Sunday, January 18, 2009

Russell and Cheryl Sharman's "Nightshift NYC"

Russell Leigh Sharman is a writer and anthropologist. He received his PhD in cultural anthropology from Oxford University in 1999, and now teaches at Brooklyn College. Cheryl Harris Sharman has written for publications including Scientific American Online, The Lancet, The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) magazine, Perspectives in Health, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Central America’s The Tico Times.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Nightshift NYC, and reported the following:
We believe that the Page 99 Test proves an accurate test for Nightshift NYC. It comes toward the beginning of Chapter Eight, “I Don’t Know Where is the Keys,” about Sunny and his all-night Brooklyn bodega. And it shows Sunny behind the grill on two Saturday nights, managing customers, dropping a few dishes, and talking on the phone. A small excerpt:

“It’s my granddaughter. She’s on the phone.”

Approaching 1 am on another Saturday night, Sunny’s four-year-old granddaughter cannot sleep. He laughs into the phone and offers a few soothing words. Sunny’s graying hair is freshly cut but he sports a day’s graying stubble on his chin. His paper chef’s hat has a blue stripe tonight, his black t-shirt advertises, and his pants are crisp Tommy Hilfiger khakis. He hangs up and says with a broad smile, “She wants me to bring her a cheeseburger for breakfast.”

Page 99 also describes how Sunny, a self-described Palestinian, came to New York from Ramallah, speaks Hebrew with Israeli regulars, and doesn’t let politics interfere with commerce.

But the main reason why it’s an accurate test of the quality of the whole is that it speaks to the immigrant experience in New York City, which became a key theme. Page 99 discusses the difficulties immigrants face when owning businesses in New York City. There are the usual entrepreneurial struggles to acquire credit and capital, and to overcome bureaucratic obstacles, but these are compounded by their newcomer status and language barriers. Digressing a bit, to Page 98, a 2007 report from the Center for an Urban Future found foreign-born New Yorkers to be more likely than native-born to start businesses, sometimes twice as likely. Immigrants from some Middle Eastern countries start businesses at more than twice the rate of native-born New Yorkers, sometimes four times as often. But, back to Page 99, for entrepreneurial immigrants from the Middle East, things changed after September 11, 2001. Deportments and detainments shut down many of these small businesses. For those still open, their owners and workers routinely face being called terrorists.

However, Page 99 also reflects the whole by capturing the specific to show the myriad ways nightshift workers live inverted lives. Because Sunny is wide awake, he has the time and patience to talk with a sleepless child. Because he will be awake and off work when she wakes, he can enjoy breakfast with her. Because he understands the strange logic of working nights, he can grant her wish for a cheeseburger for breakfast. These are the benefits of a life out of phase. But there are, of course, costs. He must talk with her by telephone because he cannot be there in person. He eats breakfast with her because he’s asleep while she plays during the day. And he’ll surely raise a few eyebrows for bringing her that cheeseburger for breakfast.
Visit the Nightshift NYC website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue