Every Night a Little Death
The law firm was corporate and one of the largest in the business, with offices all over the world. There were seven hundred attorneys in the Manhattan branch alone, and a support staff three times that number. I applied for a word-processing position a week after I arrived in the city, in January of 1999, and once I’d passed a proofreading test, the woman in charge of hiring offered me the job on the spot. “That’s terrific,” I said. She told me the hourly pay, which was a little higher than I’d expected, and I said that would suit me just fine. Then she told me the only openings they had were on the graveyard shift.
I’d never had a job in the corporate world before. I’d been a housepainter, a waiter, a stockroom clerk, an English teacher, a bartender. The graveyard shift seemed a fitting place for me to land, given that I’d just moved from the “sleepy” South to the city that never sleeps — an exciting change for me, though most of my friends back home had told me I was being foolish. “New York?” one of them had asked. “Really? I hope you have a lot of money, and a lot of tears.”
Another, pulling up beside me at a traffic light, had rolled down his window to shake his head and holler, “That place is going to chew you up, spit you out, and piss on you.”
“I’ll tell you exactly what’s going to happen,” an older, chain-smoking neighbor had said as I was helping him sort his recycling. “You’re going to fuck up your life beyond belief, and you’re going to be back here in six months — probably addicted to heroin.”
All of which made me more determined than ever to succeed (success meaning only my not having to move back south in six months). I took the job. I even decided graveyard shift had an impressive ring to it. Responsible people worked the graveyard shift. Guys who wore matching-cap-and-jacket uniforms and carried lunchboxes worked the graveyard shift. Copyeditors in newsrooms, security guards who shone flashlights into warehouses, EMTs who stanched gunshot wounds — these were the secret heroes who kept the gears of the world turning while everyone else snoozed.
I was thirty-three and living in New York. I had an illegal sublet on the Upper West Side that was mine for another two months, and I had employment. To celebrate, I went to dinner with friends.
My first night on the job, I showed up dressed in my funeral suit, the same suit I’d worn for my interview and for my week of nine-to-five orientation. The HR person who’d vetted me, the woman who’d hired me, the trainer who’d spent five days training me — none of these people were around. The faces were all new, and one of the first things I noticed was that none of them looked especially tired. It was almost midnight and we were on the forty-sixth floor of a needle-like building on Fifth Avenue, with windows showing views of the flickering lights of Midtown and Lower Manhattan, but these people were on the mid-swing of their day. They carried bagels, egg sandwiches. They poured packets of sugar into their coffees as their computers booted up.
Another thing I noticed was that no one looked very corporate. Some, in fact, looked like they’d come from yoga classes, or baseball games, or Broadway shows (they were carrying copies of Playbill, anyway). A couple of them looked as if they’d just rolled out of bed and pulled on yesterday’s clothes, but even they seemed spritely. One woman, wearing a Mets baseball cap, was walking around carrying a vintage Zippy the Chimp doll almost half as tall as she was (she introduced me to it). A red-faced young man in the corner was staring at his computer, mumbling to himself as he squeezed a handgrip. Another man, older and sitting nearby, was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, a wide necktie, and a rainbow-striped clown wig. In muted tones — though not so muted that they weren’t competing with one another — several people in the room were singing show tunes.
Wendell, the overnight supervisor whose walrus mustache hid both his lips, walked me around and introduced me. With the exception of the guy squeezing the handgrip, everyone seemed friendly. They welcomed me to the firm, to the funhouse, to the sausage mill, to the Death Star. I was given a desk next to square-jawed, gray-haired man who had a gravelly voice and looked like he could have been a private eye or a gallery owner or a junkie in any number of seventies television shows set in New York. Turns out he — like nearly everyone on the graveyard shift — was an actor. He’d been on TV and in films. His name was Howard, and he told me he was still acting, though he was also branching out and becoming a life coach. “And you’re a what?” he asked.
“Just a person,” I said.
Howard smirked, eyes fixed on the document next to his screen, fingers flying over his keyboard. “We don’t get many of those. Most of us are something else. My guess is you’re a writer. You look like one.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “I do that. Very astute of you.”
