Todd McMahan thinks of himself as a vampire. It’s not that he has fangs or an aversion to garlic or an insatiable appetite for blood. It’s because for the past 17 years, the 45-year-old labor crew supervisor for Asheville’s Public Works Department has clocked in at 11 p.m. In fact, among city employees, McMahan holds the title for longest-serving night shift employee. On account of this, McMahan says, “I’ve been called Dracula forever.”
He’s seen a lot of personnel come and go during his tenure with the city. During the daylight hours, the department has about 50 employees on the clock. But come nighttime, McMahan and his two-man crew — John Taylor and Rodney Hepner — make up the entire shift. McMahan notes that in the course of his tenure he’s gone as long as six months sweeping the streets solo. Meanwhile, the longest any of his sidekicks have lasted is four years.
When it comes to nights, McMahan says, “Lots of folks just cannot do it.”
Throughout Asheville this sentiment is shared by many who work third shift. The odd hours can be challenging to acclimate to — whether it’s learning to sleep during the day, finding a healthy work-family balance or forgoing the social components that are more readily available to those who work traditional hours.
But, as McMahan and others state, the third shift does have its perks. Rarely does an evening employee worry about traffic. When eating dinner out at 4:30 p.m., there’s hardly a wait. Grocery stores are fairly easy to navigate at 7:30 in the morning, as well. And there’s a certain lift that comes when your day is ending while the rest of the world is sipping their coffee, heading into work.
But above all, McMahan notes, the late hours offer colorful encounters: “You meet a lot of interesting individuals at night.”
First things first: coffee
The third shift varies in start time and duration, depending upon the profession. Nurses at Mission Hospital, for example, clock in at 6:38 p.m. and clock out at 7:08 a.m. Meanwhile, night auditors at motels and inns typically begin at 11 p.m. and conclude between 7 and 8 a.m. Others, however, dabble in both worlds, blurring either the second and third shift or the third and first shift.
Since 1980, baker Fred Dehlow has made his living in the hybrid space of third and first shifts. Originally from Long Island, N.Y., he and his wife relocated to Asheville in 2013. Since then, Dehlow has owned and operated Geraldine’s Bakery on Merrimon Avenue.
The alarm clock generally goes off at 2 a.m. Even after more than three decades in the business, Dehlow says the wake-up call never ceases to come as a shock. But once the body is up and running, the early hours possess an elusive, recondite quality that Dehlow struggles to put into words. After a moment, he says, “You’re pretty much in your own little world.”
More recently, however, Dehlow’s world has expanded. At 59, the baker is beginning to phase out of these early morning hours. Two years ago he brought on apprentice Ryan “RJ” McCarthy, and four months back he added a second baker, Matthew Bruno. On an average morning, the three will knead, weigh, roll and bake 10 dozen doughnuts, 10 dozen pastries, a couple hundred hoagies and upward of 1,000 rolls.
Before any of this can be accomplished, though, coffee must be made. Along with their hot beverages, the crew likes to start the day with Pink Floyd. The music, which is typically blasting, carries on throughout the early hours. It ranges from Jimi Hendrix to Louis Armstrong, from Otis Redding to The Doors.
All three are family men. Dehlow’s children are grown, but McCarthy has a stepdaughter in elementary school, and Bruno has a infant son. The biggest perk, they note, is child care. When your day ends at 11 a.m., you’re available when the kids get home from school.
Of course, when your day starts at 2 a.m., bedtime comes early — generally around 7 or 8 p.m. for these three bakers. This limits social outings. “The bands don’t start playing until 10 o’clock at night,” Dehlow laments.
Perhaps this is why the music plays so loud at Geraldine’s at 3 in the morning. But no matter the soundtrack, and no matter the amount of caffeine, the shift has a way of weeding out those who aren’t committed to the profession. “If you’re going to work these types of hours, you better really like what you’re doing,” says Dehlow. “If you don’t … it’d probably be really tough.”
