While We Are Sleeping

It’s 3:15 a.m. Where are you? Meet the folks who are doing important work in the middle of the night as most of us are curled up under the covers.

June 22, 2021 | | Community

The sun has set, the skies have darkened. Stars softly twinkle, a silver moon shines. The cares that beset the day are now yesterday’s, and tomorrow has yet to come – though not really, as it is already the wee hours of tomorrow.

It’s 3:15 a.m. and all across Headwaters, souls are soundly sleeping. You and I, and most of our family, friends and neighbours, are safely tucked up in soft beds, oblivious, as we should be. But not quite all of us. From Shelburne to Belfountain, Hillsburgh to Hockley, some people are awake – and working. They’re on the graveyard shift, usually defined as midnight to 8 a.m. By day they sleep in shaded rooms where their brains battle natural circadian rhythms – those natural cycles tied to day and night, and present in all organisms, even plants.

That’s science. The five souls who speak to us here are humans who, by choice, by career or by command, work while we sleep — and vice versa.

Four of the five interviews that follow were conducted at worksites as people toiled while the rest of us slept. Because of Covid-19 restrictions, my chat with Connie McTavish-Rennick could not be conducted in person at Headwaters Health Care Centre. It took place by telephone.

Connie McTavish-Rennick works from 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. as a housekeeping porter at Headwaters Health Care Centre. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Connie McTavish-Rennick works from 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. as a housekeeping porter at Headwaters Health Care Centre. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Connie McTavish-Rennick, 52
Housekeeping Porter
Headwaters Health Care Centre, Orangeville

More patients, more beds, more rooms, more concern all mean more work for every frontline worker at Headwaters Heath Care Centre during this deadly pandemic. “A lot more work,” Connie McTavish-Rennick allows, as she gets set to begin her 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. night shift as a housekeeping porter, much of it in “Emerg,” the hospital’s emergency department. She’s on steady nights, 15 years on the job.

Connie’s work is physical and must be done wearing a mask, gloves, goggles and sometimes, depending on the task and area, a hairnet, gown and overboots. “Yes, it’s hot. Your glasses and goggles fog. You’re breathing the same air your whole shift. It can be overwhelming. It gets almost claustrophobic.

“Every night is different. It can be extremely busy. Steady high-volume since Covid. There’s a challenge to multitask. How are you going to be in three places at once? You learn to prioritize – what you can do now, and what will have to wait. You do your best. You cope.”

Though no two shifts are the same – “It could be crazy all night, unpredictably crazy” – Connie supposes that at 3:15 a.m. she might be in the hospital’s blood lab, a big room filled with expensive machines, any of which could cost several times her annual salary. She’ll be cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces, emptying garbage, emptying – carefully emptying – dangerous bins of biohazards. Working steadily and methodically, not missing anything. There is a pandemic. Lives hang in the balance. There is no such thing as “good enough.”

Whatever her task of the moment, Connie must be prepared for immediate calls to action elsewhere, especially to Emerg, where urgent response is required.

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  • “They call me. ‘Connie, we need you here, now.’ You drop things and go. Maybe they need some extra linen, maybe they need some ice brought to them, a spill to be cleaned up. Maybe someone has tracked in mud (or worse) and it’s a hazard.” She might be directed to OR, an operating room, where cleanliness is taken beyond godliness, and her three-day specialty cleaning training is put to meticulous use. Spilled blood isn’t simply mopped up.

    Unlike many of her colleagues at the hospital, Connie may not have an alphabet of acronyms and abbreviations after her name, but she is frontline, at-risk and proud to say, “I love my job.”

    That’s easy to believe, and it’s easy to imagine that, in a time before masks, you would see her saying it with a smile.

    General machinist Lorenzo Bobechko takes a moment during his 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. night shift in Amaranth. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    General machinist Lorenzo Bobechko takes a moment during his 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. night shift in Amaranth. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Lorenzo Bobechko, 24
    General Machinist
    Lauer Machine & Manufacturing, Amaranth

    At 3 a.m. in drizzling rain, the dead end of a dirt road in Amaranth may not be where you’d want to find yourself. But that’s where Lauer Machine and Manufacturing’s 10,000-square-foot machine shop is located – and that’s where Lorenzo Bobechko works the night shift.

