Barreling down highway 59 in a black Mercedes Sprinter Van, I gaze down at the clock. It’s after midnight. My body is telling me – after 9 hours of driving – that I have to find a place to stop and get some rest. But my mind is telling me to be careful; remember, you are in the great state of Alabama. I struggle to keep myself awake until I see a sign that indicates there is a Pilot Traveling Center at the next exit. I can feel my eyelids getting heavier with every passing moment. I take the exit and get into the right hand lane to turn into the parking lot just as the light turns red. As I stop at the light, I see a brick sign. Through heavy eye’s I read, “Welcome to the Safest City in Alabama“. I pull into the lot between two other Sprinter vans that appear to have resting drivers behind their wheels. I hit the lights, cut the van off, and sink into the abyss of sleep. The last thought I have before the darkness takes over me completely is, “I’m good. I’m in the safest city in Alabama”.
I hear a voice. It’s saying something about America has just surpassed 90,000 deaths due to COVID-19. But despite this sobering statistic, America is opening up for business. Remember to practice social distancing, wear a mask, and refrain from gathering in large groups. I realize the voice must be coming from my phone’s Tune-In Radio app, signaling that it is now the top of the hour. I open my eyes to see what time it is and I am taken aback. The Sprinter vans I parked between were gone, replaced by pick-up trucks towing Tracer boats. Ahead of me was sheer commotion – men walking up, greeting each other with handshakes, some coming and others going. Some were hopping out of trucks while others were hopping into trucks with other groups of gentlemen. Not one mask in sight. I think to myself, “No gloves. No social distancing. No pandemic?” Then it hits me. This must be dream. But just as fast as that thought came, so did the urge to pee. I pull my mask up and hop out.
Hopping out of the van, I note that it is 4:30 in the morning then head into the store. Once inside, one look around has me frozen in my steps. There are at least 8 people in the store, not including myself, and no one is practicing social distancing. My second glance takes my breath away. I realize not one single person in the store is wearing a mask. The lady and gentleman working behind the register are ringing up customers while simultaneously plating their breakfast orders from a buffet. Neither of them is wearing a mask or gloves. Then they see me. I can feel their eyes looking me up and down. Written on all their faces is the same question: Why is he wearing a mask? I quickly backtrack, feeling a weird sense of awkwardness that could almost be described as shame. I rush to the van. The urge to pee is increasing with every passing minute. Even with the drips soiling the front of my briefs, I have to sit for just a few more moments to make sure I am not dreaming it all. But they just keep coming and going. At 5:00 am I can’t take it anymore. I drive across the street to the neighboring station that appears to be just opening. I rush in and head straight to the bathroom, noting the absence of a mask on the employee behind the counter. Concluding my business, I wash my hands, back out the bathroom, and come across an older black gentleman. We lock eyes, nod, and keep it moving. With the acknowledgment of his mask, again I ask myself, “Where am I?” Then I see it, as I hit the highway without looking back – The Safest City in Alabama.