Siren song of fatigue
Mark Starling is another of the hybrid sort, blending work hours between the third and first shifts. Like the crew at Geraldine’s, the News Radio 570 morning host and news director also begins his day at 2 a.m. Despite 13 years in the business, Starling concedes, “You never 100 percent acclimate to the schedule.”
Unlike the bakers, Starling relies more on naps than he does on early nights. The lights go out only after he’s finished preparing for the next day’s show, usually around 11 p.m. The lights are back on soon thereafter.
The roads are nearly empty at 3:30 in the morning, Starling notes. Those who do share lanes with the radio host have become familiar strangers. “I see the same cars and trucks almost every day,” he says.
Throughout his day, mental fatigue is a constant. “You’re asking your brain to function at a time when it’s not normally supposed to be functioning,” he says. To combat it, Starling has learned a series of simple tricks. Drinking more coffee is one of them; walking around the studio is another.
Despite his fatigue, Starling makes the most of his off hours. Like the morning roads, weekday afternoons leave the rivers deserted — a private stream for the radio host to tube down. “It’s very easy when you work the third shift to always say you’re tired, because theoretically, you’re always tired,” Starling explains. “But you can’t let being tired become your mantra.”
This final point (along with naps) is key to Starling’s personal and professional life. He does not foresee leaving morning radio anytime soon. “It’s where I’m happiest,” he says. “It’s where I’m most comfortable. It’s where I feel like I reach the most people.”
Asleep on the job
In some instances, sleep is part of the job. Firefighters with the Asheville Fire Department work 24-hour shifts, followed by a minimum of 24 hours off. The schedule, based on a 12-day cycle, results in a 56-hour workweek, but includes 20 days off per month.
Capt. Rich Rauschenbach, engineer Phillip Padilla, senior firefighter Welker Taylor and firefighter Jimmy Mengel make up Engine 1 B-shift. The unit is based out of the downtown station at 100 Court Plaza. In the building’s backroom are the sleeping quarters. At first glance, the area looks more like an office than a place of rest. Cubicles divide the room. Within each space is a locker and a twin mattress with a sleeping bag on top. A giant portable fan spins in the center of the room; Taylor notes that it’s used to circulate the air as well as to drown out the snoring.
A full night’s rest, however, is rare. The station usually receives a minimum of three calls every night. Even on those uncommon evenings when the firefighters do sleep undisturbed, “You wake up feeling kind of drained,” says Padilla. “You’re always in anticipation that the lights are going to kick on.”
Heart attacks, Rauschenbach notes, are the leading cause of death among firefighters. “It’s tied to lack of sleep,” he says. The sudden jolt from slumber to activity wears on the heart, Mengel adds. “You go from 50 [heart] beats per minute to 120 within 30 seconds,” he says.
To reduce the risk, the city’s stations have implemented a gentler ramp-up. Both the lights and the sirens gradually increase in brightness and volume. Still, the business of emergency rescue requires a quick response. The unit aims to be up, dressed and out of the station within one minute and 44 seconds of a call coming in.
In some instances, Engine 1 B-shift responds as the backup unit to areas beyond its assigned coverage, either to assist other AFD units or as part of mutual aid agreements with other local fire departments. In such moments, team members know their role will be limited. When these calls come, Taylor notes, “you keep one eye closed” and try to stay in “sleep mode.”
But often they are wide awake. “When we have high-rise fire alarms, we carry extra hoses with us,” says Mengel. “That’s an extra 40 pounds, and tools in our hands. … You go from sleeping to climbing to the sixth floor with all this stuff on within 2 1/2, 3 minutes.”
Mengel has dubbed such calls “surprise exercise.” It is the enemy of sleep. Once the adrenaline kicks in and the sweat pours, it is difficult to return to the station and rest. “You’re sweaty, you’re hot — the last thing you want to do is go to bed,” notes Taylor.
