up of school students or disgruntled societal misfits not properly suited for day shift work, and that the mangers would be lethargic and largely indifferent to the nightly operations of the store. I also envisioned spending a lot of time on internal reflection, since this crew would not be very talkative or have any interest in intellectual conversations. I ended up being very wrong.

The mix of people working during the night time were eclectic and fascinating, coming from all walks of life. The management team was kind, patient, and dedicated to the mission at hand. Everybody was trying to ensure that their eight hours of contribution towards the operations for the store was done well and on time. A bond that developed, unique within the community of the store staff; you were either a member of “third” or you were not, and granted unspoken respect for working the midnight hours.

There was no drama worth mentioning. Little things would arise like last minute changes in the pricing for items, processing an unusually large influx of merchandise that caused finding storage space that satisfied fire code an issue, and questioning a new or existing procedure that did not seem to operationally make sense, but in the grand scheme of things it was all minor. Staff personally conflicts, laziness from the crew, and failure to complete tasks were never an issue. Being on third shift meant you pulled together and got stuff done, because that is what was expected.

I felt there was an honor component involved in getting on with the work. Third shift knew we were working hours most people would never wish to experience. We where an enigma to most, and getting tasks done efficiently helped to enhance this reputation. Blessedly, we were not hampered by having too many mangers around the place, and with fewer mangers you tend to get less drama. It was massive benefit.

The daytime world is full of noise. Phones, cars, horns, buzzers, intercoms, YouTube, radio, television, alarmist news reporters, and loud mouth pundits fill our airwaves. It is a constant influx of information telling you what to do, where to go, and how to think. It takes getting out of the noise to realize how paralyzing it can be. In the inky blackness of night the world is at rest, and so too are some of the noises…with the exception of lesser known musical selections, set on a three hour loop, filling the sales floor’s cavernous space. Third gives you the chance to ponder the world and your place in it. To sort through the messages in your head and focus on the ones that excite and motivate you. It is a form of meditation, imposed by the perimeters of the work, but welcomed when embraced for what it can provide — clarity of thought and focus.

The variety of souls that I interacted with working the graveyard shift was refreshing. My exposure to this cross section of people was complete when one story had a co-worker running into Minnie Driver, the actress, at a rest stop in Connecticut and telling her that he had swam in the pool at her current home when it was previously owned by one of his friends. Not bad for a completely out of left field late night tale at a retail operation in Maine.

My colleagues ranged from college students to folks simply trying to “find their way,” former managers trying to slow down their lives and people with regular full time day jobs, retirees to intellectuals. Below is presented a partial recollection of some of their life journeys:

  • A young adopted lady who had found direction and order through her faith, but was now struggling with the fact that her adopted family did not embrace these edicts to the same degree.
  • Raconteur and retired gentleman in his mid sixties from South Paris, Maine who enjoyed stopping at local diners for breakfast on his way home from work. He possessed a background in cinematography, and while living in California in the seventies was hired by a friend to film Dire Straits in a documentary being made by some German folks.
  • The Maine Maritime Academy graduate and merchant marine turned late age hippie. He spent eight years sailing the oceans of the world before settling down into the restaurant business. A societal rebel at heart he was now into sweat lodges, horticulture, and herbal medicine.
  • Miss Outward Bound, the divorcee in her late fifties who had worked out West taking people on leadership adventures into the wilderness. She spent time hiking around Europe and then settled down and started a family. Quiet, demure, and more knowledgeable about the woods than almost anybody in the building.
  • Our obligatory “class clown” who worked a full time job as a foreman at Bath Iron Works, and did the night shift to earn a few extra shekels. Full of personality, friendly to all, and a Eagle Scout who had attended a National Jamboree.
  • A lady whom looked as if she had spent her life with a hammer in her hands. The cigarette smoking, gutter language talking woman in her late fifties who looked ninety pounds soaking wet, was running her own construction business that she inherited from her father. She’d always wanted to work in the family business, but that was “not what women did in her time,” so she spent over twenty years in the computer technology field. She finally got tired of the stress and is now climbing ladders, a happier person.
  • My long haired friend in his late twenties who wants to be a career student. He reads over one hundred books a year, was full of ways to make the world better thanks to the teachings of Kant and Marx, extremely laid back, and had hiked half of the Appalachian Trail heading northbound from Georgia. He and his girlfriend had to get off the trail because he sprained his ankles, so the two intended to complete it the following year.
  • Our small statured friend who pedaled his bike to work, in December, in the snow. He was sleeping in a hammock with a campfire to keep him warm at a friend’s home somewhere in Maine. A mystery to all of us, but the man obviously used his camping gear a lot because he spoke with knowledge only gained through trial and error. One story had him crossing Lake Erie in winter by walking on the ice. The journey took him seventeen hours to go from Canada to Pennsylvania, and said it would have been shorter if not invited to stop and enjoy multiple beers with the ice fisherman in their shacks scattered all over the great body of water.