    Lauer specializes in tight-tolerance machining, and on this night Lorenzo has already been here for the past 11 hours, intent at the working platform of a million-dollar computer numerical control, or CNC, milling machine. The excruciatingly precise holes he’s drilling in heavy metal shafts are sized and located to tolerances of a thousandth of an inch.

    If he gets the numbers wrong, things can go badly awry, causing massive, pricey damage. He likens what can happen to crashing a very expensive sports car.

    Though still young, Lorenzo has been doing this job – the parts he makes each night vary – for more than five years, four of those on the 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. night shift. He likes it. He has left behind his childhood aspirations of becoming a classical pianist.

    The shop floor at Lauer is strewn with trolleys, pallets and gleaming heavy metal mosaics of massive manufactured parts, as well as angular steel slabs waiting to become so. Crane lines and chains hang from above, massive machines make a racket, workplace memos, warnings and instruction sheets are tacked to surfaces with little magnets, and the Guess Who’s “American Woman” is the soundtrack of the moment.

    Lorenzo tolerates the music. He finds it, when he hears it, a distraction from his focus.

    And focus he does.

    At 3:15, standing at his CNC machine, dressed in black ball cap, jeans, T-shirt and big, begrimed work boots, his piano-smart fingers dance over the lights, buttons and dials of a complex computer control panel located on a tight platform at the side of the machine. He’s following instructions on a “traveller,” a detailed instruction sheet created by a Lauer client. The sheet is covered in geometric line images, with the many dimensions and tolerances highlighted in yellow or orange Sharpie dashes.

    Inside the suburban-bathroom-sized CNC machine, a dullish yellow coolant comprising water and animal fat gushes over a shiny metallic rod, the length and girth of a beefy forearm. The rod spins at high speed while a heavy, computer-controlled drill carves away exquisitely delicate spirals of hot, gleaming metal that fly everywhere inside the chamber, decorating its dripping walls and floor.

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  • Lorenzo is moving, as he says, “in time with the machine,” making parts for machines that make parts. It will take more than an hour to “take the cut” for sizing, to make each of tonight’s parts, a series of transit shafts. He sometimes knows what the parts will be used for, as well as their final destination, but often not. They could be shipped to Bolton or Shanghai. The parts he’s machining are critical components of other machines, from those that make single-use plastic pop bottles to those that make medical stents, tiny surgically implanted tubes that aid in the flow of vital bodily fluids. “Someone could be saved, perhaps. We’re part of the assembly line toward that.”

    On his part of the all-night assembly line, Lorenzo likes busy best. “Time flies.” It is only on reaching his home in Mono that he feels the 12 hours. There he has learned that what most of us take for granted – sleeping at night – he must simulate when sleeping days: room dark, phone off, disturbances minimized. He’s aware his adrenaline levels have been elevated and it will take time for the peace of slumber to come.

    He’s also aware that the transition to a weekend or to days off will never, ever, be easy. Awake in the sunshine, he will regularly feel jet-lagged. But he is content – and he’s proud. “We do good work here.”

    Baker and owner Cristina Roque works in the quiet of her kitchen at Orangeville’s Son of a Chef Bakery. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Baker and owner Cristina Roque works in the quiet of her kitchen at Orangeville’s Son of a Chef Bakery. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Cristina Roque, 50
    Baker and Owner
    Son of a Chef Bakery, Orangeville

    Spending time overnight with Cristina Roque in the kitchen of her Orangeville bakery or checking in with her during her 16-hour Saturday workdays, when she also serves in the busy shop out front, will quickly confirm that the Portuguese-born baker is the ponytailed embodiment of the word “indefatigable.”

    “Oh, I love it, I love it!” she says of her work, doubling up on expressions of delight, as she often does.

