Three hours into his graveyard shift at the Jonesville Wal-Mart, Sage Snoes, 23, gets 15 minutes for a coffee and two cigarettes.
“I can ring you up if you’re ready,” a blonde cashier named Lena said. “… Unless you want Sage.”
“Does that happen a lot?”
“Yeah,” she said.
Nearby, a young couple who had purchased more than $100 worth of groceries bantered with Sage like old friends. He seemed to know most people who trickled in during the wee hours of what’s called the third shift, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Short with a mop of brown hair and a white crystal dangling from his neck, Sage welcomes customers with smiles and takes time to talk, trying to figure them out. After working the third shift for a year, he’s become a late-night fixture for local night owls and students on spontaneous Wal-Mart trips.
Lena took over for Sage — time for his break. He grabbed his Starbucks drink from a refrigerator and bundled up.
“We kind of have to hide in this corner over here,” he said.
A door rattled as Jeff, an older employee, lifted it up and stepped outside for a smoke too.
“I’m taking a shortcut out here,” Jeff said.
Self-conscious and overly accommodating, he offered to go for a walk once he saw the interview and heard Sage ask whether too much noise would affect the recording.
Jeff: “I ain’t good for nothing an’ you know it. I just get by, brother.”
Sage: “Don’t we all.”
“He’s a tall guy, he reaches the top shelf for guys like me,” Sage said.
“I do. I love you too, bro,” Jeff replied.
Sage picked up the third shift a year ago, but for three and a half years, he’s been providing in-home care to some clients who are close to him.
“They needed help and I was there. I got into their system so I can get paid for helpin’ ‘em, but I would’ve helped ‘em anyway. I just like to help people anyways.”
He just started advanced manufacturing and applied science classes at Jackson College, too, to have skills that meet current demands while still being able to apply his artistic side as a design engineer.
Sage’s balancing act of 48-hour work weeks and classes blurs his days together. Monster java energy drinks and cigarettes fuel him more than sleep, he said.
“The way I’ve rationalized keepin’ my days in order, today was, is, Thursday-into-Friday, my Monday is Monday-into-Tuesday, Tuesday-into-Wednesday,” he said. “Half the time, I don’t even remember what I had for lunch. My concept of time is just way out there. Seriously, three months have gone by and I’m like, ‘where was I?’”
Sage was running on one hour of sleep late Thursday night, early Friday morning. He admitted it gets hard juggling the third shift, eight hours a week of care, and classes, but said his sleep schedule has adjusted.
“I was caught in this limbo where it didn’t matter how much or how little sleep I got, I was just tired anyways,” he said. “Obviously, more than an hour, I function better, but four hours? Once I’m finally awake? That’s probably my best functioning time. Eight or nine? Too much.”
He has one day over the weekend to catch up, crashing for anywhere from 12 to 24 hours.
Jeff, a gruff, bearded type who began his story with a cigarette drag and grunt, piped in with an anecdote from his trucking days.
“After your third day of being awake, you don’t wanna sleep,” he said. “You’re in the zone. You just go.”
More laughter. Everything is funnier at 1:15 a.m.
Sage’s one-year anniversary at Wal-Mart is fast-approaching, and in that year, he said he’s seen the full spectrum of the people of Wal-Mart, from students to cops to religious zealots.
Junior Lauren Barlass said she noticed Sage because he seemed unusually pleasant and talkative for someone working the graveyard shift, but now she hopes to run into him on every late-night Wal-Mart run.
“I only got to Wal-Mart after midnight if I have a lot of homework and am going to be up for a while longer, and just having a friendly conversation when I’m so stressed can help me feel better,” she said.
Sage rings up other night owls frequently: “a few cops, a lot of not-so-classy people. We get some people who don’t bathe like they should. We have a few high-ons…”
Business booms and lines pile up during the first and second shifts. Understaffing cuts the number of open registers down, so the few available cashiers ring up the customers quickly and impersonally.
Sage’s third shift is a different story entirely. Late at night, he can be outgoing. His grandmother Linda Snoes, staff assistant for health services at the college, said Sage has been friendly and talkative since he was little.
“He just talks to everybody, and he’s very low-profile,” she said. “It’s not bold or anything, but he’s very friendly.”
His talkative side puts a positive spin on working odd hours.
“That’s what makes it awesome on third shift: You meet these people and you get a chance to figure ’em out a little bit. Just a lot of interesting people who come through.”
About a month ago, Sage said a woman came in who said she couldn’t sleep and felt God wanted her to come and pray with and for the people of Wal-Mart.
“It was cool, y’know, I believe in God,” he said. “And then she started talking about her church, and I’m just like, ‘Oh that’s the church that I sneak out of the back door…’”
Her church is charismatic, with people speaking in tongues and laying prostrate.
“No matter what language you speak you’re supposed to be able to understand them, and uh, I’m yet to go to a church that speaks in tongues and I understand what they’re saying.”
After high school, Sage moved away to Novi, Michigan, to pursue digital photography at the Art Institute of Michigan. His grandmother said she always admired his natural eye and talent for nature photography, complimenting his desire to focus the camera himself, even though most cameras are automatic.
“There’s awesome sunsets over the lakes we’ve got here, and you’ve got the woods — I grew up in the woods … I’ll get this bolt of inspiration and I’ll take off for a couple hours and just get lost out there. It’s peaceful out there, you find out a lot about yourself, but moreso, God,” Sage said.
Family lore has it that when Sage was a newborn, his dad had an epiphany regarding his son’s name, maybe in a dream — but he’s never admitted to it. Regardless, 23 years later, the woods, the third shift, the metaphysical crystal, the days-into-nights blurred by coffee and nicotine made him the nighttime Sage of Wal-Mart.