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Book Review : Living, Working on Edge of Daylight

March 03, 1987|LEE DEMBART

Night as Frontier: Colonizing the World After Dark by Murray Melbin (Free Press: $19.95)

Two decades ago, my first real job in newspapers was on the New York Post, and it required me to work from midnight till 8 a.m., which I did for three years.

Many boring stories could be told about working nights, but all that matters is the conclusion, which is that when I started working those hours I thought I was going to love them, but by the time my sentence was up, I couldn't wait to get off the night shift. And I have never wavered from that view since.

Working nights disrupted every aspect of life from eating to loving, not to mention sleeping. For three years, it seems, my only thought was, "When am I going to sleep again, and when do I have to go back to work?"

World of Night People

I hadn't much thought about night work in 15 years or so, but Murray Melbin, a sociologist at Boston University, made me think of that time in his perceptive little book, "Night as Frontier," which is about the world at night and the people who inhabit it.

Many people no doubt had similar experiences to mine at the start of their working lives, just as many people continue to work nights regularly for many years. Melbin tells us that on any given day more than 7 million people throughout the country are awake at 3 a.m.

His description of the community they make closely fits my memory. His account is filled with nuance, and he reminds me of long-forgotten experiences that I had thought were mine alone. Having to leave parties early in order to go to work, for example. Or canceling social events altogether because I hadn't slept during the day and needed to catch a few hours before I had to be at the office.

But this is not just a trip down memory lane. Melbin has the knack of making the reader see familiar things in a new way.

His thesis is novel and persuasive: In our time, he says, night fulfills the same function that the frontier did in America until the end of the 19th Century. It is the place where many people are drawn or pushed by money and it is the place where many people go in search of a fresh start.

Life on the frontier of time involves hardship just as life on the front of geography did, he says.

'Get Away From It All'

Melbin challenges the notion of Frederick Jackson Turner--now accepted as conventional wisdom--that the American frontier closed around 1890, when it became impossible to "get away from it all" in the West. Melbin argues that it is still possible to get away from it all by working nights, and that many people who do night work are a little different from the norm.

"The nighttime seems to harbor a different culture, a little Bohemia of artists and poets and literati, along with street people, homeless persons, carousers, pushers, pimps and prostitutes," Melbin writes. "That such men and women are active then tells us the night gives freedom and safety for nonconformists and marginal persons. After-dark society bespeaks a tolerant milieu. People who have an eccentric manner or an unusual appearance, or who follow disapproved pursuits, would rather avoid contacts with the daytime majority."

He discusses many kinds of nighttime activity, particularly work, particularly in organizations that operate around the clock, such as hospitals and, though he doesn't talk about them, newspapers.

Melbin describes the friction that inevitably develops between the various shifts. I recall the words of Paul Sann, the (literally) late, great editor of the New York Post, a man out of "The Front Page," who used to scowl, "The dayside hates the nightside, and the nightside hates the dayside." Each shift blames the other for messing things up.

Melbin also notes very seriously that many recent accidents occurred on the night shift, including Three Mile Island (4 a.m.), Bhopal (12:40 a.m.) and Chernobyl (1:23 a.m.), and it is reasonable to suspect that lowered human performance at those hours combined with diminished organizational control (because top managers are asleep) had something to do with those events.

Oddly, though the book is full of interesting observations and ideas, Melbin hardly discusses all-night broadcasting, both radio and television. Millions of people listen to Larry King on national radio every night or watch David Letterman or Charlie Rose (CBS' Nightwatch) at hours when the overwhelming majority of people are asleep. They are the successors to people like Long John Nebel, who used to broadcast all night over WOR in New York with probably the oddest collection of guests ever assembled.

Forging National Community

Just as it has in the daytime, radio and television have had a large role in forging a national community at night.

Melbin also does not mention the various names by which the hours after midnight are known, such as the swing shift, the graveyard shift or, in newspapers, the lobster shift.

All of which should indicate that there may be much left to be explored and discovered about people's uses of and reactions to the night. Melbin has done an admirable job in laying out the groundwork, developing a framework and filling in many details. His fine book makes provocative reading on its own and should spur further study.

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