“I’d kill an orphan for a ciggy,” he said.
Wendell sauntered over and made a vaudevillian gesture of handing me a stack of papers across the top of one forearm. He explained that the graveyard shift in the Operations Group was all about doing these “mark-up” jobs for attorneys — unless the attorneys were here working late themselves, in which case word processors were sometimes sent “on assignment” to their offices to work alongside them. “Sort of like being their secretary,” he said.
“Or their butt boy,” said Howard.
“Or their bitch,” said a tiny woman sitting on the other side of him. She was wearing sunglasses and was so pale, wizened, and fierce-looking, I thought for a moment she was Joan Didion.
Several desks away, the man in the clown wig tsk’d.
“Now, now,” Wendell said, “it’s not like that. It’s smooth camping around here. Happy sailing. Say, Howard, the partner’s calling from home about that job you’re working on. He wants an ETA.”
“Does he now?”
“Ballpark,” Wendell said. “Comme si, comme ça.”
“Tell him to staple it to his mother’s tits,” Howard said.
The woman in sunglasses burst out laughing, which caused me to laugh, too. But the man in the clown wig lifted his head and began to shout with what sounded like genuine fury, “I don’t come here to listen to filth! I come here to work!”
“Me, I come for the lighting,” Howard said.
“Never a dull moment, eh?” Wendell touched my shoulder and flapped his elbows. “Anyway, if you have any questions, you’re surrounded by helpful people, so just ask.”
As he walked away, the man in the clown wig glanced at the person sitting across from him — a slope-backed man in a sweater vest. “Why anyone would talk that way in a workplace — or anywhere — is beyond me,” the man in the clown wig said. “The human mouth is not a toilet. Am I right, Mr. Abhinav?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the slope-backed man said.
“Yes you do. Bad language. Very unpleasant.”
“I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” said the slope-backed man, and then glanced at me and smiled with a set of brilliantly white teeth.
As I contemplated my new schedule, things I’d never considered before suddenly blossomed in my mind. Should I start having breakfast at night, before work? That would put lunch at around 4:00 a.m., and dinner at — 9:00 a.m.? I hadn’t decided yet if I was going to try to go to bed right when I got home or put it off for a while. Putting it off would more closely resemble normal life (television, food, reading, and eventually sleep). But would I have a beer, then, when I got home at 8:15 in the morning? The idea seemed wrong no matter how I tried to justify it. I worried, too, that I might not be able to fall asleep the closer it got to noon, and if I couldn’t fall asleep, what would that do to the rest of my day/night? Noon meant full-on sunlight, food carts, honking delivery trucks. And even if I could manage to drift off by noon, I couldn’t stomach the idea of waking up after the sun had already started to set. That seemed even worse than sipping a beer in the morning.
Thinking about these things, I didn’t sleep at all following my first night at work. I was too wound up, too worried about finding another place to live in just two months, too hyper-aware of doors closing in the hall, footsteps clicking in the stairwell, pigeons cooing on the windowsill. All for the best, I decided. This was like jetlag: I just needed to plow through it for a day or two until I eventually collapsed, slept twelve hours, and woke up a new man. In the meantime, why was I sitting around a stranger’s apartment on a crisp winter’s day when all of New York was out there waiting for me?
I took the train down to Chelsea and enrolled myself in a roommate service. They sent me to a six-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen that had one room available. The five other bedrooms had padlocks on their doors. The sink in the kitchen was filled with dirty dishes, and on the stove sat the tiniest kitten I’d ever seen. I waved hi to it with one finger. It coughed.
I bought a coffee and carried it past bars filling up for happy hour. I bought the Daily News and sat on a stoop reading it — until a man stopped a few feet away with his back to me, bent over, dropped his pants, and began inspecting his asshole with both hands.
I moved on, thought about grocery shopping, ended up instead at a deli with a hot bar. Why buy groceries when I was only going to end up moving in eight weeks, I thought. I bought four plastic containers of food: noodles, stir-fry, chicken cutlets, slabs of meatloaf. Back at the apartment, I was deciding which container to eat for my late night breakfast and which to take to work for my early morning lunch when I saw a story in the paper about a suspect-at-large who was going around the city with a spray bottle, misting “poop water” onto hot bars in delis.
