BY ERIC GINSBURG
It’s hard not to feel stupid waiting for the light to change when there isn’t a soul in sight and everyone else is in bed. The sign at Papa John’s on Battleground Avenue marks the hour, just reading “LATE” because the “OPEN” sign above it has been turned off. A few places on the street are still open as the clock inches towards 3 a.m., but nobody can be seen inside the 24-hour fitness center and there’s no wait in the drive-thru lines at the nearby Cook Out.
Two cabs sit outside the Speakeasy Tavern at closing time, the occasional car passing by and a man walking with his head up despite the rain on the strip of sidewalk. Maroon 5’s “One More Night” leaks out of the bar, the only one on the strip that is still open. The remaining handful of patrons is lingering, and one of the cab drivers gets out to empty some trash out of his trunk, tossing it in a trashcan outside the tavern. Before long, he pulls up next to the other driver hoping for a fare, sharing a story about a $20 tip on a two-mile drive earlier in the evening.
At 2:12 a.m., nine people walk out together, followed by a 10th a minute later. They’re arguing about who is “good to drive,” eventually swapping keys and splitting up into several cars. At 2:17 a.m., one of the cabbies gives up, and his cohort pulls up to the front of the bar, leans over to peer inside through the rain. The “open” light is still at full wattage, but by 2:18 a.m. the main lights are off and the second driver has slipped away.
Stragglers are parting ways at other watering holes throughout town. It’s dollar-beer night at two neighborhood spots, the Westerwood Tavern and College Hill Sundries. At 2:21, seven people begin working their way home from Westerwood, some on foot, and by 2:29 the last three men on College Hill’s back patio call it quits.
There’s more activity downtown, but not by much, and it isn’t due to beer swillers. Half a dozen tightly bundled people stand outside the Depot at 2:37, one woman clasping a stroller. An assortment of cars idle in the News & Record’s parking lot a stone’s throw away, loading up the morning paper in the drizzling rain. Elm Street is desolate, seven bags of trash lined up on the curb in front of Triad Stage, and the only movement is someone making off with a Jimmy John’s sandwich.
2:40 a.m.: The ice rink sits under strings of blue Christmas lights, and two presumably drunk revelers are clinging to each other and giggling in the middle of the ice while a third stands towards the edge taking their photo. The two women strike several poses and struggle to stay on their feet before one realizes that she’s lost an earring. It’s 50 degrees out, according to the clocktower downtown, and now one of the women is kissing the photographer before spinning around a few times in place. Noticing they are being watched, one nonchalantly comments that they might be trespassing.
There are still lights on in two rooms at the Biltmore and three condos at Center Pointe as the minutes tick closer to 3 a.m., and the only activity along Martin Luther King is near Florida Street, as two cop cars pass someone walking. Most of the units in Smith and Hairston Homes public housing projects are dark by 2:57, the only sound coming from the occasional car on Freeman Mill and the hesitant rain.
SATURDAY MORNING PART I
BY JORDAN GREEN
400 block of North Cherry Street, 2:35 a.m. A small knot of patrons, all African American, lines up outside the entrance of Therapy, where the music is still throbbing from the dance floor after the bars have closed down to meet the requirements of state law on alcohol sales. The doorman quickly ushers them in. Others mill on the sidewalk, talking on cell phones.
A security guard — so identified because of the lettering on the back of his black shirt — leans into the passenger window of a patrol car talking with an officer. He stands up and backs away from the patrol car when a young man hurries past carrying a large paper bag.
“Why you didn’t get me nothing?” the security officer asks. “Damn.”
“I told you I was going to Sheetz,” the young man replies. “You didn’t want nothing.”
400 block of West 4th Street, 2:45 a.m. The lights are out at Bull’s Tavern and an employee is sweeping the café seating area out front. Similarly, the chairs are turned upside down and placed on tables at Recreation Billiards, where an employee is sweeping inside. A small group of young, African-American men amble along the sidewalk, several of them on cell phones, but before long they’ve vanished. Williards and Classic cabs slowly cruise the street in search of fares, but the bar patrons are long gone.
The Rush Fitness Complex, 3 a.m. The Rush is a beacon of green, orange and navy blue at the corner of West Fourth and North Cherry streets. With bright lights and a friendly, energetic staff, it’s the only thing happening in downtown Winston-Salem at this time of night, excluding Therapy and the all-nude, BYOB adult club across the street from the convention center.
