|Cabbie Phil Biondolillo sees more than his fair share of oddities while cruising Bellingham on the night shift, a time which he says can be particularly lucrative — depending on who steps into his roving yellow office.|
After a few drinks, passengers can react in several different ways when they get into Phil Biondolillo’s roving yellow office.
“Your cerebral cortex is numb when you drink alcohol, right? And you’re gonna lose some of your inhibitions,” said Biondolillo, a 57-year-old cab driver with Yellow Cab of Whatcom Skagit. “I think what’s underneath — people let it come out. Some people are angry and they get angrier, and some people are generous and naturally soft-hearted, and they show it.”
It’s a mid-August Thursday night around 11:30 p.m., and the entrance to The Royal is crammed with potential “rides” as Biondolillo waits, ready for customers, with two other taxis.
During his 12-hour shift, which runs from 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., he estimates at least 50 percent of his ridership has had too much to drink — as in they couldn’t lawfully drive. During this time, the night can take on many different “shapes,” he said. Some good, some bad — and some quite profitable.
“One guy was down from Alaska, and he made big money,” recalled Biondolillo. “He said everything where he was based was very expensive. Although the fare was only $3.40, he said it probably should be about $34. I insisted it wasn’t $34, it was $3.40. But he gave me 40 bucks.”
This enigmatic tale is par for the course when it comes to working the night shift, said Biondolillo.
“There is more mystery to the night. You don’t know what kind of shape it is going to take,” he said.
‘A different animal’ after dark
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 5 percent of workers fill the evening shift (any time between 2 p.m. and midnight), and another 3 percent work the night shift (any time between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m). Of those who work the night shift — according to 2004 statistics — approximately 1.24 million are women and two million are men.
Until recently, Jesse Thibodeaux, 22, was one of those shift workers. Thibodeaux has been working at The Chrysalis Inn and Spa in Bellingham since February, and until July, worked the night shift at the hotel. From 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., five days per week, he was the face of The Chrysalis — the only face.
“Working the night shift, you’re the only one there. It’s a lot more independent than a normal shift during the day. It’s a lot more low key — you kind of get to pace yourself like you would like,” said Thibodeaux. “Usually there was less duties during the night, so there was time to read and do other things.”
As the night auditor, his job was to prepare things for the next day when the day shifters came on. His duties also included taking walks around the property and helping night-owl guests with various customer-service issues.
“It was pretty quiet. I rarely got any calls,” said Thibodeaux. “On the rare occasion, there would be someone who would check in late or check out early. Occasionally, someone forgot their keys. Those were pretty much the highlights of the graveyard shift.”
However, the night can bring surprises from its dark corners.
“Sometimes people were not in the right state of mind, and they were being influenced by substances that we wouldn’t prefer,” Thibodeaux said. “(One) guest stayed up all night, woke up other guests and pretty much just asked a lot of questions and was out of it, I guess you could say.”
The questions weren’t exactly run-of-the-mill, he said.
“Are you trying to kill me? Are you framing me for something?” Thibodeaux recalled. “Really, this person, unfortunately, was really out of it.”
Because most of the world does work in the day, the night is often a time to play, said Deb Logan, owner/manager of Yellow Cab of Whatcom Skagit. The challenges of working with this demographic are many, she said.
“Rowdy passengers, drunk to the point of passing out or puking — there are some amateur drinkers out there, and they can be trying,” said the 51-year-old Logan, who started driving taxis in San Francisco in the 1970s. “On a busy night the call-center staff gets an earful of bad cell phones in a loud bar or party, and half the time the caller does not know where they are…. (This) can be frustrating — and the same call-taker might be handling someone trying to get to the childbirth center … or some other night-shift worker to work.”
Because the work can be demanding, Logan said, she is particular with whom she prefers to drive at night.
“I always ask potential drivers or call-center staff, ‘what are you by nature — a day or night person?’ Because what I have learned is your body clock seems to determine that, and everyone is different. I have lots of drivers and staff who never see the light of day — by choice! They are night people,” said Logan. “Night shift is hard (and) transporting inebriated people isn’t as much fun as it sounds. Night-shift (workers) have to have patience, maturity and good problem-solving (skills).”
Julia Stiner, 27, operations manager at The Chrysalis Inn and Spa, said hiring for the night shift can be a challenge.
“It’s a hard shift to fill,” she said. “It’s tough hours, from 11 (p.m.) to 7 (a.m.).”
Stiner said there is not one kind of person best suited to working the graveyard shift.
“There’s actually a lot of different (kinds of) people that apply for the position,” she said. “A lot of times it’s students, so they can go to school during the day.”