The shift ends at 7 a.m. In general, members of the unit are fairly exhausted. But for Taylor, who has three young children at home, breakfast is the best time to catch up with his daughters. After an evening of responses, he has one last decision to make — a choice that will determine the next few hours of his day: “Am I making coffee or not?”
Stoking the fire
Whereas Engine 1 B-shift seeks to keep the fires out, David Phelps, Buxton Hall Barbecue’s evening pitmaster, spends his nights feeding logs (and hogs) to the flames. A former roadie, Phelps spent 10 years managing band tours, selling merchandise and driving the bus. Late hours are nothing new to him.
But unlike his past profession, his role at Buxton is a solitary pursuit. After coming in around 10 p.m., he spends the first two hours prepping the next day’s sauces and green beans. As he chops and mixes, Phelps is also building the fire up to the required temperature (225 degrees), in order to cook the two pigs nightly. By sunrise, he generally has around 350 to 400 pounds of pulled pork ready for the day crew.
Phelps says he began preparing for his unorthodox schedule at a young age. “I grew up in the ’80s, the MTV generation,” he explains. “I would stay up late just to watch the risqué videos that MTV couldn’t play in the daytime. That’s probably when it all started for me — trying to watch Mötley Crüe dirty videos.”
Like the Geraldine’s crew, Phelps relies on an eclectic mix of ’80s metal and ’90s grunge to carry him through the night. He also listens to audiobooks and podcasts while he stokes the fire. At times, the pitmaster likes to put on jazz from the 1930s to honor the building’s 1936 construction. Originally, the location was home to the Asheville Skating Club, which served the African-American community.
On these jazz nights, while the trumpets blare, Phelps sometimes stares across the sea of upturned chairs and imagines a bygone crowd skating circles around the dining room floor.
“I never really believed in ghosts or spirits or anything like that,” he says. “But I see things out of the corner of my eye all the time. We have glasses that randomly fall almost every night from behind the bar. … Lights come on and off by themselves. It can be a little freaky at times.”
But the feeling is fleeting. The fire constantly demands his attention. “People always ask me, ‘Do you feel lonesome at night?’” he says. Phelps points out the nine murals on the dining room’s brick wall. The images depict men and women skiing and riding horses and ice skating. He then gestures toward the smokers cooking the pigs. “I tell them I’ve got nine people here with me at all times and two dead animals. It’s not like I’m alone.”
Phelps notes that one of the few cars he sees regularly passing by Buxton late at night is an Asheville police cruiser. Its driver is likely Asheville police Sgt. Lisa Taube, who has been with the force since 2005. Before her promotion to sergeant last year, Taube worked both days and nights, as a patrol officer and a detective. Since then, she’s worked the 5 p.m.-3 a.m. beat in downtown Asheville.
In addition to community policing, her downtown unit deals with many nuisance crimes: open containers, panhandling and trespassing. Day or night, Taube says, the job comes with an element of danger. But the cover of darkness, she notes, adds to the mix. “People can conceal things much easier or conceal themselves much easier,” she says.
Thursday through Saturday nights are the downtown unit’s busiest period. At 1:45 a.m., as the bars are getting ready to close, the unit typically experiences a surge in activity. Cruising the downtown on a recent night, Taube points out parking lots on North Market and South Spruce streets, where late-night gunshots are not unheard of. “It comes and goes in spurts,” Taube says. “The good thing is people aren’t usually hit. But they are firing off guns. Whether it’s in the air, at the ground … we’ve had numerous calls like that.”
She attributes most of the episodes to local gang activity, noting that the combination of alcohol with ongoing disputes often leads to gunplay. “If there was zero violence involved and it was just drunk people being drunk people, I don’t think it would be as bad,” she says.
When it comes to nonviolent drunks, Taube notes, “You’ve just got to have a ton of patience. … You try and give them every opportunity that you can to do whatever it is that you need them to do or that they need to do for their safety. … We’re trained to take the time and be patient. You want the best possible outcome. Unfortunately, because they are so compromised by their alcohol [consumption], it can take a while.”
