While the Town Sleeps
The torrential rain washes away the blanket of humidity, and the murky darkness feels like it’s been wearing on for days. A man wearing a bright yellow jacket, a ball cap, jeans and rain boots hops out of a bulky, white truck to dump out the excess water from the street sweeper.
For Thomas “Mick” Keirns, a maintenance technician for the City of Athens, picking up trash along Court Street and surrounding neighborhoods at 4 a.m. is simply part of his routine. Keirns, 64, stands methodically watching the water drain out of the truck like a mini waterfall. When it rains, he must stop more often. His shoulders slouch slightly, his hands fold in his pockets and his head droops down as he seems to monitor the pace of the water. He wears that rigid, contemplative stance in every type of work he does.
As a child, Keirns was easy to rely on. He says he didn’t have to be told what to do. He just did it. With eight siblings and nine step-siblings, he learned to relax.
“You got along,” he says of his relationship with his family. “Mom and Dad made sure of that.”
His mom always called him Mick, but he never asked her why before she died. Maybe it’s because his middle name is Michael, but he thinks it’s because she loved Mickey Mouse. They lived in a farmhouse near Millfield, Ohio, on Sand Ridge Road, a street fondly named after his father, who passed away from a heart attack when Keirns was 18. Together, they grew a vegetable garden and raised horses, sheep and pigs. Working with his hands is “just something [he doesn’t] pay any attention to.”
“Somebody’s gotta do it,” he says.
That perspective would guide him in all six of his succeeding jobs.
Often, while Keirns is working, an Ohio University professor walking his dog before dawn stops to pull pizza out from trash cans for his dog to snack on. Keirns still has to go clean up the broken crusts and smeared cheese, but he says he doesn’t mind. Sometimes the garbage includes phones, textbooks, wallets, watches and cameras, but anything of value Keirns turns into the police department.
There are 10 maintenance technicians working in the town of 25,000, and they rotate street cleaning schedules by the month. The general city budget for street cleaning comes mainly from income and property tax, and what the technicians earn comes from that. The job is not as nancially reliable as working for the water and sewer companies because those generate income. But Keirns is just happy to be employed.
“[He] always shows up for work, does what he’s asked, never complains. If he does, he don’t to me,” says Curt Mayle, Keirns’ boss from Amesville, Ohio.
Sometimes other employees get cranky on the job, especially when they have to work on the snow plow as early as 4 a.m. and then stay until the next day, but Keirns quietly sticks it out. ere were only a couple times last winter when Keirns didn’t come in “when he worked 40 hours straight for 22 months,” Mayle mumbled under his breath.
Halloween is the hardest time of the year for the technicians. Mayle says the trash has gotten out of control: they run one sweeper, two leaf trucks and about five blowers to gather up 10 to 15 cubic yards of trash over the course of four hours after the parties. Conversely, they gather about three cubic yards of trash on a regular weekend. Some people thank them, he says, but a lot of people don’t.
“Everybody that resides in this city that pays taxes is like my supervisor, because that’s who I’m working for,” Keirns says. “I mean, a lot of people don’t see it that way, but that’s the way I see it.”
Prior to his current job, Keirns worked at the Lancaster Glass Company for 27 years before it was bought by a food corporation, he says. He alternated night, afternoon and day shifts on and off for a week at a time. With usually seven-day work weeks, he only had one weekend off per month. Never catching up on sleep “makes an old person out of you,” he says.
Red eyes and blisters on his ears were normal, but those were minor compared to the hearing loss and contact with cancerous chemicals his co-workers experienced. The job demanded more than the equipment could handle, so finally Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which monitors the companies and safeguards employees in the private sector, shut the company down. Over 150 people lost their jobs. Another Appalachian industry died. More people were left looking for a way to make a living.
“That’s why it doesn’t bother me if they make a mess,” Keirns says of the parties on Court Street that create so much garbage. “This is my livelihood…If it weren’t for OU, we [maintenance technicians] wouldn’t be anything. We’d be Nelsonville, and who wants to be Nelsonville?”
Nelsonville is the neighboring town of 5,000 with a poverty rate of 40 percent, according to the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau.
Keirns used to frequent Court Street businesses, mainly bars, when he was younger. But he wasn’t part of the “rowdy bunch,” he says. He’d wait until winter and summer breaks to go with his friends after the students went home.
“I ain’t standing in that line to drink a beer for 45 minutes,” he says. The Graduate, now Jackie O’s, was his favorite bar.
After Keirns gets off work around 4:30 p.m., he drives to his son’s house to pick up Tom Jr.’s laundry. Keirn takes the clothes home to his wife, Cheryl, who then returns to their son’s house with the previous day’s clean laundry and dinner. It’s their daily routine.
“She hasn’t quite got to tucking him in yet,” he says with a chuckle.
Keirns enjoys watching his son race cars, and he loves watching television and relaxing at home with his wife. On weekends, he mows half-acre plots for his son and niece; he visits his sister who has breast cancer; he keeps in touch with distant siblings in neighboring Ohio towns.
Keirns sets daily and weekly goals for himself, whether it’s laying bricks or building a roof. On a sunny, sticky afternoon two days after the cool morning street clean, he hunches over on his hands and knees and methodically lays brick after brick to repair a road from damage done by a water leak. He doesn’t listen to music or audiobooks to pass the time. He barely says anything to his coworkers. He simply focuses on laying the next brick.
“This is my mentality,” he says. “If you think one step ahead, you never have to think about what you’ve already done. I don’t dwell on what’s been done. I dwell on what needs to be done.”
Keirns leans back on his heels to check that the rectangle bricks were placed in a straight line.
“When you get to my age it’s easier to stay down than to get back up again,” he says with a sigh.
Working for the city provides him with a predictable schedule, healthy sleep patterns, and most importantly, time with his family that he didn’t have when he worked at the glass company. He optimistically returns to work each day as early as 4 a.m. to pick up garbage and lay the foundations for thousands to walk over so that he can continue his simple life.