I often ended up riding the elevator with Leo, the red-faced young man who’d been squeezing a handgrip the first time I’d seen him. The canvas bag Leo carried with him was big enough to hold nearly everything I’d brought with me to New York, and I began to wonder if he, too, was looking for a place to live. Night after night, he was never without the bag. Near the end of my first week on the job, I almost asked him about it, but Leo had a habit of slamming his wallet against the card reader — as if he’d just as soon knock a hole in the wall as clock in for work — so I didn’t speak to him beyond saying hello.
The woman carrying around the Zippy the Chimp doll, I learned, was named Rebecca. She would make a pouty face if Wendell assigned her a particularly large proofreading job, and if she flipped through it before carrying it off to her cubicle and it was heavily marked up, she would start to cry.
“There, there,” Wendell would say, leaning forward over his desk and smiling behind his mustache, “no need to get emotional.”
More than once, I saw her give him the finger over her shoulder as she walked away.
The man in the clown wig was named Mr. Norwich, and he so respected formality in the workplace that he insisted on using “Mr.” or “Ms.” before everyone’s names. Since no one in the Operations Group wanted to go by their last names, he attached the moniker to their first names.
“Mr. Patrick,” he said to me one early morning in the kitchenette, “I have to say, I liked it better when you wore a suit to work.”
“I only wore a suit that first night,” I said.
“I know. And now look at you.”
I was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. Wendell had told me I could wear just about anything I wanted to work — “so long as the naughty parts stay covered up.” Mr. Norwich was holding a coffee mug bearing the firm’s name and blinking at me, waiting for me to respond.
“I like your wig,” I said for lack of anything else.
The next night, the clown wig had been replaced by a blond one — long and curling, the ends forming parentheses around Mr. Norwich’s necktie. When Wendell approached him with a job and referred to him as Mr. Norwich, Mr. Norwich snapped, “I don’t know why everyone keeps calling me that! I don’t know who that is! My name is Ms. Lulu.”
And so we all started calling him Ms. Lulu — until the clown wig reappeared.
The show tune singers sang sotto voce until they really wanted to be heard; then they just sang at conversational levels, and because so many people in the room were in the performing arts, no one ever told anyone else to shut up. Sometimes, spontaneously, they sang together. I sat one night at around 2:00 a.m. between two middle-aged women who quietly, and then not so quietly, performed a duet of “Every Day a Little Death.” “Me harmony,” one of them said when the time came. They performed the entire song without ever once looking up from their keyboards.
Though seven hundred attorneys clogged the building during the day, by night nearly all of them vanished. We were surrounded by evidence of their existence — they left heaps of work for us to do on their way home — and occasionally they called in to see how we were progressing, or to add additional instructions, or to bark an answer to a question one of us had left on their voicemail. But the scratchings on their documents may as well have been the cave drawings of a vanished tribe. They were the members of the Lost Colony, I sometimes thought. Or the firm was Ireland, and the attorneys were the snakes driven out of it. We word processors were archeologists. Or cockroaches left alive in a radioactive wasteland. Or vampires.
The lack of sleep was getting to me.
I bolted upright in bed one afternoon because I thought I could hear my nose hairs rubbing together when I breathed. I was one month into the job and was managing, on average, three hours of sleep a day. My skin was starting to look opalescent, my eyes like those of a Hummel. If I couldn’t fall asleep when I got home from work, I left the apartment. If I fell asleep only to wake up an hour or two later, I left the apartment. In my rattled state, I felt I could only justify my not-at-work existence if I was a) looking for a new place to live, or b) out enjoying the city.