“Everybody coming in here is police officers, people getting off work, sheriff’s deputy’s, bounty hunters,” says Gail Bringier, who’s working behind the counter at the Rush. “It’s the ones you normally don’t see, taking time to take care of theirself.”
Kevin Waddell, a Greyhound traveler waiting for the next bus to Statesville, has found refuge in the Rush after being put out in the cold at the Clark Transportation Center at 12:30 a.m. Wearing white scrubs, he’s on his way home from his job as a cook at Sagebrush Steakhouse in Goldsboro.
“I had a six-hour layover,” he says. “They let me stay there ’til the last bus came in at 12:30. Then they told me I had to leave. The man told me, ‘We’re closing the building. You’re going to have to leave.’ I said, ‘It’s 29 degrees outside. Where am I going to go?’ He said, ‘Try to tough it out.’ The thing that gets me is, what if I had kids? What if I was a single woman?’ I paid this money for the ticket, and you’re throwing me out?’” Bringier is enthusiastic about her work. “I love it,” she says. “You get to see who’s who, what’s going on. It’s hilarious…. Watching people’s behavior change when they start drinking.”
The plate-glass window affords a full view of the parade of nightlife on the street.
“Fights,” says Quinton Joseph, Bringier’s coworker. “I saw one just this evening. Well, the one guy wanted to fight, but the other guy wouldn’t fight with him. Once they get that drink in them, it’s over. I call it ‘oil’….”
“Testosterone,” Waddell suggests. “Beautiful women,” Joseph adds, noting another feature of the job. “Tell ’em to keep coming.”
Bringier is in a unique position to assess the social and commercial ecology of downtown Winston-Salem at night.
“I wish the nightlife was a little more livelier,” she says.
“The bars are open until 2 a.m., but after that there’s nowhere to eat. People get drunk, and they got nowhere they can go to get some food to soak up the liquor. Then they drive right past the police station trying to get home.”
Outside Winkers, 3:30 a.m. The red marquee outside Winkers adult nightclub across from the Benton Convention Center advertises “girls girls girls” but the night is clearly over for one socalled gentleman.
The fortysomething man with a Caesar haircut is propped against the outside wall with his legs splayed onto the sidewalk and hands cuffed behind his back. He’s wearing a T-shirt, but seems oblivious to the fact that the temperature is hovering below freezing. Two police units are stopped on Cherry Street with light bars activated. One of Winston- Salem’s finest is interviewing the security guard, presumably about the circumstances of the detainee’s ejection.
The officer finishes talking to the security guard, who slips back inside the club, and the man in handcuffs addresses the officer.
“Just let me ask you one thing,” he says loudly. “Can I talk to him, man to man?” “Shhh, listen to me,” the officer responds. “I just want to talk to him, man to man,” he repeats. A friend apologizes to the police. “I’m going to call a cab,” he says. “We’re going straight home.”
To which the man in handcuffs contributes this gem to the discourse: “I’m going to beat the sh*t out of him. I ain’t gonna lie.”“Just listen to the cop,” the friend says. And turning to the officer he adds, “I’m sorry, everyone. I’ll take care of it. I appreciate you a lot.”
The officer helps the man to his feet and removes the cuffs. He awkwardly shakes hands with the fellow, but steps back to avoid receiving a hug.
“I’m sorry,” the man tells the officer.
All over town (University Parkway north to Hanes Mill Road, over to Silas Creek Parkway, north on Miller Street to Cloverdale Avenue), about 4 p.m.
True to Bringier’s complaint, it is difficult to impossible to find a 24-hour diner in Winston-Salem. Twin City Diner, located at the bottom of the hill on West 1st Street and near Baptist Hospital, would seem to be a likely bet, but it’s closed. Contrary to the results of an internet search, there is no Waffle House on West Hanes Mill Road. And nothing looks open near Hanes Mall. Even the Harris Teeter grocery store on Cloverdale Avenue is closed. The Cloverdale Kitchen, next door to the grocery store, looks promising, but it doesn’t open until 6 a.m.
Hess Wilco store at Hawthorne Road and Silas Creek Parkway, 5 a.m.
The manager and a trainee warily eye a customer perusing the snack aisle. A packet of Grandma’s Homestyle peanut butter cookies purchased, the customer heads to the men’s room. The manager tells the trainee she can close out the second cash register. They pull the tapes for reconciliation, and the next 24-hour cycle begins.
