Its 8:30 pm and unusually warm for a November evening. I end up at Sheetz to grab a quick dinner because I’m too tired to cook. I walk inside and find the staff prepping for a busy night. Floors are being scrubbed and one individual is working the register. I take my place at the touch screen and order. A bald man uncomfortably stands near the pickup counter, dressed in business casual. He looks the same way I feel: tired and drained. I wander to the register to pay for my food. The man in front of me has two bags full of cigarettes, snacks, and a 30 pack of Coors. He is wearing a hat, windbreaker and the same mustache I see on almost every West Virginian man with facial hair. One word immediately comes to mind, judging all that he is: alcoholic.
I’m up next, and I schmooze the clerk, someone I met in Shepherdstown during my college years who now works here. It’s a small world indeed. Two young women come barreling into the checkout area and hand a phone over to my friend, no doubt sharing a funny text or video. I say goodbye and head over to the next human interaction. Business casual man is still there, shoulders stooped and pulling off a perfect “stand and stare.” He has the coveted spot next to the counter, so I quickly find my position in front of a beef jerky display.
“Order 579!” rings out from the MTO staff while orphaned food sits on the counter. The man I’ve nicknamed “Coors” walks up and breaks our social contract. He mumbles something unintelligible in my general direction.
“They just called 579,” I report to Coors, hoping that I never talk to him again. “Oh, this is only the first half…” Coors says to no one in particular. He grabs his order and parks himself right next to me. I wish I could say this interaction was simply a “stand and stare,” but it was not. He starts talking to me about waiting for the rest of his order. Before I can even begin to ignore him, my small talk switch kicks on, and I hear myself talking about the unusual warmth of the night. Coors now has my attention. Everything I tried to forget zooms into focus. He is missing half of his front teeth, and those that remain are not for the faint of heart. The more he talks, the more alcohol I can smell on his breath. His skin is the color of tanned leather. His age is indistinguishable: between a hard thirty and a predictable sixty. “Yeah, the buddies sent me out to go pick up a few things,” rambles Coors. “I just got off work myself, and I am pretty tired…had to walk up here and everything.” Coors adds.
“I guess you have to make them go next time,” I say, and Coors shakes his head in agreement. Then he looks at me point blank and asks for a ride. “I’m staying at a hotel right down the street, and it would be a big help. I’ll give you money or buy your food.” I hesitate, already saying to myself: “No, look at this person. He could hurt you; you have no idea who he is. He may have lice. NOPE. Don’t do it!”
I ask for his name and extend my hand. He responds, “Mike” and reciprocates with a sandpaper crisp and callused hand. I ask Mike what he does for a living: “I do fencing, primarily. That’s my skill. I do some other jobs on the side too.” Mike talks about how fencing work doesn’t slow in the winter just as we hear, “Order 617!”
I agree to give Mike a ride, and watch his eyes light up. He bends over backwards with appreciation. “Thank you so much! What do you want? Do you want me to buy you a drink? Let me buy your food!”
“I believe in random acts of kindness,” I tell him. He initially has a difficult time understanding this and continues to offer me items or money in return for the ride. Mike lives in a world of Quid Pro Quo. You scratch my back, and I scratch yours. Kindness for the sake of kindness is a foreign concept to him.
“Which side of the parking lot are you on? I’ll wait outside for you.” I point in the direction of my vehicle, and Mike scampers off. I sigh with relief and mull over my decision while waiting for my food. The employee cleaning the floor stops in front of me, “Was that guy bothering you?”
“No. Why?” I inquire.
“Oh, because he smelled like alcohol,” the employee replied.
“No. Thanks, though.”
I ponder that for a while. If he smelled like alcohol, he must be a problem.
I get to my car, and Mike is standing right in front of it, smoking a long cigarette and guarding his supplies. “Thank you so much for the ride again, I really appreciate it. I walked up and would have to walk all the way back.” Mike opens the door and asks “Can I smoke in here?”
“Yeah, no worries,” I respond. I have not had a cigarette in eight months. I let friends smoke in the car if they want. It’s my little treat to me, a guilty pleasure whiff of second hand smoke.
Mike had pointed to the hotels near Foxcroft, but just to make sure I didn’t make any assumptions, I asked which way I should turn. “Take a right,” he says, making a hand crank motion to try and roll the window down.
I know exactly where we are heading. I pull up in front of the Relax Inn and the Heritage Inn, infamous hotels in Martinsburg. There are those who say we should bulldoze them to the ground. “Overdose” and “Child Protective Services” are said in the same sentence as these hotels.
As Mike gets out of the car he says, “I won’t forget this. If I see you again, I will repay you somehow.”
I tell Mike “Just pay it forward.” Mike promises to do so.
I turn around in the parking lot and head home to a warm bed and predictable consistency. Mike is going to be sharing a room tonight with an unknown number of people, living a life about which I know nothing.
I can still smell Mike in my car on the way home. The smell of cheap alcohol, body odor, and unwashed clothes permeate. It’s the smell of hard labor, survival and trauma. It’s the smell of Martinsburg. Mike is Martinsburg. He is a part of this community, just as I am. Before he came into my consciousness, he was a forgettable stereotype, a fleeting judgment. Now Mike is real to me. His humanity is undeniable. I hope to meet him again and learn how he paid my kindness forward to someone else in his life. I hope that person is you.
(Photo by Nicholas Trietsch)