A few months back, says Taube, she and her officers were wrapping up their shift. The police cars lined Haywood Street. An officer went out to retrieve something from one of the vehicles. “He thought he relocked the door,” she recalls.
Five minutes later, a man knocked on the office door. “He’s like, ‘Someone just got in that police car at the end and drove away without the lights on,’” Taube recalls. Initially, she and her colleagues thought the man was joking, until they stepped outside and saw the cruiser was gone.
Dispatch, working from data sent by two separate tracking devices, led them to Hill Street, where the vehicle had been abandoned. The driver of the stolen car — a middle-aged man from out of town with no priors — was soon discovered hiding in the woods. Taube says he was arrested and charged with stealing a police car and driving while impaired. “Thank goodness it ended the way it did,” she says, noting that no one was hurt and the vehicle was undamaged.
The officer responsible for the oversight, adds Taube, was appropriately reprimanded.
The unusual can happen at any time, but if you’re going to wager a bet, put it all on nights.
At the Grove Park Inn, night auditor Norma Justus tells the story of a guest who called the front lobby after dark, insisting she heard somebody in her closet. Security staff who went up to the room found the closet empty. “She was on the fifth floor,” Justus offers as an initial explanation. “I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Pink Lady [the alleged ghost that haunts Grove Park Inn],” she continues, but the guest evidently had. “She was scared,” Justus explains. “We had to move her.”
Meanwhile, at the Regional Emergency Animal Care Hospital, doctors, technicians and receptionists have witnessed a variety of emergencies. Some are grave and life-threatening: car accidents, knife and gunshot wounds, burns and twisted stomachs. Others are less severe, and at times, unfold like a tragicomedy. In one instance a dog consumed a pair of women’s underwear. Staff asked the owner of the dog if she wanted the undergarment back. She did, she said, because it wasn’t her pair and she had a lot of questions for her husband.
In another instance, an owner brought in a limping cat. “I got to asking, ‘Well, what happened?’” recalls Dr. Jeff Johansson. Hesitantly, the client revealed that the cat’s carrier had been thrown against the wall. As the veterinarian continued to ask questions, the full story emerged. Every night when the owner got home from work at 4 a.m., he would hoist the cat — still in its carrier — into the air for “helicopter rides” around the room.
“They thought the cat loved it,” says Johansson. On this particular evening, though, the owner lost his grip on the carrier. It sailed across the room, crashed into the wall and left the cat with a limp. “The cat was fine,” Johansson continues. “But my eyes were opened. Some people’s nighttime routines are not like my nighttime routines. And I think this work — one of the satisfying things is you do get to meet some colorful personalities.”
As the reigning king of the third shift, it should come as no surprise that streetsweeper Todd McMahan has seen his fair share of unusual behavior and activity, as well. When asked his best night story, he laughs. “About 50 came to mind just then,” he replies.
One winter, McMahan saw residents sledding down Walnut Street in a canoe. In Pritchard Park, he once witnessed a man in a full rat costume. (“I even got a selfie with him,” he boasts.) He’s swept past parked cars with couples engaged in the most intimate of activities; in other instances he’s come across people asleep in their vehicles, wearing nothing but their birthday suits.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” he says.
Night shift problems
It’s not all strange encounters and colorful anecdotes, though. The night shift does come with health risks. Sarah Klein’s 2014 Huffington Post article, “8 Ways Working the Night Shift Hurts Your Health,” showcases a number of national and international studies that highlight some of the side effects the third shift could have on a worker’s overall health. Sleep deprivation and higher risks of diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack and breast cancer are among the issues.
For those who spoke with Xpress, diet and sleep were among the top concerns. Blackout curtains came up as an essential tool for daylight sleeping. Air conditioning was another must; it’s hard to sleep in the heat. Earplugs and noise machines are also employed by some. Others noted the importance of turning off your cell phone: While it’s generally unacceptable to call someone at 2 o’clock in the morning, 2 o’clock in the afternoon is fair game.
