If you’ve never regularly worked the night shift, I wouldn’t run out to start now. For starters, there’s a good chance it would require taking a serious step down on the socioeconomic ladder. If possible, I’d stick with pulling the occasional all-nighter, instead—the creative class’s Adderall-fueled answer to overscheduling. Then again, no one plans on working the night shift.
Growing up, I certainly never imagined walking to work past packed bars emitting the muffled thrum of moody mid-aught Arcade Fire hits, dodging buzzed co-eds in the warren-like streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Sometimes, while listening to the slamming of corrugated metal gates as those same bars shut down hours later, I would picture my fellow late-night toilers, wondering what they looked like and where they were headed for another day of sleep. Were they happy to be part of our select cadre? Or did they dream of returning to the solar world and its predictable rhythms?
At that age, I was, unsurprisingly, a complete moron.
I couldn’t actually see anything from inside the cramped storefront bakery, where I was locked in from the outside by one of those creaking gates I could hear banging up and down outside in the wee hours. I pictured a lot of things from inside my voluntary prison, my fellow workers being one of my more benign imaginings. But I submitted to the lockdown because it made a certain amount of sense at the time: my boss was worried about the safety of leaving a 20-something woman alone in a business during the no-man’s-land hours between when reputable shops had shut down and before their reputable daytime brethren opened up. At that age, I was, unsurprisingly, a complete moron, and I wasn’t sufficiently worried about being raped or murdered or dying in a tragic fire. So, I would say goodnight to the front-of-house staff after they finished mopping the floors and counting the till, blithely watching them shut me in for the duration of my shift. And then I would get to work.
Shift work has probably existed in some iteration since the infancy of civilization, when someone had to stay up and guard the mammoth meat or mind the cave hearth. But, as with so many things deleterious to workers, some of the first formal night shifts appeared with the advent of railroads. With passenger trains largely running during the day, night was the perfect time to run freight trains over the mostly empty tracks. Today, there are legions of workers employed in shift work, in industries ranging from transportation to hospitality to medical care to industrial production.
When I worked as an overnight baker, I usually rode the subway home with nurses, identifiable by their pastel scrubs and air of complete exhaustion. There was also the occasional drunk, given a wide berth to sleep it off on a couple of seats on one end of the car, and a smattering of unidentifiable laborers. They could be differentiated from the partiers by the purposefulness of their travel, the sober but exhausted cast of their eyes, and the distinctly commuter-like rituals: the discarding of now-extraneous pieces of clothing, the rubbing of temples and nose bridges, the checking of phones freed from lockers and pockets. Add to that the people actually driving the train and manning the tracks, and you have a fair number of people wrapping up their day at 4 AM.
Shift workers are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes; they suffer dramatically higher divorce rates; and perhaps most obviously of all, they are fucking tired.
However innocuous the night shift may have seemed at one time, science has now borne out what anyone who has actually worked a night shift could have told you long ago: that they wreak medical and social havoc on the lives of those who work them. Shift workers are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes; they suffer dramatically higher divorce rates; and perhaps most obviously of all, they are fucking tired. I don’t give great credence to the idea that people should always do what feels “natural” or strive to live in tune with some sort of preordained balance, since what is natural or preordained tends to align uncannily with what dominant social powers find convenient and beneficial. But a variety of self-inflicted experiments in time-based disassociation give me some confidence in saying that whatever powers that decreed that day is for working and night is not were, at least, onto something.
That all being said, I was thrilled to take on the night shift. Before moving back to New York, I had worked a variety of restaurant industry jobs that tended toward the evening hours: line cook, bar back, server, etc. I was lucky to land my baking job, but immediately worried about the hours. They weren’t even very extreme for the baking world: typical shifts started at 6 and 8 AM. But I am a lifelong night owl, a very real disposition that doctors call a “chronotype.” While staying up until 4 AM had never been a problem for me, waking up at the same time was a near impossibility.
And sure enough, after the honeymoon phase of being gainfully employed for the first time since my move wore off, I began showing up a few minutes late, then a few more, then showing up within a period I would qualify as “catastrophically late.“ As in, so late that I might as well have been scheduled for an entirely different arrival time. This was a combination of oversleeping and the woefully slow transportation options available at 5 AM, which pretty much obliterates the idea of “racing“ to work. The best I could hope for was a slow amble, and even that was a stretch if the A train wasn’t running, which was usually the case.
