While most of the city sleeps, a contingent of Torontonians is wide awake, working to ensure the city functions in its darkest hours. A garbage truck crisscrosses a west-end neighbourhood, its clanging metal soundtrack on the brink of stirring houses it passes. City staff in bright orange vests repaint dividing lines on a residential street. A bartender walks home after a long shift slinging cocktails for revellers who now wait in line for a late-night slice. Bus drivers whizz through their routes, free from rush-hour traffic. A crew of junior journalists hold down the newsroom while their editors are away, waiting to pounce on breaking news.
These night owls may be invisible to nine-to-fivers, but they make up a large portion of Canada’s workforce. According to the Institute for Work and Health, a Toronto-based non-profit that promotes safer working conditions, one-third of Canadians work outside of regular daytime hours. Odd hours can wreak havoc on social calendars and cause sleep deprivation, but they’re a necessity in a time when work never really stops. Even for those who work more traditional hours, who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night, rolled over and reached for their phone, and checked their email?
Frank Sinatra famously dubbed New York as the city that never sleeps, but it’s a distinction befitting every metropolis, including Toronto. We spoke to four people who work the night shift about the perks of the job, maintaining a social life, and what nine-to-fivers would be surprised to learn about working the graveyard shift.
It’s a particularly cold November evening and Sistering is over capacity. There’s already 70 women here, even though their limit is 50. As Kira Hamilton sits at her desk calling local agencies to tell them not to send over any more people, she’s also answering the questions from the individuals inside: are there any more blankets left? (They’re out.) Is there any more food? (Only ham and cheese sandwiches.) The overnight shift can get rocky, but Hamilton — who’s polite, confident, and knows everyone by name — can handle the hectic environment.
Community Support Worker at Sistering, a 24-hour women’s drop-in centre
11 p.m. to 8 a.m., four shifts per week
I started volunteering with Sistering nine years ago and I’ve been working as a Community Support Worker for two years. I started off leading a beading group. Sistering has an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, anti-transphobic feminist standpoint and those things are important to me.
I work with two other people. We help people sign in, serve sandwiches and soup, do counts to make sure we’re not over capacity, diffuse arguments, do laundry, and clean the sleeping mats. I’m frontline so I’m very involved with whoever comes in the door.
We get a lot of different marginalized people coming in, like homeless people, sex workers, drug users, and people with mental health issues. Generally, the age of the women ranges from 18 to the elderly. It can take an emotional toll on me. I studied counselling and social work, and you learn how to put distance between you and the participant — but it can still be heartbreaking.
The most rewarding part of my job is when you can actually relate to someone and talk about things that affect both of you. You can relate to someone in that moment, so they don’t feel as alone.
It was challenging to pin Conor Lavelle down after his Thursday shift. Apologizing, repeatedly, over a series of text messages, he lets us know, “I’m running late … might be a while. Sorry. Patient is unstable … I have to put in an arterial line and then transfer them to the ICU … Very sorry. Couldn’t have ever predicted this.” Duty calls. We meet up later in the week outside of his Harbourfront apartment before he leaves for his next shift.
Fourth-year Emergency Doctor Resident
Midnight to 8 a.m., four shifts per month
Compared to the day shift, there’s definitely a very different vibe when you arrive at work. There are fewer nurses and you see custodians cleaning the empty hallways. The emergency room is generally much quieter at night; there are fewer phones, fax machines, and printers going. It’s a nicer work environment, or at least for the first five hours before I start to get tired. If you’re into noise and action, then night shifts might not be your favourite.
Patients and Evening Injuries
We see everyone from the very sick and dying to the ‘I have a hangnail and I don’t know what to do about it.’ I’ve seen a couple sleepwalking related injuries, and people having heart attacks in the early morning hours when they wake up. And obviously I see the lacerations from drunken bar fights, like stabbings and shootings. During the overnight, the police bring in way more intoxicated people. That’s definitely a fixture on the night scene in the emergency room.