I kept visiting potential roommates, only to have the interviews fall flat or turn weird. One sausagey man answered his door and sized me up like I was a prostitute he’d ordered. “You can look at the place if you want,” he said, “but I’ve got to tell you, there was a guy here this morning who’s interested in the room, and he’s gorgeous.” Another man answered his door holding a dachshund and dressed in a housecoat patterned with dachshunds. He invited me in, offered me fennel tea, then sat across from me in his living room and asked me to tell him all about myself. As I spoke about my recent move and my new job with the crazy hours, he bounced the dachshund and listened and watched me, his expression more delighted than the circumstances seemed to warrant. At least three times he said, “You just sound so together.”
I felt anything but together. Bundled up and walking around the city, I felt as confused as Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense and as hazy as Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls. Being from the South, I found snow exotic — but as I was quickly learning, snow in New York is like those toxin-eating footpads they sell in Chinatown: clean for an hour or so, and then nasty. My hands ached and my eyes stung from the cold. I rode the subway just to be underground, and saw a woman sitting on a stool at Columbus Circle playing “Ave Maria” on a saw; a man standing on the platform in Times Square playing the James Bond theme on a violin; and a set of identical twins right out of The Shining tap-dancing in Penn Station. When I emerged onto Christopher Street, I was greeted by a man holding a sign that read, SCREAM AT ME — $1.
I had a handful of friends who’d been living in the city for years, and I accepted every evening invitation that came my way. Sometimes that meant meeting them for a drink before they went off to dinner, or meeting them for drinks and dinner, or meeting them for a drink after they’d gone to dinner. It made no difference to me because my drink was always coffee (even though in the mornings now, on my way home from work, I would block off my olfactory system with one hand as I rushed past the coffee carts). “New York really agrees with you,” one friend told me in a restaurant. “You’re so full of life!”
But it was caffeine and exhaustion I was full of. That night, the hours got away from me — I found myself in the Village when I needed to be at work, in Midtown, in just five minutes. I hailed a cab I couldn’t afford so that I wouldn’t be late and made the mistake of asking the driver if he could please hurry. As we shot like a malfunctioning rocket up Eighth Avenue, zigzagging around delivery trucks, I wondered if going faster made the meter turn more quickly. And did one have to tip more for a speedier trip? Was time money, or was money money?
I was ten minutes late. So, it turned out, was Leo. His large canvas bag sat between us as we rode the elevator together to the forty-sixth floor. I had imagined a whole life for Red-Faced Leo: searching for a new apartment; living out of his bag; showering at the gym. He was humming. Not a tune but a single note, low and resonant, like an air conditioner.
“Do they care if you’re late?” I asked.
He shot me a look.
“Not you. Us, I mean. Any of us. Do they care if we’re late?”
“Ratbag asshole shitters,” he said.
I was pretty sure he was referring to a group that included our employers, all the attorneys, and maybe everyone who was in a position of power anywhere, but not me, so I forced a little chuckle and said, “That’s exactly right. Ratbag asshole shitters.”
The elevator doors opened. Leo hoisted his bag onto his shoulder, stepped off, and slammed his wallet against the card reader. I clocked in behind him and reported to the front desk with an apology for being late.
“No use splitting hairs over spilt milk,” Wendell said jovially. “Here’s your mission, should you choose to accept it.” He handed me my first-ever assignment sheet.
I got a coffee from the kitchenette and reported to the twenty-eighth floor, where a young, sleepy-eyed attorney was working in his office. He looked even more exhausted than I felt. His collar was unbuttoned, his tie was tugged down, and his shirt, when he stood to reach for a binder on the shelf over his desk, was untucked on one side. I logged in at the computer where his secretary normally sat, and reported for duty.
“I’m not ready for you,” he said. “I thought I would be, but I’m not. Can you just hang out for a while?” He looked as if he might cry.
I told him of course, and to let me know if he needed anything. He got up and pushed his door closed behind me.
Between 12:30 and 3:30 a.m., surrounded by empty secretary desks, without another living soul in sight, I read The Moon Is Down from start to finish and played a half hour of solitaire. I thought maybe the attorney had forgotten about me. When I approached his office, I saw that his door wasn’t latched but stood open an inch. I tapped on it, said his name. For maybe thirty seconds, I stood there waiting. Then I eased the door open a few inches.
It stopped at the sole of his shoe.
