One o’clock in the morning is about the latest my eyes will work. Wrap up a Netflix movie that’s stretching on for too long. Check the latest news online. Then my eyes shut down with the speed of the federal government during budget negotiations.
About the time I’m conking out, Paula Roy is turning on the jets under the grill at the Elliot Hospital Cafe.
For two hours, she will sizzle bacon, sling eggs, roll lunch meat and cheese into sandwich wraps, flip pancakes and do just about anything to nourish overnighters in Manchester.
Want to eat here? You can; it’s open to the public.
You gotta be OK with Roy’s grill or the steam-warmed, stainless steel-held food that is cafeteria fare.
You gotta be prompt – the cafeteria’s overnight hours are 1 to 3 a.m.
And you shouldn’t have a warrant out on you – the place is a favorite stop for police on the overnight shift.
Like any place in the early morning, it can’t escape the stillness of the hour.
Voices are hushed and usually limited to whatever someone is ordering to eat. The enduring sound is the hum of fluorescent lights, amplified by the ubiquitous stainless steel. The slow sizzle adds some pops, and the cash register provides a few digital beeps.
“It’s your chance to get off the floor and not have to talk,” said Rachel Laurentano, a nurse who works in pediatrics. Part of the job of a nurse is to be always communicating, she said, so the cafeteria is her quiet time.
“You come down here and ignore the people,” she said.
Except when her digestive system is working as hard as she is. She orders her overnight favorite: a Frisbee-sized pancake. Laurentano planned to return to her floor and eat it in the break room there.
To be sure, this isn’t a place where people linger. All but one of the hospital workers at the cafeteria were taking their food to go back to their work station. Two Manchester cops got their wraps and also beat it.
One person was eating in the dining room, which was dark until my hospital escort turned on the lights.
Not everyone on an overnight shift chows down at the Elliot.
At AMR Ambulance, the overnight supervisor said he generally prefers the Red Arrow, which is open 24 hours, or Red Barn, which is open all night on weekends.
“It’s greasy and it’s comfort food,” David Woo said of the fare at the two diners. “I know we’re in the health care business, but the greasier the better.”
Hospital food has come a long way, said Jeffrey Demers, director of Elliot food and nutrition services.
Elliot cafeteria food is the same as what the patients get, Demers said, although I didn’t see liquid diet on the menu board.
The kitchen staff are hospital employees, not from a contracted food service.
And in a hospital environment, when a couple of days’ stay can top the balance of your IRA, the food is actually cheap.
The pot roast and mashed potatoes offered last week was $5.20 for an outsider, $3.85 if you’re a hospital employee or senior.
And because a hospital always has generator power, the cafeteria is open when the power goes out. It’s been known as a haven during power outages. And when a winter storm upended Thanksgiving travel plans four years ago, the cafeteria was mobbed with stranded travelers, said hospital spokesman Susanna Fier.
The grill cook has worked as a McDonald’s manager and in independent catering.
“It’s quieter here,” Roy said. “It’s busy, don’t get me wrong. We’re hectic, but people are here for a reason. We’re more compassionate, not so cold,” she said.
Mike West, a nurse, was in the middle of his 12-hour shift. The cafeteria is better than a brown-bag lunch, and he said they’ll keep the door open if they see him dashing to get food at 3:01 a.m.
Roy was putting the finishing touches on West’s turkey club while we spoke. West said he runs into police, paramedics and workers from Cypress Center, the mental health treatment center next door to the Elliot. But like other hospital workers, he was heading back to his floor to eat and keep an eye on patients.
“A lot of weird things,” he said, “happen at night.”
Mark Hayward’s City Matters runs on Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward @unionleader.com.