Shift Life vs. Social Life
Emergency medicine requires you to work evenings, weekends, and holidays, which a lot of people have off. But in general, it’s nice having the odd weekday off — everyone else is at work, so the grocery store, parks, and cafés are quiet. I live with my girlfriend and she also works irregular hours so sometimes we’re both off during the day, which makes it easier.
There’s a certain sense of commitment because there are fewer staff around. It’s just you and the supervising doctor covering the entire department no matter what comes in. I feel more excited to dig into the work.
On quiet Thursdays like tonight, Matthew Restrepo doesn’t have to worry about rowdy guests spilling out from one of the Gladstone’s 90s video dance parties or hear drunken renditions of Bohemian Rhapsody or Radiohead’s Creep — two of the most popular songs during their Saturday karaoke nights. Instead, he fills out paperwork, does some quick accounting, answers emails, and talks with patrons. He can listen to music and catch up on reading, that is, until a guest needs to check in.
Night Auditor at the Gladstone Hotel
11 p.m. to 7 a.m., four shifts per week
Unconventional Desk Job
I’ve worked at the Gladstone for nine months now and I’ve worked at other hotels as a night auditor for three years. I like the calm nature of nights and I’m not intimidated by working alone. I can hold down the fort.
There are no more spur-of-the-moment hangouts, unless it’s on one of my days off. I can’t swing by and have a drink or a quick bite unless we’ve planned it a few days in advance so I can switch up my sleeping schedule.
Shift Life Camaraderie
Night workers start to get to know each other. I’m on a first name basis with police officers, EMT workers, taxi and Uber drivers, and 24-hour convenience store workers. As people on the graveyard shift, we look out for one another. It’s a whole other world and it’s not for everyone. But if you can manage it, it can really improve your life.
Perks of Being a Night Owl
It’s made me grow as a person. You’re meeting people from all walks of life, from refugees to celebrities. I didn’t have a huge interest in traveling before I started working the night audit, but now I want to learn certain languages and go to new places. It’s made me more open-minded.
When Grant MacPherson arrives at Prairie Boy Bread at 1:30 a.m., he makes himself a cup of coffee, takes a few sips, and then gets to work. He’ll prepare 200 loaves over the next six hours, which is considered a slow day compared to Fridays and Saturdays, when he does 400. Inside the bakery, ovens are the size of walk-in closets and rows upon rows of sourdough rounds line metal racks. In a few hours, the hardcore runners will start their morning routes, commuters will board the streetcar and Prairie Boy Bread will officially open for the day.
Owner of Prairie Boy Bread
1:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., two shifts per week; 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., three shifts per week
Jack of All Trades
I’m the owner, so I do everything. I bake, mix the dough, do repairs, clean the floors, and do the payroll. I bake alone from 1:30 a.m. to 6 a.m., when the rest of the crew comes in, then I’ll work until 4 p.m.
Family Time with 15-Hour Work Days
You need to do what you need to do. It’s not ideal, but I try to get sleep when I can. I have a son at home who is four and a half, so there’s no sleeping in anyway. My wife is a camera operator who’s currently working on a big TV show, so she’s out the door at 7 a.m. and back at 9 p.m. I think the fact that she’s used to weird hours makes her more tolerable of my own hours. I’ve been in the food business all my life and it seems that relationships between food industry people and nine-to-fivers don’t work in the long run.
Functional Sleep Deprivation
There’s an end goal in sight. I want to grow my business and it’s not my intent to be doing the early morning shift in five years. When I first started, I was baking five mornings a week, and now there are three of us that share those shifts.
Nine-to-fivers would be shocked by how quiet a city of 2.8 million can be. I start baking around 1:30 a.m., when it’s very calm and quiet. We’re located on College Street near Dovercourt Road, so it’s interesting because you can see the street progressively change out the front window. It’s busy with people when I arrive because there are several bars nearby and it slowly dwindles around 2:30 a.m. It gets quiet until 4:30 a.m., and then you slowly see the city wake up.