I tapped again and peeked into the gap just enough to see his pant leg and the untucked half of his shirt.
On his secretary’s phone, I called the Operations Group and asked for Wendell.
“Paddy McGillicuddy O’Ryan,” he said. “How goes it out in the world?”
“I think my attorney’s asleep,” I whispered.
“I mean, I guess he’s asleep. He’s on the floor in his office. I think he’s been there a while.”
“Got it,” Wendell said. “Tell you what. Come back up to forty-six, and we’ll find something else for you to do.”
And so I turned off the computer, gathered my book and my coffee cup, and left the prostrate form lying behind the semi-closed door.
I got back to the Operations Group just in time for the Four A.M. Floorshow. This was a nightly tradition, a pick-me-up of sorts wherein someone spontaneously “performed” something — always silly, usually lasting only for a moment or two, and entirely superfluous because most of the staff were performing from midnight until 8:00 a.m. “Four A.M. Floorshow! Four A.M. Floorshow!” Wendell would say, walking among the desks and stirring the air with an index finger. “Jenny’s new sweater!” someone might suggest, at which point Jenny would get up and walk around the room like a fashion model, and those who felt like playing along would clap. “Howard,” someone might call out from across the room, “do your impression of Jerry Lewis!” and Howard, typing all the while, would holler, “Hey, lady! Hey, you, missus lady person!” to a spattering of applause.
As I walked back to my desk, Wendell announced the floorshow and said to the room, “I think Patrick should show us what his attorney’s been up to for the past few hours.”
“Could be a secret,” Abhinav, the slope-backed man, said.
“Maybe it was a bee-jay,” the Joan Didion–esque woman muttered.
“A three-hour bee-jay?” Howard said. “That I’d like to see.”
Mr. Norwich — back in his clown wig — tsk’d and slapped his hands over his ears.
All of this was potentially macabre given that we didn’t know if the attorney on twenty-eight was dead or alive, but I was so happy to be included and so giddy from lack of sleep that I was ready to lie down on the floor to get a laugh. But before I could embark on my moment in the spotlight, Rebecca got up from her desk and carried her Zippy the Chimp doll over to where I was standing.
“I’ve been here seven years!” she said. “No one has ever asked me to do the floorshow!”
She was kidding, I thought, but when I glanced at her I saw that her lower lip was quivering.
“So do it,” Abhinav said.
Rebecca sniffed. She lifted her doll. “This is Zippy.”
The room fell silent. We were all waiting, I thought, for the actual floorshow, given that she’d been carrying this monkey around for at least the five weeks I’d been working at the firm.
“What does Zippy do?” I finally asked.
Rebecca’s lip stopped quivering. She screwed her mouth into something close to grin, and her eyes twinkled with mischief. “This!” she said. Then she moved her hands to the doll’s ankles, swung him through the air, and brought his nose down on my head.
Zippy’s face, it turned out, was made of hard plastic. I felt such a blinding shot of pain that I thought I might pass out, and when the focus came back to my vision, I was seeing flecks of silver. “What the fuck?” I said, clutching my scalp.
“That’s it!” Mr. Norwich shouted, getting to his feet and reaching for his coat. “I am not suffering this abuse a minute longer! Not the F word! No sir! I am going home right now, and I am talking to HR tomorrow! I was not hired to wallow around in a pornographic truck stop!”
Which might have been funny because, whatever a “pornographic truck stop” was, it wasn’t the forty-sixth floor of a Manhattan office building. But, for all I knew, Mr. Norwich could have me fired; he’d been with the company twenty-six years. Add to that the fact that, while gathering his things, he snatched off his clown wig and stuffed it into his briefcase, revealing a head as smooth and bald as Yul Brynner’s.
I had to step out of his way as he left, and we could all see him as he stood on the other side of the glass wall waiting for the elevator. When it arrived, he got on and pushed the button for the lobby, his eyes meeting no one’s, his lips pressed together and jutting forward.
I didn’t have to ask if he’d ever stormed out before. It was obvious from the silence in the room that this was, at the very least, a rare occasion. If anyone was going to crack a joke, it would have been Howard, but Howard only resumed typing.
