“All the animals come out at night. Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal.” Such is how a jaded Travis Bickle, played by De Niro, describes the streets of New York after sunset in Scorsese’s cult movie Taxi Driver. Forever associated with danger and evil, just what is it about the night that brings out the most sinister side of a city?
Photography Toon Aerts
Criminals and potential dangers are concealed by darkness. The fear of the unknown is magnified by the restriction of our sense of sight, leaving the bravest among us far more vulnerable. The streets are deserted, the world is creepily silent, and we are left alone to face our own mortality. No one will hear you, no matter how loud you scream. The concept of rough life-choices, and therefore rough jobs, has haunted us since first brainstorming this issue. Quickly, the idea of night-workers crept in as we couldn’t help but wonder how these people’s experience of society and the city they live in might be altered by their nocturnal shift hours. After hunting down the capital’s night owls and spending time with them – struggling to keep our eyelids open in the process – we were surprised, to say the least. Not that we were expecting pill-popping and booze downing head-cases or gun-wielding homicidal maniacs, but all five of the individuals we tagged along with seemed genuinely grounded, passionate about their jobs and far less drained than we ever could have imagined. Pretty much all right, really. They all concede that the nightfall in the city attracts a different fauna, but also paint a different picture than what popular culture might want you to believe. Whether it involves driving others around, warranting general safety, providing your after-hours essentials, saving lives, or baking that fresh loaf of bread just waiting for you as the new dawn arrives, our night timers get on with their middle-of-the-night routines with the same ease as your regular nine-to-fiver. That is not to say that the graveyard shift, as it is sombrely referred to, comes with no compromise or jeopardy to ones physical and mental health. Centuries of evolution have conditioned mankind to nurture a biological clock expecting activity during the day and sleep at night. Technological and scientific progress might fool us into thinking we’ve surpassed the laws of nature, but it sometimes wouldn’t hurt to reassess that fantasy. Sunlight is still the primary energy source for life on this planet and its disappearance has dramatic impacts on the physiology, morphology and behaviour of almost every living organism. The health hazard linked to irregular schedules is now a proven fact. Off-kilter hours affect the circadian rhythm and cause hormone levels to go haywire. Working several nights back to back is as harmful, especially during winters, as it can lead to total daylight depravation. After conducting research in the Saint-Pierre/Sint-Pieter University Hospital’s sleep lab, hormonal anomalies in the blood samples of those working three nights in a row could still be detected up to three weeks later. The medical staff proceeded to adopt a system whereby night-shifters would have a day off following each shift, as the night off of “normal” sleep helped eliminate detrimental effects. Yet this system is still marginal and most workers adopt a steady routine of night labour. Much as they may adjust to their nocturnal lifestyle, the irreplaceable soothing virtues of a good night’s sleep remain to be matched. Daytime workers head home and benefit of several hours to unwind and distance them- selves from their professional environment. Most graveyarders have no choice but to hop right into bed with their curtains drawn, carrying that stress and tension. On the bright side, most of them point out that even though their social lives suffer, they get to spend more time with their children, and those who work long shifts understandably benefit of more days off than an average nine-to- fiver. The workplace enjoys a noticeably more laid-back atmosphere, since the higher tiers of hierarchy would never subject themselves to this reversed schedule. As for the human aspect, it is drastically different too. The lack of people around reinforces the bonds created between colleagues and third parties. The night-shifters we met almost unanimously claim they are pleased with their lifestyle and wouldn’t have it any differently. Some have been courted with daytime positions but they declined those offers without any regrets. You might not ever see these men but, trust us, they own the night.
The law enforcer
Geert Beck is a police superintendant at the Amigo precinct, located right in the heart of central Brussels. He’s been working odd shifts for the past 27 years but it’s a case of being upside down for as long as it feels right. “You never know what the night will bring. You start with a blank canvas and watch it unfold, minute by minute.” He’s downing his 20th cup of coffee since the morning. “The hardest hour is without a doubt four am. Fatigue kicks in, inspectors get tired and nervous, they’re not robots you know. People who come in are edgier too. During the day they report a theft or a crime that took place while they were sleeping, whereas at night, they have often been direct victims and are therefore in much more of a state.” The golden rule he has learnt over the years is to remain calm. Relativity is important. A plastic bag containing a rope lies on his desk. It’s the noose from a suicide that happened earlier in the day. Next door, an old lady in an impoverished state is being interrogated. It’s the third time she had been arrested for shoplifting that week and has defecated herself. When constantly subjected to such sights, humour and a certain sense of detachment become a necessity. “I used to patrol at night years ago. It was a singular experience. The streets are empty, making it easier to drive, but they attract different crowds.” Yet Geert admits one of his biggest challenges is finding solutions to certain situations. “What do you do when a family of refugees presents itself at the front desk at 11pm? Or if a victim doesn’t speak any of the national languages? Translators are on call, but they’re not always eager to jump out of bed to come to the precinct. The truth is though, life does not end at eight pm”.
