A futile attempt to stay up all night in Greenville
Remaining awake until sunrise used to be a romantic thrill. Years ago on a reporting trip, I discovered a hard lesson: At a certain age, sleep always wins.
During my freshman year in college, I sat up all night talking with a girl. I thought it was the most romantic thing I had ever done. I was 18, and had never seriously dated anyone before, and I really wanted to take our relationship from from kinda-like to REALLY-like. I watched a few outdated RomComs on basic cable in the residence hall— you know, for research—and Sustained Outdoor Overnight Chat seemed like a much better plan than my second option: Singing A Love Song Badly in a Public Place.
It was cold, so we sat next to large HVAC exhaust vents next to the Ohio University aquatic center to stay warm. I wasn’t sleepy. Neither was she. We watched the sun rise. I don’t remember how I convinced her to stay up with me, nor what we talked about. It didn’t matter. She loved it. My plan had worked perfectly, although alas, we dated for a few months before she cheated on me and dropped out of school, and my calloused heart never attempted a romantic all-night talk-a-thon again.
Seventeen years later, I tried to pull another all-nighter. Not for love. For barbecue. In October 2015, Our State magazine sent me to eastern North Carolina to observe the process at B’s, a slowly crumbling but fiercely beloved barbecue stand tucked just inside the Greenville city limits. They throw the hogs on the pit the night before, start serving sandwiches and platters at 9 the next morning, and shut down when they run out, usually before the posted 3 p.m. closing time. I wanted to know how everybody and everything worked, so I showed up at 10 p.m. Thursday night to meet Dexter, the cook, who was not told I was coming, and later said that he usually wears a gun and does not like people walking up unannounced.
My original plan: Stay awake through the night, morning and afternoon. Observe. Ask questions. Take notes. Leave at 3 p.m. to make the two-and-a-half hour drive back to Greensboro. I was sure I could pull this off. I had experience. I used to stay up all night at church lock-ins as a kid. There was the college thing. And when I was 25, I stayed up for nearly 36 straight hours. I worked an overnight shift at a TV station in Charlotte, spent the following 13 hours as an extra for the filming of Talladega Nights, drove straight back to the TV station, slept for a half-hour on my boss’s couch, and worked another overnight shift. I can do this, I thought. I’ve done it before.
I vowed to stay up all night. At all costs. I, stupidly, did not plan on getting tired.
There is a romance to the middle of the night. A whole subculture of people inhabit it: convenience store clerks, emergency room doctors, long-haul truckers, night watchmen, bakers, factory workers, insomniacs, and, in this case, pit masters. They, more than you, realize how long the darkness lasts. They understand, more than you, what it means to be isolated from the world. Their work is important. They set the table for the next day. If you meet someone who works the third shift, you cannot accuse them of being lazy.
This is what I hoped to explore again. I’d worked the third-shift before; slogging through two stints totaling a year-and-a-half as a morning TV newscast producer in West Virginia and Charlotte. That was nearly a decade before, though, and I’d forgotten what it felt like. So, I’d been framing this part of my story as an exhilarating pre-game show for the daytime. If I believed my own hype, I thought, the sheer thrill would keep me awake.
That thrill quickly evaporated. Dexter was not lazy, but he had a lot of downtime. He monitored the heat, watched out for grease fires, and kept track of the time. The only thing he physically had to do was shovel three bags worth of Kingsford charcoal into the pit cooker every two hours, when the coals stopped glowing orange. This kicked up a tremendous amount of smoke, and sent both of us outside into the 55 degree night. And then we waited. Dexter told me he usually killed time by reading a book, watching Netflix on his phone, or, when there was nothing to observe, sleeping in the back of his truck.
Fine. If Dexter could sleep, so could I. We’d run out of things to talk about by 1 a.m., so I retreated to my old Volvo, reclined the front seat, pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, and shut my eyes. I was tired. It was late. I thought I would instantly nod off. I did not. A sodium lamp bathed the whole parking lot in bright brown light. I was chilly. And I couldn’t get comfortable anywhere inside my car. I tossed and turned for an hour before I gave up and went back outside.
