Jeff Sharlet | Longreads | September 2014 | 12 minutes (2,802 words)
Dunkin Donuts, West Lebanon, New Hampshire
The night shift, for me, is a luxury, the freedom to indulge my insomnia by writing at a Dunkin Donuts, one of the only places up here open at midnight. But lately my insomnia doesn’t feel like such a gift. Too much to think about. So click, click, goes the camera—the phone—looking for other people’s stories. This is Mike’s: He’s 34, he’s been a night baker for a year, and tonight is his last shift. Come 6 a.m., “no more uniform.” He decided to start early. He’s going to be a painter. “What kind?” I ask. “Well, I’m painting a church…” He started that early, too. “So I’m working, like, eighty hour days.” He means weeks, but who cares? The man is tired. He doesn’t like baking. Rotten pay, rotten hours, rotten work. “You don’t think. It’s just repetition.” Painting, you pay attention. “You can’t be afraid up there.” He means the ladder, the roof. “I’m not afraid,” he says. He’s a carpenter’s helper. “I can do anything.” He says he could be a carpenter. “But it hasn’t happened.” Why bake? “Couldn’t get a job.” Work’s like that, he says, there are bad times. Everything’s like that, he says. There are bad times. “Who’s the tear for?” The tattoo by his right eye. “For my son,” he says. “Who died when he was two months old.” That’s all he’ll say about that. “This next job will be better,” he says.
* * *
“My mother was the night baker before me,” she says. Kelly’s 27. She started baking donuts when she was seven. It was a punishment. “My mom was the night baker,” she says again. “If I was, you know, ‘naughty,’ she took me with her.” If Kelly was naughty, she went to work with her mom and made donuts. She did that for years. She quit. She came back. She’s been working here a year-and-a-half. Night baker, like her mom. She takes her smoke breaks out front, because there’s no camera out back. “We’ve been robbed before,” she says. Man walked in the back door. Emptied the safe. Kelly wasn’t working. “I’m just lucky,” she says. She’s quitting again in two weeks. She’s going to be a security guard. “Fifteen dollars an hour.” The sum makes her marvel. She won’t mind the hours. She doesn’t really like people who work days. “The night shift, I’m wired for it,” she says. She’s a natural. She’ll come back for coffee, but she doesn’t eat donuts anymore.
* * *
Peri likes her curves. When she visits Dunkin Donuts, she finds she needs to do a lot of stretching. Lean, arch, twist. She smiles and she flirts a little with Mike, even though her boyfriend is out in the truck. I wanted to show a picture of her pretty like that, happy, but then this. It’s 1:15 and she’s in for her last cup of coffee. She’s night manager at the Taco Bell next door. She trades Taco Bell for Dunkin, two or three cups a night. Quesadillas for Mike, mashed potatoes for Kelly. She used to manage a Wendy’s, down in Dover, New Hampshire. “I’m a city girl,” she says. Concord, then New Jersey, then Dover, then here, which is the least like a city of all. She was at Wendy’s eight years. One night, smoke break, Peri got robbed. “2:38 am,” she says, wrapping herself in her arms. A man with a gun and zip ties. He said there were more men waiting. Peri screamed. He took $3,000. Took somebody’s truck. Peri waited for him to be gone. “I could smoke,” she says. Hands zip-tied together, she’d held on to her cigarette. “I thought about my daughter.” One year old. That’s when Peri decided to move. That’s how she got here. “I miss the city,” she says. She says they caught the stick-up man. “He said he did it for his family.” She doesn’t believe him.
* * *
Jasmine holds up her necklace. Number 10. “You can take a picture,” she says. Steve wraps his arm around her. His daughter? “No,” he says. Just, “no.” Jasmine poses. “She’s, uh, my friend,” Steve says. He used to be a baker here. Now he has a lawn business. Donuts were a transition. He used to be a trucker, too, and he drove a bus in Brooklyn, and he lived in Staten Island, where he’d lived his whole life, but then he got divorced, and—“my brother lives in Bradford.” Country life suits Steve. Can’t get used to the hours, though. He feels comfortable at night. “What brings you out ?” I ask. “Business,” he says. I don’t ask. “I’m a mother,” Jasmine says. She means that’s her job. She has a boy, 15 months old, Joshua. “I named him for my cousin. He got killed in a car crash. In Queechee? He was in the service. That’s why I wear the number ten.” Steve squeezes her. Ten, I think. The service? A football number? “That was the year he graduated,” she says. “He was a nice person.” Ten. “That’s my necklace!” she says. “That’s my son!” “You got your picture?” asks Steve.
