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By William Hogeland


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Nine to five. Three little words sure to make most red-blooded freelancers shudder. They speak of the bleak routines of corporate hell. Nine to five doesn't refer merely to the hours in a workday; it means punching in and punching out... clock watching... predictability... lives slipping away in meaningless repetition.

Of course many IPs work regular corporate hours -- sometimes even as a matter of choice. But others go all night, or rise long before dawn. Depending on a variety of factors -- including relationships with clients and the schedules and support of family members -- life in the world of "backward scheduling" can offer real rewards. But working unorthodox hours can also be a real pain in the rump.


When I told [Franz Kafka] that I would work as a musician at night, he said: "That is very bad for one's health. And, besides, you tear yourself out of the human community. The night-side of life becomes its day-side for you, and what is day for other men changes into a dream. Without noticing it, you have emigrated to the antipodes of the world around you."
-- Gustav Janouch,
Conversations with Kafka

For Will Woodard, a jazz bassist, late hours are a given. "That's just when the work is," he says. A member of the well-regarded Rick Hollander Quartet, which records for the Concord Jazz label, Will has toured widely in both Europe and the States. But when his first child was born, Will stopped traveling. Now he cares for his two young sons during the day -- Will's wife Rosalie is a teacher -- and plays up to 25 dates a month in New York, where he lives.

"I'm really a freelance accompanist," Will explains. "You take whatever there is, whenever it is." His services are in frequent demand. He's played in a quartet led by sax player Vincent Herring and with piano legend Mose Allison, and he's a seasoned veteran of heading to bed at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.

Juggling nighttime work and daytime responsibilities -- that's when things "can be rough. Music is part of my life all the time. During the day I'm doing business on the phone, and practicing has to happen during the day." Trying to care for Calvin and Patrick while doing all of that might have made both work and home life unsatisfying.

An unconventional work schedule can offer real rewards. But it can also be a throbbing pain in the rump.

But Will finds creative ways to integrate the two parts. "[He and his kids] have breakfast, and after getting showered and dressed we turn on the record player. I might play a little bass; they might bang on a drum or just crawl around beneath me. And I very carefully guard the time when they're napping to get some focused practicing done."

Will's unorthodox lifestyle lets him spend more time with his kids than many parents can. ("My wife," he also hastens to add, "is a paragon of patience and virtue.") For all the demands on his family's ingenuity, Will speaks for many IPs when he says: "I've always been very aware that I'm not on the normal pace that other people are on. And I've got to say that I'm thankful for that, every day."

Virus Fighting at Night

Unlike Will, Chris Drury was recently an IP on a "normal" schedule: ten to six. Then, about a month ago, he started working for a new client, an investment firm with two busy trading floors, and he adopted new hours -- 4:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., sometimes later.

As an information-technology consultant, Chris is part of a team responsible for making desktop computers safe from what he terms "the unique individuals who want to wreak havoc in corporate America and are trying to come up with the newest and greatest virus." Unfortunately, financial traders don't appreciate being told to log off to accommodate an upgrade. ("Traders are among the most demanding clients that an IT professional can deal with," Chris points out with diplomatic understatement.) Nights were the only feasible time for the project.

Actually, Chris volunteered for the night shift. On his regular schedule, he'd endured a brutal commute, rising at 4:30 a.m. and bussing two hours or more each way due to traffic. "I thought: if I take this opportunity, chances are that I can spend more time with my wife. And I've had breakfast and lunch with her every day this week."

"But," he adds ruefully, "I haven't had dinner with her since the weekend."

Chris has mixed feelings about his new schedule but enjoys its benefits. Working nights has indeed pared the commute: he rides to work against traffic. He now gets home at about 2:00 in the morning: "the company was nice enough to provide a car and driver. The ride takes an hour and ten minutes." Chris actually gets more sleep than when working the day shift.

"Working at night I don't have to deal with outside distractions. I just move from PC to PC and do what I have to do. The mood is... serene, really."

At night, Chris is better able to focus on the antivirus project. "I'm a little sharper. During the day, I was running to replace a keyboard, or somebody had a mouse problem, or somebody needed help with this or that. We have a couple of trading floors plus an operations department, accounting, legal, and other overhead-type departments; they all needed various levels of attention. If they had an issue, they wanted it resolved twenty minutes ago.

"Now I don't have to deal with outside distractions. All the traders are gone. There are three of us, and I just move from PC to PC and do what I have to do. The mood is..." He thinks a minute. "Serene, really."


Downsides for Chris include dealing with the noise of the nighttime cleaning crew, especially with the vacuuming: "really annoying."

More seriously, Chris's wife's schedule has been thrown off. "She's all out of whack now. I come home at 3:00 in the morning, and I'm somewhat wired and try to strike up a conversation with her, and she's losing sleep."

Tied to the Weather

That post-work wiredness, that need for decompression, is a familiar issue for many odd-hour IPs. Will, the jazz bassist, deeply enjoys peace and solitude after work; he's not striking up any conversations. "When I come home, the house is asleep," he says. "The whole day has built up on me. I like to take a minute to spread out, in the quiet apartment, and let myself breathe. I trade an hour of sleep for an hour of personal time."

Neil Hallenborg, a producer and assistant director of television commercials, has a more spirited post-work decompression technique. "It involves vodka," he says.

Though he sometimes rises as Chris and Will are each heading to sleep, Neil's not talking about mid-day drinking. He often works fourteen hours a day -- and longer. As producer, he's responsible for reconciling a commercial's budget with its creative requirements: hiring the crew; booking the cast; negotiating locations, film, equipment. When he works as assistant director, Neil organizes and oversees the shoot itself: scheduling arrival times; directing traffic for makeup, costume, and crew; and moving the director and dozens of others through a long, expensive, high-pressure day.

Neil's schedule is more elemental than that of most IPs -- literally. He's often tied to the weather and the earth's movement. "If we're going to shoot a sunrise, I want to be at the location two hours before sunrise. I want the talent dressed, made up, and ready to go. I want all the cameras set up. I have a computer program that tells me when the sun's going to rise, where it's going to rise, how high it will be at any point during the day. If the sun comes at 5:30, we're there at 3:30. I might be waking up at 2:00." And he's not the first to arrive. "Somebody's already there making breakfast."

As with Will and Chris, combining strange hours with home life can pose special challenges. "It's a very interesting dance I do, to be silent leaving the house," Neil explains. "I don't want to wake up my family -- especially my child. I try not to wake up my dog, whose tail will bang a drumroll. Clothes go in the bathroom with me. I shower and leave straight from the bathroom through the front door. It's a sneak-out thing."

"I was always a fairly early-morning person," he reflects. "But I never get up to watch the sunrise as a romantic thing any more. I've seen a lot of sunrises. They hold no romance for me."

Yet there's camaraderie, too, amid the pre-dawn fatigue and crankiness. For example, Neil often works with the same crew. He likes working with them, but he doesn't work with them every day. "So a lot of the familiarity that breeds contempt doesn't happen," he says.

Many off-hour IPs work alone but Neil, Chris, and Will are freelancers who work in groups, and often those groups are made up of other freelancers. Working in the company of others who have chosen strange hours may help to make those hours less strange.

"We're all freelance workers," Neil says of his crew. "We're pretty happy to be working. So we're happy to see each other, most mornings -- no matter how early it is."

August 7, 2000
Primary Editor: Ken Gordon
Illustrator: Lawrence San
and Fletcher Moore
Production: Fletcher Moore

We'd love to hear your comments about this article!

William Hogeland is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with him, or with any of the other IPs named in this article.


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