For a little more than a year now, I’ve been working the early early shift. Most days, I leave my apartment at 3 a.m. to be at my desk by 3:30 a.m. At least once a week, I’m in an hour before that. “I don’t know how you do it,” people tell me. When I think about the fact that the Dalai Lama typically wakes up at least 45 minutes later than I do, I don’t know either.
But secretly, I’ve come to really enjoy the shift. I like slipping out of my apartment building before anyone is awake to greet Carlos, the calm and collected driver who works for the car service contracted by my office. As he drives his Benz (yes, I ride a Benz to work!) through the deserted streets, we complain about how tired we are. We talk about politics, money, Moammar Gadhafi, the weather, and our weekends as I scan the latest headlines on my phone. Sipping my tea and looking out at the Manhattan skyline, I brace myself for the day ahead.
Most days, my shift goes quickly. A deadline every half-hour keeps me on my toes. After the show ends, I stumble out into the sunshine, the day entirely open to me. Sometimes I go to a coffee shop and read. Sometimes I sit in the park. Sometimes I meet underemployed friends for dawdling, decadent lunches. Sometimes I go for a run along the West Side Highway, or to an early afternoon yoga class. There’s hardly anyone at the gym when I get there, and while the lunch rush swells in and out, I take my time.
I take naps. I stay up too late. I fall asleep on the subway on my way home from work every single day. I’ve learned to loop my purse around my arms as soon as I sit down so that once I’m asleep it’s not a temptation for anyone else riding a mid-afternoon Queens-bound train. Once in a while, I oversleep and miss my stop. I walk the extra avenues home in the bright mid-morning light cursing myself.
Strangely, I haven’t overslept my shift once.
A few weeks after I started this job, my coworker Sitara emailed out a poem called “Four a.m.” by Wislawa Szymborska. It remains tacked up to the wall of my work-station:
The hour between night and day.
The hour between toss and turn.
The hour of thirty-year-olds.
The hour swept clean for rooster’s crowing.
The hour when the earth takes back its warm embrace.
The hour of cool drafts from extinguished stars.
The hour of do-we-vanish-too-without-a-trace.
Rock bottom of all the other hours. No one feels fine at four a.m.
If ants feel fine at four a.m.,
we’re happy for the ants. And let five a.m. come
if we’ve got to go on living.
I won’t dispute it: 4 a.m. is the rock-bottom hour. But I’ve grown to savor the luxury of the many other free hours my work schedule affords. Once work is out of the way, the entire day is mine, and there are always more than enough ways to spend it. After next week, I start a new shift. I’ll be saying goodbye to my morning crew buddies (hands down, the coolest kids I’ve ever worked with) to take up a new daytime role. I’ll arrive at the office after the sun’s come up and leave before the sun goes down like most people do. “Let five a.m. come!” I thought to myself when my boss delivered the news. We’ve got to go on living.