* * *
Roadwork, Rutland, Vermont
Another late night drive across the mountains. It’s easier that way. Dark isn’t the absence of light, it’s the presence of ink. The stuff from which letters and words and stories are made. “I like the night,” says James Peck. “Time-and-a-half.” Time is $12-and-change an hour. “I haven’t figured out the half.” He’s had this job four months. “Best job I ever had.” Only job he’s ever had. It’s harder than it looks. To get it he had to take a test. The test asked, “What do you do if a car doesn’t stop?” Does that happen? “Last night,” Peck says. Drunk driver, mowed down a sign. “What did you do?” “I got out of the way.” Right answer. A car throbbing with bass rolls up, four girls looking for the party on a Monday night in Rutland, Vermont. Peck flicks his sign. They have to stop. He waves. They laugh. It’s a good job. “What did you do before this?” “Nothing.” He’s 20, came to Vermont from South Carolina to be with his grandparents. They were dying. Now they’re dead. He’s still here. The job’ll be over soon. No blacktop in winter. He doesn’t know what he’ll do. “I want to move to Alaska,” he says. “They give you land if you increase its value ten times.” That, and the nights are long. “More time-and-a-half.”
* * *
Larry LaRose and I stood together at midnight in Rutland, watching the hammer fall. A big hammer: 5000 lbs. of pressure, the excavator operator told me when he took a break to eat some pistachios. They were digging a hole to put in a water main, but they’d hit a ledge of rock. “What kind of rock?” I asked. “I dunno,” he said. “Mother Earth.” He cracked a pistachio and tossed the shell into the hole. “We’re going through.” LaRose stared, scowling. I said I liked his hat. He smiled. “You can take a picture if you want.” He leaned his cane against a bush and posed. “And I’ll show you something else.” He unzipped his fleece and then another fleece within and under that undid some buttons. A scar? But he withdrew a pendant and half a dozen lanyards. The pendant was a round transparent disc, a hologram of Jesus. Each of the lanyards held a card or a piece of paper in plastic: the names of his caregivers, a Kiwanis Club group for the mentally disabled, an invitation to a Halloween dance. He asked me to write down the numbers of his caregivers, so I could say hello. He told me I could come to the dance.
* * *
“Please do not / make fun of the / way we talk / it hurts us.” There’s no mockery in my reproduction of the line breaks; they’re as wise and true as the message. This was the last lanyard card LaRose wanted to show. He’d already showed me a picture of himself with his twin brother, Mike. Two smiling big men in plaid and ball caps. Mike died. “11/20,” said, LaRose. November 20, of what year I didn’t ask. He keeps Mike’s picture in the same lanyard with this request. He wanted me to know he’d taken good care of his brother. “Now you have everything,” he said, pleased. “So you didn’t come out here for nothing.”
* * *
CVS, Hanover, New Hampshire
Used to work at Margaritas, out by the hospital. Nurses, pharma salesmen, maybe some doctors. Families staying in the hotel, the one out by the hospital. Didn’t like that job. What was wrong? What’s always wrong. Bosses. “They wouldn’t let me sleep,” says John. “Cinco de Mayo, I worked 65 hours in three days.” Prep cook. Now he’s a clerk. Night shift, seven to seven. Then he goes home, gets into bed, and tries to close his eyes. “Two, three days, I can’t sleep,” he says. “Maybe two hours.” Night shift, CVS, last seven years. I’m here to buy deadline supplies: coffee and Red Bull. “I had a drink like that,” says John. Coffee, Red Bull, honey, sugar, and Mountain Dew, mixed together. “I don’t drink it anymore.” Doesn’t need it to stay awake. He can’t sleep. “What’s better about the drug store?” I ask. “I like the people,” he says. Store’s empty.