The team had others such as a woman who ran her own daycare, a former racket ball equipment company manger who’s family moved to Maine for a slower pace of life, and the college graduate who was joining the National Guard to be a nurse. The vastness of experiences was tremendous.

The inspiring part of the experience was to overhear and participate in conversations of trust. Through the bond developed from a shared experience of working those late night hours, people seemed to innately see each other as confidants. Possibly it was the effects of insufficient levels of caffeine in our systems, but regardless the crew on the floor felt compelled to share the turmoils of their lives with peers, seeking advice during the quiet solitude of night.

Most of the questions revolved around themes such as career choices, relationship dynamics between families or friends, and philosophical quandaries surrounding faith, evolution, and the role of government. As the bad times in people’s lives were shared, so were the good ones. The birth of a granddaughter, children returning home for the holidays, the passing of a school course, or promotions at various day jobs were topics for celebration and congratulations. Everybody’s spirits would inevitably be lifted by the success of their peers.

Then there were the parade of customers that would ebb and flow with the passing of the hours. Busy at the start of the late night shift, dying off as the early hours of morning approached, and then picking back up when dawn began breaking. All manner of humanity would arrive, from the elderly trying to do their shopping before the crowds jammed the place, to college students out for a midnight foray, all the way to fellow graveyard shift workers from other companies catching up on their purchasing quests. We even witnessed parents with young children roaming the sales floor at three or four o’clock in the morning.

It was fascinating to us on third shift to monitor the type of people who had determined that shopping at such an odd hour was a reasonable option. We had heard the rumors about late night patrons sneaking off to have sex in a tent on the display floor, drunks looking for a place to warm up and hassling others in the process, or that celebrities would randomly appear during the night in order to avoid the paparazzi and over zealous fans. During our time we witnessed none of these things, just a flow of friendly people going about their business in the wee hours of the night.

All too soon four-thirty would come, and this special world would be invaded by outsiders, in the form of the first shift crew. Compatriots-in-arms and members of the store team as a whole they were still not third shift, and thus changed the harmony we had in play. “Our” world became simply “a” world within the societal interplay of store operations. People with their own objectives and missions, but strangers in the midst. Maybe it was the knowledge that inevitably stewardship of the store would soon pass from third shift to first at that moment that changed the mood. No matter the reason, our special place and moment in space and time would be ending for another day, to be rekindled again in sixteen hours.

I suspect some people trudge off to work third shift and see it as a burden; an inconvenience to be plying their trade at what is perceived as ungodly hours. They probably feel that they are missing out on experiences that others are having while working “normal” hours. That the graveyard shift employee is the “odd man out” and not worthy of the same respect as people who work in the glorious embrace of the sun’s rays.

It is this idea and fear of the unknown which keeps most people from embracing new experiences. From discovering new and vibrant facets of humanity. Working third shift is mundane to some, alien in concept for most, and absolutely unacceptable to others. If that is the case, I submit that they are wrong and are missing out on sharing in a community that is unique in our world. Of reaping the benefits of a cleansing and centering of the soul, courtesy of third shift.