Stiner said men are the most likely to work this shift — although she has had female night-shift workers.
“In our case, there are doors that can be locked, so it’s not that big of a safety issue,” she said. “But I do have men usually working the night shift. And there are definitely more men applying for it.”
Yellow Cab night-shift dispatcher Terry Ulmer, known simply as “Fuzzy,” said the city at night and the city during the day could not be more different.
“Bellingham is a whole different animal at night than it is during the day,” Fuzzy said. “When everything shuts down, then you’ve got people on the move and it’s all entertainment.”
With that movement, safety can be an issue, Biondolillo said.
“If somebody wants to go a certain place, you may want to see the color of their money before you take them,” he said. “You might get a runner or jumper.”
Biondolillo said he has had to chase people out of the car for unpaid cab fares — although those times are rare.
“You see a certain amount of violence. You see fights starting as you’re driving by … You see people on the street who are probably doing things that are illegal … I think a lot of people prefer the day because of safety issues.”
Sleepless days, customer-less nights
When Michael Elkins was 23, the night shift seemed to fit his lifestyle. Now that he is 32, the grocery department manager at the Community Food Co-op said he is happy to primarily work during daylight hours. Elkins worked the night shift for several years at the grocery store (7 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.) on a regular basis up until six years ago.
He said the shift worked for him — to a point.
“I was 23 years old when I started working the night shift. At the time, it was great for me. It kind of meant that I could have a little bit of nightlife on my weekends, whereas I don’t really have that option now that I work days. A lot of it depends on the individual. We have some people who really like that aspect — it suits them very well. For me personally, I was definitely missing the daylight hours.”
So he switched to an early morning shift, and he has time to enjoy things he couldn’t when he worked after dark, such as gardening.
A lack of time seems to be a common theme with many night-shift workers. Until he stopped working the night shift in July, Thibodeaux said he had been working the shift at various jobs for a little more than a year. As a result, sleep and errands were often sacrificed, he said.
“My body never really adjusted. I never really got the idea that I was supposed to sleep during the day. Most of the time I just kind of sacrificed sleep,” he said.
He said he covered his window with fabric and tin foil, “and everything I could find.” But still, he said, sleep was at a premium.
Thibodeaux is also a ballet dancer, and classes at Northwest Ballet School cut into his normal sleeping times.
“I was coming home from work, sleeping for a couple of hours, getting up, going to (ballet class), coming home, sleeping, getting up and going to work. And it really wasn’t working out for me,” he said. “It was really hard sometimes … I had no focus (in class). It wasn’t a good combination.”
Simply doing errands became an issue at times, he said.
“It can get really frustrating,” he said of the schedule. “Sometimes my paychecks wouldn’t get deposited for a week just because I didn’t have time to go to the bank. I had car troubles as well, and that was kind of brutal getting it to the mechanic … I would sometimes go 24 hours without sleep just to fit in all my errands that could regularly be done in a normal schedule. I had done that several times in a row, and I just couldn’t do that anymore.”
Relationships can be hard to manage as well.
“I think it would be harder for single parents to do that job, but we’ve had single parents do it,” Elkins said. “The day-care setup is just a little more difficult, usually, for them.”
Logan said her drivers simply learn to adapt.
“Many night-shift workers have kids and families,” she said. “I think we live in a more 24-hour world than ever before. People work it out.”
For some, the shift does indeed work well.
“The ideal thing to do is to work at night as a cab driver to have the flexibility of the hours,” said Biondolillo, who will split time between school during the day and work at night starting this fall. “I get the free time if I need to finish a paper, or do some research.”
Working the night shift can be attractive to many workers because of what the shift often lacks, Elkins said.
“There is no customer service, so you have a lot more freedom. The way you organize your work is a lot more straightforward,” he said. “And (listening to) music is a big key for a lot of folks who work that shift.”
At the Food Co-op, the night crew’s duties are often done with a soundtrack in the background, ranging from “opera to death metal,” Elkins said. “It really depends on the current crew and what they like.”
Pay is often higher compared to day shifts. Employees at the Food Co-op are entitled to a 25-cent premium per hour for people who work between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., an amount Elkins admits isn’t as much as many unionized grocery stores.
Added Logan: “More cash, less charges, less traffic and more likely to get the stranded traveler,” she said. “It has its good and bad points.”
Back in Biondolillo’s four-wheeled office, a couple of 20-something-looking girls yell something in his direction as they stumble down Holly Street, while two men slap hands and embrace in the shadows of an alley. This night-fueled mural is what Biondolillo said he enjoys.
“I like the variety. Not everything is expected,” he said. “(There are) different types of people. Each night takes a shape of its own. They’re all different.”