Emergency department at Forsyth Medical Center, 5:48 a.m.
The workload has eased, and a female nurse emerges from the triage area and takes a seat behind the desk to visit with the receptionist. A male nurse and a second female nurse also emerge from the room and take seats near the desk. The male nurse yawns.
Another male nurse approaches the desk and confers with the receptionist.
“I’m game for anything,” he says. “Cracker Barrel is one the way home.”
Then he disappears down a hallway. A heavyset man limps into the waiting area carrying a large McDonald’s cup. He is accompanied by a younger man.
“Need to see a doctor?” the receptionist asks in a pleasant voice.
The man says something that is inaudible, and the nurse behind the desk immediately gets up and leads him into the triage area.
SATURDAY MORNING, PART II
BY BRIAN CLAREY
At 1:50 a.m. on downtown Greensboro’s Elm Street, most of the day’s snow has melted, leaving a wet sheen to the city. On the sidewalks, the last flurry of activity plays out before last call at 2 a.m.
A swarm of taxicabs descends on Elm just before “the dump” — what the cops call the rush of bodies that hit the street just as the bars stop serving booze.
For many, it’s time to go home, a state-imposed curfew anchored to the liquor trade.
But for some people the night is just getting started.
Down an alley on Elm Street, Mike Fleischmann tends the ovens at Loaf Bakery, pulling rounds of garlic and herb, and gruyere, currant and pecan from the ovens. He’s been here since about 10:45 p.m. and will continue baking loaves and making dough until after daylight.
“I used to joke that if I could find a way to make people want fresh bread and pastry at 5 in the evening, then I really would have the perfect job,” he says. “But folks want their bread at 7 in the morning. So here we are.”
He’s been on the third shift in downtown Greensboro for about seven years — the price of doing business for a baker — and has seen fights between the drunks in his alley, had to call 911 more than a couple times. He was working here the night Chakras caught fire and a couple firemen who happened to be on their morning run passed by and saved the day.
But mostly it’s quiet. Like tonight. “There isn’t even anyone in the parking lot,” he says. Next out of the oven are the multi-grain loaves. Before punching out at around 7 a.m., he’ll make between 80 and 90 big loaves and 80 baguettes, along with a few other small pieces. Then he’s going home to get some sleep.
“I’m as used to this as I think anyone can get,” he says.
At 2:50 a.m., the shelves inside Harris Teeter at the Shops at Friendly Center — dubbed by a friend as the “Teeterdome” — are full, but the aisles are empty. Though the sampling kiosks are barren at this hour, most of the registers closed, the seafood department nothing but a frozen wave of crushed ice, still more employees roam the aisles than shoppers. There’s a kid in UNC sweats cruising the pet-food aisle, a young couple on frozen foods and a young woman weighing a decision on eggs.
A few employees stock canned goods, and a woman working the produce department says all questions must be directed to a store manager, who is unavailable.
The place gives the overwhelming impression that the best time to grocery shop — unless you want fresh fish — is after midnight.
By 3:20 a.m., the temperature has dropped five degrees, down to 27. The wet slicks in the road turn slowly to black ice. Fortunately, very few cars roll through town, and the ones that do seem in no particular hurry. Even the cops are driving the speed limit.
The Sheetz on West Friendly Avenue, like all Sheetz gas stations and food counters, is a 24-hour operation. At 3:30 a.m. the customer base consists solely of two men of about 30. One of them buys a bottle of juice and a pair of work gloves.
The coffee urns get cleaned during this lull, the hotchocolate machine refilled. The kitchen gets a scrubdown.
At the counter, Bernice Johnson bides time.
“Yeah, we’re up all night here,” she says. She’s on until 6 a.m., when she says she’ll go home, have a glass of wine and then try to get some sleep.
It’s slow tonight, she says. Probably something to do with the cold. It’s not always like this. Just the other night a customer forgot to put his car in “park.” Through the big windows of Sheetz she watched his car roll backwards into the ditch.
“He wasn’t drinking or anything,” she says. “He just forgot.
“Sometimes at this time of night people shut off their cognizant functions.
At 4 a.m., Piedmont Triad International Airport is deserted, though the runway lights are on. Driving the lone car through the looping network of roads is a surreal experience.
