In the still of the night

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As a spring storm shakes out its last few flakes, blinking yellow lights count down the slow hours of the graveyard shift.

Steamboat Springs has a late-night community of residents whose work happens when most of the rest of the town is asleep. They include gas station attendants, Alpine Taxi drivers, motel clerks, security guards, police officers, hospital staff, cleaning crews, groomers and others.

They have different tasks to accomplish, but they have all mastered one skill -- staying awake when the body thinks it should be asleep.

What follows is a peak at the work they do and the situations they face.

11:44 p.m. Tuesday

Two young men come in to the Kum & Go for an instant cappuccino, a pack of Marlboro Reds and bags of Doritos and Cheetos.

Nikolay Nikolov, a graveyard shift clerk, said such purchases are typical during the wee hours.

"After 1:30 a.m., a whole lot of drunk people come in for snacks because they're hungry, and they try to buy beer, but it is not allowed," he said.

He has been working the late shift since he moved to Steamboat 2 1/2 years ago from Bulgaria. "Nobody wants to work the graveyard shift."

Nikolov said he doesn't mind because "I guess I'm not the kind of person who goes early to bed."

Nikolov typically drinks three cups of coffee during his shift. "Tonight, I will try to pass with only one, but I don't think it's gonna work."

He spends the winter evenings stocking and worrying about people stealing things. On summer nights, he has concerns about people getting drunk and smoking joints outside the store.

He said gas thefts -- in which people drive off without paying -- are common during the late shift.

Drunks and loitering teenagers are his biggest hassles, he said. Some customers get aggressive and yell at Nikolov, but he shakes it off.

"That's alright. No big deal," he said.

12:06 a.m. Wednesday

Brooks Graham, a graveyard shift Alpine Taxi driver, has a strategy for a successful shift.

"It's amazing what a little Bob Marley can do to keep the crowds from getting rowdy," Graham said.

Graham has been working the graveyard shift from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. every Wednesday through Saturday for the past six years.

Ten passengers have vomited in his taxi.

"It always seems to be the quiet ones. I just drive slow and smooth and keep the temperature down," Graham said.

He cruises around Fifth and Seventh streets and Ski Time Square until the bars close, unless he gets a call from dispatch.

Alpine Taxi can do as many as 700 runs in a night.

Graham feels like he drives around in circles.

He doesn't have a problem staying awake through the long night. "At first, it was tough. But it is nothing a few Red Bulls can't take care of," Graham said.

His night consists primarily of drunken and confused people. He also hears the word "meadows" a lot: "Storm Meadows, Alpine Meadows, The Meadows, and Meadows at Eagle Ridge," he said.

If people leave the cab without paying, the drivers are responsible for the fare. Graham once tackled a man to get his fare, but he usually gets paid.

"They know that you know where they live," Graham said.

He said pickups at the Veterans of Foreign Wars club downtown are a staple of his shifts.

"I'm just a mobile detox," Graham said. Often, he has to help people in and out of the cab and sometimes carry them to their beds.

"It's a give and take. It's a commitment. It teaches you discipline," Graham said about his job.

The night shift allows Graham to keep his days free to mountain bike, ski and remodel his new condo.

"The hardest part is leaving work and seeing the sun rise," Graham said. "But they're beautiful. They're absolutely gorgeous."

He goes home at 5 a.m., and 30 minutes later, his wife's alarm clock goes off.

1:20 a.m. Wednesday

Bill Chamberlain and Dan Gardner, graveyard shift security guards for Security Plus, are hanging out with Chester Otis Lewis, a graveyard shift night front manager for Rabbit Ears Motel.

"We (graveyard shift employees) are pretty much a team. There's not many of us, and we've all worked together for 15 years," Chamberlain said.

He and Gardner often take their breaks in the Rabbit Ears Motel lobby with Lewis.

"I keep them supplied with coffee, milk and orange juice," Lewis said.

He has been working graveyard shifts for 20 years. The hours pose no problem for him.

"I've never been able to sleep at night," Lewis said. "Ever since I was a kid, I would sleep all day and be up all night."

The challenges that he deals with on his shifts involve "drunks, idiots and skinny dippers," Lewis said. "Between 1:30 and 5 a.m. you will see about a dozen people jump the fence of the Health and Rec."

The hardest thing about this shift is trying to spend time with their families. Their wives "are like single parents," Chamberlain said.

And if you're single, "you don't have time to date," Gardner said.

Sometimes, they see and hear things that they can't explain -- especially at Health and Rec.

On many occasions Lewis has heard doors opening and closing in the middle of the night. And he has seen showers turn on by themselves.

2:30 a.m. Thursday

Steamboat looks a little different from the inside of a police car at 2:30 a.m.

There is no music playing in the background, and there are no other cars on the road. The only noise is the faint silence of snow falling on houses and on cars in parking lots being scanned for people sleeping in them.

Officer John McCartin, who works the graveyard shift, spotted none Thursday -- not even in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

McCartin has been working graveyard shifts four months out of the year for the past two years. Lately, he has been working 14-hour shifts instead of 10-hour shifts because the police department has been understaffed.

From 9 p.m to 7 a.m., he patrols Steamboat from Steamboat Christian Center on the east side of town to the Sleepy Bear Mobile Home Park on the west side.

"The majority of crime happens at night," McCartin said. "So you have a good chance of catching people."

On the graveyard shift, McCartin responds to calls involving domestic violence, noise complaints and security alarms. He patrols the streets looking for speeders, car accidents, drunken drivers and trash cans that aren't bear proof.

McCartin said he sees at least one bear every night from May to June.

One night, he responded to a call in which a man from out of town had kicked in the door of a local's apartment. He pushed a guy off the couch, and then slept on that couch.

"Seems like all the calls this time of night are alcohol related," McCartin said.

He knows who should be on the road and who shouldn't.

"You get to know who is awake at night. You know all of the cars driving around including the plow guys, the street sweepers and the (newspaper) delivery guys," McCartin said. "It's like a little community."

-- To reach Allison Plean, call 871-4204 or e-mail aplean@steamboatpilot.com

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