The best job I ever had was interviewing prostitutes, junkies, homeless kids, and other random creatures at three in the morning.
I did it for about two and a half years. People who knew me then ask me now, “How did you go from interviewing drug dealers to doing stuff with stocks?” Isn’t it the same thing?
The job started because HBO didn’t have a website or an intranet. I was constantly on the verge of getting fired because I wasn’t interested in the random database stuff they wanted from me. So one weekend I put the HBO cafeteria menu on an intranet I set up, using a server I set up on my computer. Then I put their employee database on there, then their movie database, and so on. Until they had an intranet and everyone started using it. I forgot to ask for permission. Comedy Central called me and asked me if I could help do the same thing for them
So I went up there and they said they were willing to pay me as a consultant. Maybe I had a small crush on the IT woman there who asked me. But I might’ve had a crush on everyone back then. I told her I would only do it they gave me the time slot on Comedy Central from 3 to 4 in the morning to do whatever I wanted.
I wanted to have my own talk show. A few days later she called me and said she asked her boss or her boss’s boss and he said no. They sell that time slot for informercials. So I then approached HBO and said, “you guys are great at doing original TV shows, how about let me do an original web show.”
So that’s how I did “III:am” for 2.5 years. Every Tuesday night I would go out at three in the morning and interview whoever I could find.
Why a Tuesday night? Because anyone could be out on a Saturday night at 3 in the morning. Saturday nights at three in the morning are boring. But if YOU were out and about at 3 in the morning on a Tuesday night, then there’s a reason. You probably don’t work a regular nine to five job. You probably don’t do a regular anything. You’re out at three in the morning on a Tuesday night either causing trouble or avoiding it.
I turned over every rock in the city for two years. For instance, there’s a bus that goes back and forth from Queens to Rikers Island. It runs all night long because if someone can get bailed out, they get out of jail right then.
The busstop had the constant buzz of misfortune. There were construction workers who would secretly whisper to me that they were cops. There were the teenage prostitutes who were waiting for boyfriends or clients to get out of jail. There were the drug dealers and pimps ready to sell whatever to whoever. And in the middle of it all were the nervous mums and sisters getting ready to get on the bus to go bail out their kids and brothers. Once someone got on that bus I never saw them again.
Other Tuesdays I’d go over to the east side of Manhattan. Everything was happening there. How many times did I fall in love? I can’t even begin to say. Homeless girls in dreadlocks living in the shanty town on the other side of FDR across from the housing projects on Avenue D. A girl with a stutter carrying a monkey in a cage. Everyone trying to belt out their story and be heard in the middle of the night because the shackles that shut them up during the day were sound asleep.
For two years I interviewed hundreds of people, taking their pictures, transcribing the tapes, and putting four interviews a week up on the HBO website (with the help of a great crew of people at HBO. I still miss Trish). Everyone had to sign a release form and put their phone numbers, which for a while was the only way I would get a date or two when someone caught my eye and I’d call them the day after, trying to read their number off of the crumpled release form.
It was a different world at three in the morning. The same locations, but different rules, different customs, different cultures. There was the working world (people working in clubs, all night diners, even the NY times workers putting the final touches on all the news that was fit to print), and then there were the forgotten outcasts from that world: homeless, jobless, addicted, disabled. Couples arguing in the middle of the street, johns, pimps, prostitutes, lonely people looking to add excitement to their lives.
The sadder and more twisted a story was, the more beautiful to me. I would get home at five in the morning (after treating my crew to breakfast at the all-night Empire Diner) and I would lie awake, buzzed for hours until falling asleep for a half hour here and there.
The things I learned:
- All the rules we think of as normal society are all manufactured. There’s no such thing as normal.
- There’s a 3am religion: there are too many sides of life to count. Each with its own special despair and story. Each with its own way of escaping the chains that bind us to the day. The sadness was unbearable but only then do you see God in their eyes looking back.
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