    Since entering the bakery at 3 a.m., Cristina has been shuttlecocking around the shop’s tight, 10- by 30-foot kitchen, turning on ovens, organizing pots and pans, marshalling ingredients. At 3:15 on the street out front, it’s dark, empty and eerily quiet. In her brightly lit kitchen, Cristina is intently counting spoonfuls of yeast into a large metal bowl into which she will shortly crack 98 eggs.

    This hasn’t been her life for very long. She bought the business last November, after the pandemic closed the factory where she worked. “This was in my mind for many years,” she says. She had worked at the factory for the past decade, making “the electric box you put in the driveway, under the ground, to melt the snow. I made the box. I made the wiring.”

    Now she’s making malassadas, delectable Portuguese doughnuts, a Saturday specialty. She’ll be making 300 tonight, before the bakery’s 8 a.m. opening. People will be waiting at the door. For now, there is just Cristina and her assistant, Matilda, working steadily and methodically, with little chat. (Cristina’s husband, Fernando, will arrive at 4.) Croissants and cinnamon buns will follow.

    “It is easier to work at night. A hundred per cent. It’s quiet. It’s organized. You concentrate on what you’re doing. It goes well. The time flies. During the day it is going, going, non-stop: baking extra, more attention, more concentration, employee questions, customer questions. It is always busy. To have a business, you do it. Not tomorrow. Today.”

    Is all this night-and-day endeavour appreciated? “Oh yeah! Oh yeah!” she says without looking up or missing a beat cracking those eggs. “I like to do everything from scratch. Fresh. They love it! Customers order ahead. They say they could eat them every day!”

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  • Taking a brief pause for a sigh and contemplation, flour-dusted hand on black-aproned hip, Cristina says the one thing, the best thing, she has learned during staggering workdays and pandemic strictures is that there are “really very good people in the world. People with good comments and good hearts.”

    Cristina’s doughnuts are good – try eating only one! – and so is her heart. “It is good we have something to help other people. People I know come with big families, people out of a job. I have leftovers at the end of the day. I call them to come and pick them up. I enjoy helping.”

    On the seventh day, says the Bible, the Lord rested. Cristina doesn’t. The bakery is closed Sundays, so that’s when she shops, cleans house, does laundry. “I come from a big family. During a pandemic, we’re not allowed to see anybody, right? Family, friends. So now, not seeing them doesn’t affect me too much. But with experience, I may have to change my plans. To have time for my family. To have time for me.”

    Dufferin OPP Constable Jeff McLean on patrol during a routine overnight assignment. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Dufferin OPP Constable Jeff McLean on patrol during a routine overnight assignment. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Jeff McLean, 34
    OPP Constable
    Dufferin Detachment

    “I’m not really a morning person,” confesses Dufferin County OPP constable Jeff McLean.

    The former Shelburne Police Service officer, who transferred to the OPP when Shelburne council voted to disband the local force, is happy working the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. night shift. Not that he has a choice. All OPP officers, regardless of seniority, must work shifts in a complicated rotation of days and nights, with at least a 24-hour interval in transition, followed by three days off. They also work back-to-back weekends every month, then have back-to-back weekends off.

    You might be tempted to think Jeff’s affinity for the night shift would be sorely tested at 3:15 a.m., when he’s walking downtown Shelburne alone in a cold rain. Rattling under 40 pounds of vest, flashlight, gun and gear, he is methodically checking the doors of every business on Main and Owen Sound streets in his hometown. His house, warm bed, and family lie a couple of kilometres away.

    After more than five years on the job, Jeff’s shifts are fluid. Much of what he does is at his own discretion. He drives perhaps 200 kilometres every shift. He could be patrolling, attending domestics (domestic abuse complaints) or filling out arrest paperwork in the detachment office. Tonight he is pounding a wet beat in Shelburne. Earlier in the shift, he was conducting RIDE checks, traffic stops and radar speed enforcement.