“Shift work syndrome is a real thing,” notes Johansson, who works a mix of days and nights, generally doing back-to-back 15-hour evening shifts.
It is past midnight at the animal hospital, and Johansson and colleagues Becca Whisnant and April Kormanec sit in the clinic’s meeting room, discussing the perks and challenges that arise from working nocturnal hours. Johansson notes the importance of good habits and patterns: “Whether it’s exercise or eating healthy, try to get on a normal schedule. Try to have normal relationships.” But he concedes, “It’s always easier to give advice; it’s hard to take it.”
Kormanec acknowledges her struggles with routine and the impact it has on her days off. She considers it her “biggest downfall.” Meanwhile, Whisnant notes the difficulty she sometimes experiences in flipping her schedule to more traditional hours on her days off. Sometimes she can’t. In those instances, she says, “I don’t see the sun for a week. That’s hard on your body, too.”
Businesses and organizations often struggle to find and keep third-shift employees. Laurie Watt, area director of human resources at the Omni Grove Park Inn, notes that a recent position for overnight baker took three months to fill. She estimates that over the past year, turnover for night shift positions was around 75 percent. Certain areas, such as security and engineering, are steady, but the culinary and night audit positions prove difficult to fill long term.
Norma Justus first held the position of night auditor at the historic inn in 2013. She moved on in 2015 before returning last year. In general, she has worked nights most of her adult life, taking on part-time day shifts periodically to supplement her income. “This shift is hard for people to deal with,” she explains. “You can train somebody to do the job, but you can’t train them to stay awake.”
The pace of the third shift appeals to Justus. She points out that during the day it takes 850 people to run the Grove Park Inn. By midnight there are fewer than 20 people on duty. “It can sometimes be an advantage,” she says. “You don’t have all that pressure from the boss. But sometimes it’s a disadvantage because there will be several people checking in,” with little to no additional support.
At the Econo Lodge on Tunnel Road, night auditor Steve Samples echoes the advantages of a slower evening pace. “It doesn’t involve a lot of interaction with the guests. To me it just flows easier. … You can do your work undisturbed.” There is also a certain degree of job security, Samples notes, “because not everyone will work it.”
In other professions, vacancies are not an option. At Mission Hospital, talent acquisition consultant Steve Deighton says all new nurses and most physicians are required to start on the night shift. “At first, I think they don’t look forward to it,” he says. “They almost feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been punished.’ But once they get on it, they realize it’s really a nice work style.”
The pace, Deighton notes, is less harried. The pay differential also helps. Those who work evenings at the hospital make an extra $5 an hour; if that evening shift falls on the weekend, there’s another $3.50 added to the hourly rate. Other businesses and entities, such as the Grove Park Inn and the city of Asheville, also offer pay differentials for third-shift employees, generally ranging from 50 cents to $1.
After that initial year, more than half of new nurses opt to stay on the night shift, Deighton says. Still, he adds, the hospital is always on the lookout for additional night help. “It is a challenge because most of the world runs on day. And we’re open 24/7, 365 days a year. It takes a special person who’s used to working night shift and who wants to work night shift.”
That’s a wrap
“I get to enjoy every day with a sunrise, and that’s done a lot for me emotionally,” says McCarthy, of Geraldine’s Bakery. For him and his fellow bakers, the first sign of daylight informs them that their shift is halfway through. The register gets turned on, the doughnuts are placed in their display and the music is turned down as customers begin to filter in.
Like McCarthy, many on the night shift enjoy seeing the sunrise. For most, it’s a signal that their day is complete. Street traffic gradually picks up. The hallways in the hospitals fill. The guests at motels and inns stir. The pitmaster savors the first bite of the previous evening’s smoked meat. The weary firefighter considers whether to brew coffee.
But for city worker McMahan, the sun means only one thing. “It’s time I run for my cave,” he says. “Like Count Dracula.”