My night shift started around 10 or 11 PM, and I’d bake until 4 or 5 AM. During those hours, I would work through a list of orders for the next day: coffee cakes, banana breads, pumpkin breads, special-order celebration cakes for birthdays and anniversaries. An overnight shift seemed to solve all my problems. I would work alone, without members of the public peering into my workstation to ask me about refined sugar and gluten and which of the baked goods were carbohydrate-free. “This is carbs,” I would growl, gesturing at trays of brownies, muffins, and cakes.
Whenever the wind blew down our little street, I was convinced a mass murderer was clanging on the gate, about to come in and make leather purses from whatever scraps of my skin weren’t afflicted with post-adolescent acne.
I set my own rhythm and could listen to my own music, a welcome respite from the oppressively cheery pop music we cycled through during the day. I didn’t have to wear the adorable but ridiculous pink uniforms we donned during business hours, and, I’m somewhat ashamed and somewhat proud to admit now, I ate as many brownie bites and slightly burnt coffee cakes as I could manage without making myself truly ill.
At the same time, I quickly discovered why I was the only baker who leaped at the chance for the night shift when the idea was floated by my boss. For one, and for all the reasons stated above, it was completely freaky. Whenever the wind blew down our little street, I was convinced a mass murderer was clanging on the gate, about to come in and make leather purses from whatever scraps of my skin weren’t afflicted with post-adolescent acne. I was terrified—truly, deeply terrified—to climb down the trap door in the floor of the bakery to the dank basement below which housed not only all of our extra baking supplies, but also the sole restroom.
Once, while quaking through a bathroom break, a particularly large rat brushed against my foot and I screamed so loudly that I was afraid that I had alerted someone—ghosts? Gangs? Serial killers?—to my vulnerable position. Then, when no one showed up or mentioned it, I was afraid all over again now that I realized no one could hear me scream.
And although it took me a while to realize it, I was lonely. I was at an age where I lived with multiple roommates, spent my free time surrounded by friends and lovers, and filled any remaining voids with a stiff cocktail of alcohol, drugs, their attendant activities, and a soupçon of media-filled lulls. Suddenly spending most of my waking hours alone in a quiet room was like flicking on the lights in a dark room that seemed comfortable enough, only to realize that the walls were covered in insects. What the fuck was up with all these thoughts and feelings I was suddenly bombarded with on a nightly basis? Why was I crying into my cupcake batter at 3 AM? I genuinely had no idea.
This is a rite of passage in one’s early adulthood: the moment you realize You Are Totally Blowing It.
During my twenties, I spent a lot of time thinking that if I could arrange the world just so, I’d be happy. I was unhappy in New York and moved across the country; I was unhappy on the West Coast and moved back. I was unhappy being a cook, so I became a baker, but I didn’t like the baking hours, so I became an overnight baker. Finally, alone in my little self-imposed prison, unencumbered by petty distractions like other people or the sun, it began to dawn on me—gently, gradually—that I was looking at every single aspect of life the wrong way.
This is a rite of passage in one’s early adulthood: the moment you realize You Are Totally Blowing It. If you remember your own quarter-life comeuppance, you’ll know it is a uniquely painful awakening. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I would ask you, with true compassion, to please consider the idea that your most deeply held beliefs are overdue for a soup-to-nuts reevaluation.) In retrospect, I am profoundly lucky to have stumbled my way into nightly, hours-long sessions of solitary meditation, though that’s not how I saw it at the time, of course. It took me years to understand that’s what I had been doing during those long, lonely evenings engaged in repetitive work, letting my mind wander while I measured, mixed, and baked on repeat. All of the fears and doubts I shoved aside whenever I could distract myself were waiting for me, maybe not at the beginning of my shift, when I put on loud music and texted with friends, but eventually, hours in, when it felt like I was the last woman left alive, and it was my own stupid choices that had brought me to this isolated living grave with only the rats and a thousand pounds of sugar to bear witness to my fate.
Being forced to spend quality time with my emotions granted me some modicum of control over them.
Today, I would, and do, pay good money for this sort of existential-dread boot camp. As it turns out, sitting with my fears night after night took out a bit of their sting. Being forced to spend quality time with my emotions granted me some modicum of control over them.