Just after 4 a.m., the Best Diner on West Market Street holds what may be the last crowd of the night, a spillover of club refugees, 20 or so of them, all getting late breakfast before sunrise in the Naugahyde booths.
Not a bad idea. How about a couple of eggs over easy, with corned-beef hash and home fries, whole-wheat toast?
Freina Thongdee likes working this shift best. “The people, they’re interesting,” she says. “Way better than the morning shift.”
Sometimes people try to walk out on their checks.
Sometimes there are fights and yelling, she says.
And sometimes there is some overlap between the latenight and early-morning customers, most of whom she describes as senior citizens.
“They see some action sometimes,” she says. “They love it!”
BY ERIC GINSBURG
When you work somewhere for 20 years, even off and on, you’re bound to end up with a nickname.
“Tell him what you call me,” Melody Ward laughs, bantering with the two other women behind the counter at Your House diner in Greensboro.
Ward admits she deserves the nickname “Drill Sergeant,” though it’s easy to see she has a strong relationship with her coworkers. Jean Stanley, the cook who’s there seven days a week, and Carol Purdue trade quips with the Drill Sergeant between taking care of their customers — mostly regulars who they call “Your House babies.”
Ward points to different tables, naming some of them or indicating how long they’ve been coming in. She’s only here on weekends these days, pulling the third shift starting at 11 p.m. and holding down a day job the rest of the week. Usually they’ll get a break from 5 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. at the 24-hour breakfast, burger and sandwich joint on Battleground Ave, but not always.
“Sometimes the drunk crowd is still here when the breakfast crowd comes in,” Stanley said.
It’s better working here than some of the other 24-hour diners, she said, referring to her four-year stint at IHOP. The kitchen here is open and in the front, providing her with more space and a welcomed chance to talk to people.
They know their regulars well — some have been coming as long or longer than the women have been working here. At the far end of the L-shaped bar, Ward asks one of them when he’s going home to visit Colombia, stating she wants him to bring her a T-shirt. Last time he found a few bracelets for her. It’s a few minutes until 4 a.m. and this “Your House baby” is on his way out while Ward jokes with Stanley about how much time is left in the shift.
Come back next weekend and bring the paper, Ward says, and try the Master Burger.
2:25 a.m.: New York Pizza is slammed. At least 20 people are waiting inside for slices, but the bigger demand is outside the Tate Street store. Justin Bieber is in town tonight, and that means a lot of preteens are swooning in hotels near the Greensboro Coliseum. The drivers are doing the best they can, but it took Chris Stella an hour and a half to drive five miles, slogged in Bieber Fever traffic.
“It was like they had just seen the Beatles at Shea Stadium,” he says, lighting a cigarette as he drives from the Sheraton to the Best Western.
Two women had just come down to the Sheraton lobby, making small talk about the concert and commenting that they had a room full of 12-year-old kids upstairs.
Back at the store at 2:47 a.m., a college-aged girl is practically sitting on her boyfriend’s lap, talking about how she is attracted to some women.
“I don’t care as long as I am involved,” the boyfriend says, before his girlfriend asks the other girl at the table why she wouldn’t make out with her.
“Not even with me?” she asks. “But we’re like best friends!” Another round of deliveries is ready, and Stella heads out to three homes this time. At the first house, a regular in Lindley Park, it takes forever for someone to come to the door, and when she finally does she isn’t thrilled that there isn’t any ranch dressing. Passing Stella a $12 tip, she asks him to bring it back.
On a good week, he can pull in significant money, making the sleep cycle associated with the third shift worth it. It affords him the chance to learn about the city too, including little things like the fact that wealthier neighborhoods having less well-marked street numbers.
He’s never been robbed while delivering, even though he’s been at it for three years and used to work at a chain whose drivers are targeted more regularly, so he is careful. By 3:14 Stella is back at New York Pizza waiting for the next batch, a cycle he’ll continue until the store closes at 5 a.m.
It’s slow at the Battleground Inn during the winter, though there must be 20 cars in the parking lot at 3:30 a.m. The family-operated place of rest is an unassuming presence, set back from the road and containing 48 rooms. The man behind the counter is reading the News & Record with the TV on, but he has no idea what he’s watching.
Declining to give his name, he says he’s only here two nights a week and is self-employed the rest of the time, sometimes requiring him to work all night and continue through the day. He’s only been here for five months, but he’s done this work before. It can be hard to sleep during the day but the nights are quiet and slow with reticent guests and minimal activity.