The city’s chauffeur
Alain is a 63-year-old taxi driver who’s been cruising through the capital’s streets for the past 16 years. “I initially saw it as a short-term fix after losing my job but then realised working at night was not that bad. I attempted working days because, let’s face it, man is a diurnal animal. We need and crave natural light. But it was far more stressful between traffic jams, strikes, protests, or simply finding myself stuck behind a garbage truck.” Clocking up about 250 km per night and 100.000 km per year (versus your average Joe’s 15.000 km) naturally makes safety a sizeable issue and getting car insurance absolute hell. “You see foolish moves drivers wouldn’t ever dare attempting in broad daylight: driving through red lights, engaging in one-way streets, having a go at dangerous manoeuvres… Obviously alcohol doesn’t help. I avoid accidents everyday.” And that’s without counting assaults and aggressions that, sadly, occur more often than you’d think. “Still, I love the freedom and human contact that comes with the job. The cab is a sealed bubble in which strangers open up, assuming they won’t ever see me again. It can get heavy at some points, and I have no other choice but tersely remind clients I am neither their father nor their shrink.” Awkward confessions aside, he also picks up his fair share of fabulists. “A guy once introduced himself as a secret agent. He was on a mission in a bar I suppose. His advice was priceless. Now I know that if a KGB vehicle ever follows me and overtakes my car, I have to duck down to avoid their Kalashnikov’s bullets!”
The all-night grocer
If you’re the type to run errands around five am, chances are you already know Hameed. He’s posted in one of the very few night shops of the capital that stays open around the clock, on Rue du Midistraat, just off the Bourse/Beurs. Hameed is 40, moved to Belgium from Pakistan five years ago, and has been working in night shops ever since. The job doesn’t involve much, apart from stocking up the aisles and serving customers, but fatigue usually sets in around five am. That’s when he’ll share a Red Bull with whomever he is working with. Tonight it’s 31 year-old Jatinder, who’s also from Pakistan. Their English is fairly basic and their French and Flemish even more limited, making it hard for them to understand what’s going on, tough they clearly seem very amused and completely un-phased by the loud or staggering oddballs they face on a daily basis. “I go back home once a year for a full month, but I prefer life here,” he admits, even though working the graveyard shift was far from being a choice. “I enrolled in unemployment offices, waited, but nothing ever came up.” Despite being well aware his health is at risk and actually feeling it, he’s a happy man. “I love Brussels, it’s really safe here,” – a surprising statement given his line of work. Never robbed? Never attacked? “No, the police station is right down the road, it’s not dangerous.” Compared to his previous life, in the politically unstable province of Punjab, where he used to work on construction sites during the day, this compares to a walk in the park.
Luc began working in the Saint-Pierre/Sint-Pieter University Hospital’s night division more than 30 years ago. “I discovered a whole new world. One that can be brutal, at times despised and of which very little is known,” he recalls. For the past 24 years, he’s been in charge of coordinating all the institution’s night divisions. The brutality that comes with the central location of the hospital and the eclectic population surrounding it is obviously noteworthy. “Receptionists might sit behind bulletproof windows, the verbal abuse they are subjected to demands nerves of steel. There was a time when I was afraid to walk in certain hallways,” remembers Luc of the old days, when no security was in place. “People rolled in and out of the facility just like that.” The situation got really bad about 15 years ago, leaving the nurses no choice but to rally and demand the implementation of an external security firm. Millions of Euros were invested and the hospital now employs a total of 46 guards. “General safety might have improved but there is a very busy nightlife around the hospital, one that encapsulates all the troubles of the city – unemployment, violence, drugs, crime, rape, and homelessness. On certain weekends, the cleaning team must still remain constantly posted at the reception to wipe the blood seeping from gunshot or stabbing victims.” Yet as hard as the job sometimes appears to be, it’s a choice Luc swears he never regrets. “The night always feels too short and I rarely get tired because I’m always busy. I don’t know if one can say you ever really get used to it, but I love what I do.”
One of the city’s most surprising gems is the Au Vatel bakery’s atelier, which fully operates all night long in order to supply the neighbouring European quarters, hotels and the capital’s public transport network, but most notably has the particularity of being completely open to the public. People in the know creep in through its dodgy crack-tiled entrance on Rue Général Lemanstraat for some fresh bread and pastries, made available at the oddest of hours. A true night owl, 40-year-old Abdel has been working there for the past seven years. He used to be a nine-to-fiver at Sibelgaz but that didn’t suit his sleeping pattern. “When I worked at the office, I went out a lot and would only sleep two or three hours.” Now he’s upgraded himself to five. Fatigue is there, but he’s learnt how to deal with it. The colourful and laid back atmosphere in the factory helps. All six workers constantly crack jokes at each other. As for the contact with the customers, it is drastically different, too. “They’re way more funny at night and especially on weekends. Most of them start rolling in as of three am. Some even linger for half an hour. I love it. We have a blast. This would never happen during normal hours. People are much more inhibited and contrived.” Au Vatel used to be an easy target for hold-ups (even though the cash till never contained more that a hundred Euros at best), but those days are long gone. “I’ve never witnessed anything of the kind since I’ve been here.” For someone who is clearly very fond of the city at night, he obviously misses it. “When I’m not working, I just sit around in cafés. I get a kick from watching the rest of the world get on with their jobs.”