Eventually, every shift I spent alone stopped being pure torture and—although, again, I didn’t realize it at the time—provided me with the space to consider myself and my life more prosaically, without the white-hot shame of a hangover or the stultifying pressure of a family or school reunion as a backdrop, my usual moments for panic-induced self-reflection. It was during my time as a night-shift baker that I decided to take a real stab at my lifelong dream of being a writer. I pushed past the fear that had stopped me from applying for grad school for years. I still spent plenty of time fucking up and feeling bad and disappointing myself and others, but those stopped being my sole endeavors.
As you’ve probably gathered, I transitioned back to daytime work, then added school, then more work, more responsibilities, more relationships, until I sometimes longed for the simplicity of that baking job, even though I knew it didn’t make me happy. I missed the clarity of purpose and the satisfaction of tangible production, but more than that, I missed the state of mind I achieved those nights: a blend of purposeful action and slightly bored, aimless but not entirely unfocused, mental meandering.
It took me years, however, to realize that I didn’t need to be locked in a storefront in Lower Manhattan to return to my old routine. Like the moment you realize no one is going to stop you from having cereal for dinner, it suddenly dawned on me that if I wanted to whip up a loaf of peanut butter bread at 3 AM, I could simply . . . do it. Now, when overwhelmed and uncertain, I sometimes find myself up in the middle of the night, pulling trays of date bars and twee little cardamom-scented cookies out of the oven. It hasn’t cured my existential dread, but then, neither has a decade of therapy, and at least this way there are treats.
Ariella Feller, proprietor of L.A.’s Rella’s Midnight Bakery, is a lifelong enthusiast of late-night living. She creates genre-bending confections that defy bourgeois baking categorization. Are little butter buns a breakfast food? Is peanut butter bread a dessert? At 3 AM, you can call them whatever you want.
Peanut Butter Bread
Yields about 4 small loaves
For the biga, or bread starter:
162 grams water
191 grams flour
1 gram fresh yeast
Combine all ingredients well and refrigerate overnight, or for up to 24 hours.
For the loaves:
641 grams bread flour
353 grams water
321 grams biga
96 grams sugar
33 grams vegetable oil
96 grams peanut butter (any type works here)
15 grams salt
13 grams fresh yeast
Preheat oven to 410 degrees Fahrenheit. Add water and flour to a stand mixer fitted with a bread hook attachment. Mix on low until the flour is combined. (If you have time, let the mixture rest for 15 minutes to an hour.) Add the biga and combine. Add the sugar and salt, then the yeast, mixing between additions. Increase speed to medium low and mix until the dough comes together. Test readiness by stretching a small amount of dough between your fingers. If it forms a screen that can stand up to a light touch, proceed with the peanut butter and vegetable oil. Mix until incorporated.
Let develop overnight in the refrigerator. Take dough and portion into four 390-gram sections. Let rest for 15-30 minutes. Shape each section into a ball. Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper and put two loaves on each sheet. Let rise in a warm place for roughly three hours, or until dough springs back to the touch. Bake for 7-12 minutes, or until bread is nicely browned.
LITTLE BUTTER BUNS
Yields 7 buns
For the buns:
69 grams water
141 grams bread flour
14 grams eggs
32 grams sugar
2 grams salt
2 grams cardamom
4 grams fresh yeast
20 grams butter
82 grams butter
100 grams sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Add water and flour to a stand mixer with a bread attachment. Mix on low speed until the flour is combined. (If you have time, let the mixture rest for 15 minutes to an hour.) Add egg and mix until combined, then add sugar, salt, and cardamom, and mix again. Add yeast. Increase speed to medium low and mix until dough is developed. Test readiness by stretching a small amount of dough between your fingers. If it forms a screen that can stand up to a light touch, add the butter in small pieces by hand, then mix to incorporate. Let develop overnight in refrigerator.
Remove dough from the refrigerator and portion out 40-gram pieces. Roll into a ball shape and allow them to rise in small paper panettone molds for 1-3 hours.
Combine sugar and butter until smooth. Place in a piping bag with a flat metal tip (size 2 or 3). Pierce the top of the bun and fill until dough slightly puffs. (Or pierce dough with a knife and fill using a plastic bag with the corner cut off. This method could get a little messy.) Bake at 350 degrees for 18 minutes, or until bread is nicely browned and the butter and sugar mixture has caramelized on top of the roll.