By that time, Dexter was already on to the next round of Kingsford shoveling. It was 2 a.m., and 49 degrees outside, and Dexter announced that the pigs were good to go until the morning. He’d done what he needed to do, and was going home.
That was not part of the plan. I’d hoped to have a long, unbroken experience, no matter how tedious and boring it was to watch, just for bragging rights. “You ever watch pigs cook for eight hours overnight?” I could tell someone, before obnoxiously answering my own question: “WELL I HAVE.”
But even before I’d cowardly tried to sleep in my car, my plan was crumbling. I started to make loud Yeti noises when yawned. Every question began with an ever longer “ummmmmmmm” than usual. My handwriting was becoming indecipherable, which really defeats the point of taking notes in the first place. I was trying to jot down details about my surroundings — the hum of a vending machine, the horror-movie shadows cast through the smoke by a light behind an oak tree, the regularity and type of cars coming down Highway 43 — but by the time Dexter called it a night, so had my brain. I would look at things, and start to have a one-sided mental conversation:
HAND: How should I describe these glowing coals?
HAND: No really, how would you say —
HAND: You’re not helping.
I had a couple of options. I could stay, although Dexter had told me, in detail, about being robbed here, late at night, albeit a decade ago (“He just happened to come the night I didn’t have my gun on me,” he said). So, no, I didn’t really want to stay there alone. There was a Waffle House two miles away. I could have gone there to guzzle coffee and hash browns until Arthur the chicken cooker showed up at 6 a.m. But then I realized I’d have to stay awake not just through the morning, but also the afternoon and early evening. It dawned on me that I really only had one option left. I turned on the car, cranked up the heater, and drove into Greenville to find a hotel room.
You ever try to find a hotel room at two in the morning in a moderately-sized town? It is a humbling experience. The first place I tried, the Microtel, did not pick up the phone, and when I showed up in person, nobody answered the buzzer. The door was locked. The brightly-lit lobby was empty. It was like one of those movie scenes where the director needs to convey that a character is utterly alone, and has him or her trudge past a house full of people gleefully eating Thanksgiving dinner in front of a large window. I felt utterly crushed.
HAND (feebly turning key in ignition): I’m trying.
My next stop was the Residence Inn, where a night clerk buzzed me in. I mumbled something to her, slid a debit card across the counter, got a keycard back, and shuffled down the hall, where I fell asleep only halfway under the covers, reeking of barbecue smoke and desperation. I might have been missing something back at the pit. I didn’t care.
It was obvious where I’d gone wrong. I was (then) a 35-year-old man with a toddler at home who did not get nearly the same amount of regular sleep or exercise that I once did. My plan was doomed. I should have known. I thought back to the night after my son was born. I was sitting up in the hospital room. The baby was sleeping, but my wife and I had been up since the day before. I know you’re tired, I told her. I’m just going to be over here resting. If you need me to do anything — rock the boy back to sleep, change his diaper, get you water, anything — just yell at me and I’ll get up. Shortly after, I fell asleep. I awoke, peacefully, a few hours later. That was a quiet night, I declared, before my wife told me how she’d calmly called out my name in the middle of the night when the baby started crying. Then, she yelled it, then she threw things at me, and finally, she called the iPhone that was sitting just inches from my head. I responded to nothing. Sleep won. And from that point forward, it always would.
I woke up at 6:30 a.m. at the Residence Inn, just in time for breakfast (NOTE: Hotel waffle makers are the best, and I should have registered for one as a wedding gift). I drove back to B’s, refreshed, belly full and coffee’d up, met Arthur, met the owners, met the customers, ate a barbecue sandwich with slaw, tried to decipher the secret of the secret vinegar sauce, talked to a vegetarian (really) who came by for lunch, listened to the conversations around the pit cooker and picnic tables, and when 2 p.m. arrived and the barbecue ran out, left satisfied. My mind was sharp. My notes were clear. My story was complete. I didn’t pull an all-nighter. But at last I know, the romance wasn’t meant to be.
NOTE: This story originally appeared as a Facebook Note (remember those?) in November 2015. You can read the Our State article that came from it, “A Day at B’s Barbecue,” here.