“OK,” Wendell said in a subdued voice. “Show’s over. Let’s all just hope this whole thing — you know — ” He didn’t finish his sentence but sunk his hands into his pockets and walked back to his desk.
Was fuck that much worse than bee-jay? I wondered. Or tits? And what about ratbag asshole shitters? Granted, Mr. Norwich hadn’t heard that, but I had. And I was the one who’d been whacked on the head with a plastic monkey, the only one in the room who had a knot rising up on his skull. Was I to be the fall guy in this late-night circus, the one who, out of all of us, was going to get sacked?
As it turned out, no one was going to get sacked for a long time. I never understood the hesitation on the part of the firm to fire its employees, but apparently these things had to be handled delicately and couldn’t be hung on just one incident; there needed to be multiple infractions recorded, investigated, and filed away. Warnings issued, and then second warnings, and then final warnings. Maybe the people in charge were just too busy to keep up with that end of things. Maybe HR didn’t want to be bothered with the creatures of the night unless they absolutely had to.
Rebecca continued to bring a doll to work (Zippy the Chimp was eventually replaced with a creepy, head-sagging Dr. Dolittle) and continued to throw tantrums. She had a full-on breakdown one night wherein she crawled under her desk, curled into a ball, and screamed bloody murder until Wendell talked her into calming down and crawling back out. But it wasn’t until later, at the firm’s holiday party, that she finally went too far. She was on the “dance floor” (a corner of the cafeteria where they’d cleared away the tables and chairs to make room for drunken attorneys and support staff) when a crown fell out of her mouth. Having just paid good money to a dentist, she dropped to her hands and knees and shoved at people’s legs as she searched for the crown; when she found it and saw that one of the partners was about to step on it, she bit his calf. And so her file was put into sufficient order for her to be dismissed.
Red-Faced Leo left his large, canvas bag partially unzipped one evening, and one of the other word processors glimpsed what appeared to be a hatchet. Security was called in, and the bag was revealed to contain not just a hatchet but a dagger, a machete, a gas mask, a set of nunchucks, a six-point Chinese throwing star, and enough cable to rappel down the side of the building from the forty-sixth floor, should the need ever arise. When HR explained to him that he couldn’t bring a bag of weapons into the workplace, Leo produced a letter asking the firm to agree to pay all his medical bills should he ever be attacked — by anyone, for any reason — while at the firm. HR refused. Leo tried to bring his bag back to work the next night and was fired.
Howard made it to retirement and announced at the cake-and-soda gathering thrown in his honor that he was fond of us all but regretted ever having stepped foot in the place. Mr. Norwich, at his own retirement gathering, stood up bald and proud and told us he’d made it to “the end” without ever having learned Excel, PowerPoint, Word, or even e-mail.
Wendell eventually quit to make sailboats.
My personal low point on the graveyard shift came halfway through the year and was quiet — was nothing, really, when compared to the nightly theatrics. One morning just as the sun was starting to come up, I was writing a note to an attorney about the headings in his document when the pen I was using ran out of ink. I was managing four, sometimes even five hours of sleep a night by then, but because I insisted on keeping normal hours on the weekends I was still perpetually jetlagged. I sat at my desk, drawing a small, invisible circle over and over on the document, until the Joan Didion–esque woman looked over at me and said from behind her sunglasses, “What in the world is wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said.
She was right. Tears were running down my cheeks. With a little shrug to convey Don’t worry about me, I’ll get through this, I said, “Oh, my pen ran out of ink.”
She stared at me for several moments — concerned or bemused, I couldn’t tell which. Then she handed me her pen.
I’d found another temporary sublet by then, and just as it was running out, I’d found my own apartment. I’d made it past the six-month mark without encountering heroin and without moving back to the South. I was halfway through my graveyard sentence, and if I continued to work hard and didn’t make any trouble, I thought, New York might let me off for good behavior before the year was out.
Cover photo by Premshree Pillai.
“Every Night a Little Death” is featured in Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York, edited by John Freeman.
Available through OR Books.