    Does he feel guilty, hidden in the darkness, busting speeders doing 25 kilometres over the limit on empty roads a 3 a.m.? “Well, no,” he says. “Depending on circumstances, if someone is going 25 over in a 50 zone in town, I don’t feel guilty at all.” Be warned.

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  • Policing is different on the graveyard shift. By day, a visible police presence is itself a crime deterrent. At night, Jeff has been surprised by the number of people out and about in the dark, both benign and up to no good. Cars and faces become familiar. People are more apt to flee with darkness for cover. Domestic, along with drug and alcohol incidents increase. On full-moon nights, he firmly believes, even more so.

    Late at night, when the streets are deserted and quiet, he says, “You’re more aware of your surroundings. You see that little bit of movement and I wouldn’t say you are necessarily suspicious, but you are drawn to that. There’s almost a sixth sense at night when you’re a cop.”

    If one of the doors Jeff is rattling in the middle of the night should creak open, what is the procedure? He’ll radio in to report an incident, await a backup officer, rouse a keyholder, and check and clear the building. How many such break-in incidents would he see in a year? “Five or six.” And how many of those will prove to be false alarms, someone just forgetting to lock up for the night? “About five or six.”

    Varun Sharma works late hours behind the counter as store supervisor at the Ultramar and Express Mart in Caledon. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Varun Sharma works late hours behind the counter as store supervisor at the Ultramar and Express Mart in Caledon. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    Varun Sharma, 27
    Store Supervisor
    Ultramar and Express Mart, Caledon

    Out of the darkness of a starless night, air brakes hiss and a slowing big rig groans to a stop on the earthen verge of Highway 10, south of Caledon Mountain. There, the Ultramar station is a brightly lit gas and snack siren in the night, its pumps throwing long, deep shadows.

    The truck driver climbs down stiffly, as if he’s put in many miles tonight. He works out the kinks while he ambles across the forecourt and into the well-stocked convenience store. There, at 3:15 a.m., an impersonal minute’s encounter occurs between two Covid-masked strangers, both working nights.

    The trucker selects a big bottle of a lurid yellow energy drink from the cooler, puts it on the counter and asks for his brand of cigarettes. Behind black mask, Plexiglas Covid shield and a palisade of gum, candy bars and jerky, Varun Sharma punches in the order in a melody of electronic beeps and boops. The trucker pays with plastic from a wallet on a chain, tucks the smokes in his vest, says “Thanks, man,” and exits, fading into the wee-hour Caledon darkness.

    “For my future,” Varun replies without hesitation when asked why he came to Canada in 2018 from Kotkapura, Punjab, India.

    With permanent residency status imminent, that future – Varun aspires to become a Peel police officer – may seem bright, but it can be no brighter than the harsh glare from ranks of fluorescent lights he sits under over nine-hour night shifts at this 24/7 gas bar and convenience store.

    Working two day shifts and two night shifts a week, he has been at the Caledon station for two years, transferred from a gas station in Brampton, his first job in Canada. Days are busy, traffic on Highway 10 is constant, customers steady. Nights are slow, then they get slower – and more dangerous. There could be “drive-offs,” people who fill up and leave without paying. There is real fear of robbery. There is always some boredom.

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  • That boredom doesn’t come early, but it comes inevitably. The early hours of Varun’s 11:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. shift are filled with customers and cleaning: dust everything, mop the floors, clean the pumps, clean the washroom, empty the trash, deal with the flow of customers in for gas, pop, chips, tobacco.

    By 2 a.m., all is spick and span. Traffic headed home from work has ceased. Early-to-work traffic won’t start until sometime after 3. A handful of regulars, whose shifts are in synch with Varun’s own, might show up during the slow time – familiar faces without names in the middle of the night.

    Time crawls. Tedium takes over. Sleep beckons. No one could reproach a clerk who leans back in his chair to watch Netflix’s The Witcher on his cell phone. Awaiting dawn.

    About the Author More by Anthony Jenkins

    Anthony Jenkins is a freelance writer and illustrator who lives in Brockville.

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