* * *
2. Snapshot Journalism
I should add that I don’t mind selfies, and I appreciate the cats. The pictures of food I can do without—just eat your dinner, already—but I don’t like Instagram despite its endless banal but because of it. Instagram is—or almost is, maybe could be—a kind of visual democracy, one in which the individual voice is honored even as it flows into greater patterns, contributes to a larger idea. What’s the larger idea? I’m not sure—I’m still looking. Studying the patterns, making my own contributions.
Of course, Instagram is also a corporation, one with greater control over the images it distributes than most users realize. As a forum, it’s “democratic” only to the same degree that Amazon “democratizes” writing by making self-published books easily available. At worst it makes of us inadvertent drones, gathering marketplace reconnaissance, revealing our positions to those who would reduce us to “eyeballs.” And even so, suddenly it is possible, within limits, to mingle your vision with that of millions of others, to see what they see. To see together.
I want to say I’m not a photographer—my lack of training is self-evident—but that’s a dodge that makes ever less sense. We’re all photographers now, all of us with smartphones, at least, creating vast libraries of family and funny signs and architecture, party pics and cloudscapes and portraits of our morning lattes. We’re constantly practicing, extending our gaze, learning to see, letting our eyes and hearts and mind leap out into startling pools of light and color and shadow, and then reeling ourselves back in, retreating to selfies and cats and all our beautiful jambalayas. It’s a tentative process, this stepping out into the world.
Something I’ve noticed about Instagram: People rarely photograph other people. By “other people” I mean strangers. There’s street photography—hashtags like #street, #streetart, and #streetfaces—but these picture-takers are ringers, even if they’re “iPhone only.” They’ve already learned how to break the fourth wall that surrounds the daily theater of self. Journalists know how to do it, too—when we have an assignment and a notebook in hand. It’s even easy to take pictures when they’re notes for a story.
It’s much harder when the picture is the story. That’s not quite right, though, because the pictures I’ve been trying to take are not the story; they’re passages within it. I grew up on comic books, words + pictures, and even now, when I’m struggling with an essay, I study them, highbrow and pulp, Alison Bechdel and Hellboy. Pictures + words. The border between them, after all, is a distinction of Art with a capital A, not the documentary tradition in which I work, as indebted to image as to text.
There’s one more tradition that’s relevant here—that of the snapshot. The very word expresses the essential exclamation point of the form. Snapshots say, Look at this! Snapshots say, I saw, and I want you to see, too. The you may be your future self or your friends or your kids, but it’s not a museumgoer. It’s not a spectator. It’s the deeply democratic—or maybe religious—notion that what one person sees—one person’s vision—could matter to another so much that you can see it together.
The best thing about snapshots is that anybody can take one. Anybody can make her own Instagram essay, too. Countless snapshot documentarians already are, even if they haven’t quite connected the dots. That’s fine—there’s time, because these essays, they’re not exactly shapely. They’re not about beginning, middles, and end. Every Instagram feed is a story without a resolution, a story always unfolding, unraveling, shifting direction. Another word for this is journalism. I call what follows an excerpt for just that reason. It’s not finished. Like journalism—like democracy—it can’t be.
Big claims for a handful of phone pics! I only joined Instagram, a little more than a month ago, to share snapshots with my wife’s uncle, who doesn’t use email. But that’s another dodge, the evasion by which we avoid committing ourselves to the ephemerality of social media. Why do we bother? Do we still imagine the internet and all its ills, all its gifts, are a passing fad? “It’s hard enough to survive, darling,” writes Sadia Hassan. “You do the world no favors playing small.”
Sadia is a student of mine, but so what? (I’m not the darling to whom she’s writing; you are. We are. She’s addressing us all.) Like these men and women working the night shift, she knows something about surviving, and she’s learning about writing. It’s a fine observation, one that reminds me, like Instagram, that the work of journalism is not professionalism, it’s perception, a power available to everyone.
Here’s my #nightshift; click, and there are half a million other Instagrams, a vast public intimacy of little pictures. It’s not the news. It’s not journalism in any conventional sense. It’s, Look at this! It’s, I saw these people, and I wanted you to see them, too.
* * *
Jeff Sharlet’s books include The Family, and C Street, and Sweet Heaven When I Die. He’s an associate professor of creative nonfiction at Dartmouth College. Read more of his Instagram essays at http://instagram.com/jeffsharlet