James Douglas, in his own words, has "seen a lot of strange stuff" while working the bar at the Silver Moon Saloon weekend nights. Anyone who’s spent any time on Trade Street, particularly in the hours long after the sun has set, knows this to be true.
Still, even Douglas admitted to a double take on a recent Sunday night: a young man, clad in oversized, reflective goggles and a leather helmet tooling down the street.
"Yeah, that’s kind of strange," Douglas said. "When that dude popped up, I thought, 'That’s completely meme-worthy.'"
So in a flash of the Internet, a meme — an image with a witty caption spread through social media in case you’re unawares — circulated on Douglas’ popular Facebook group, Just Winston-Salem Memes.
A star, or in this case "Night Watch" — a self-styled, self-described advocate for the homeless and the less fortunate — was born.
Literally overnight, Night Watch turned into a hot topic of online discussion, an oddly intoxicating brew of eccentricity, altruism and harmless fun.
At least we certainly hope so.
Social media afire
Instagram, Facebook and other social media outlets buzzed Monday and Tuesday with news about — and sightings of — Night Watch.
Some of the early chat dealt with talk of vigilantism before self-correcting toward a more noble purpose: raising awareness of and advocating for the homeless.
"Because he’s the hero Winston deserves, but not the one it needs right now. … He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector," reads one Facebook post.
Well, alrighty then.
Bill Marsh, a rather tall man familiar about the downtown, encountered Night Watch on Monday evening while enjoying an adult beverage on Fourth Street. ("I used to be called Wild Bill," Marsh explained. "Mild Bill is more like it these days."
Anyhow, by the time Marsh settled into a window seat, he was well aware of the growing phenomenon.
“I thought it was a joke,” he said. “I thought it could have been one of (Douglas’) friends so I played along.”
Just as he and some friends settled into a discussion of Night Watch — What else would you talk about while hoisting one downtown? — a "guy in a mask and goggles" appeared.
Not one prone to shyness, Marsh engaged the young man in conversation and snapped a selfie that quickly added to the online lore.
"He was exceedingly nice," Marsh said. "He said he was just trying to look out for people, the homeless, making his rounds."
Night Watch’s shtick is very much along the same lines as that found in other cities and chronicled through the Real Life Super Hero Project, a real-life movement with an actual mission statement.
“They help the homeless, dedicate time to charities, work to make their communities safe, and help kids regain a sense of the morality inspired by the comic books they grew up on.”
There is an element of danger to it, especially when a Real Life Superhero takes things over the edge toward make-believe crime-fighting. A guy calling himself Phoenix Jones was stabbed in Seattle when he claimed to have intervened in a drug deal.
Still, if someone inclined toward the original ideal — lending a hand to help someone less fortunate — stayed between the twin guard rails of common sense and self-awareness, where’s the harm?
Through Instagram, where Night Watch had posted an invitation for people interested in helping his cause, Marsh found contact information. (“Direct messages are always open for those in crisis, for tips about the city, or just to say hi!”)
And he was more than happy to share it and act as an initial go-between.
“If it’s somebody who just wants people to be safe downtown, then good on him,” Marsh said.
Night Watch answered his phone on the second ring Tuesday afternoon and patiently answered questions.
He wanted to remain anonymous, and for purposes of this exercise — he’s not breaking any laws that we can see — the request was easy enough since he agreed to meet in person.
“I’m just trying to bring awareness to the issue of homelessness,” he said. “And if I can use this in a way that helps a little, great.”
It sounded innocuous enough. Admirable even.
In the grand scheme, the number of people who volunteer their time at shelters or soup kitchens is relatively small. Writing a check (or tithing) is much easier and much quicker.
Dressing up as super hero seems odd — it is — but to each their own. Anybody willing to use their time (and money) to help someone else is OK.
In case you were wondering, Night Watch is well aware of the visuals. “If I look goofy and can help people, I’m OK with it,” he said. “It’s about helping others.”
Not too long after sunset, Night Watch appeared promptly outside the Campbell Transportation exactly where he said he would be.
He was wearing the same leather hat and reflective goggles seen earlier in Marsh’s selfie. “I got ‘em on Amazon,” he said.
Night Watch carried with him an overstuffed black string bag — supplies for his evening’s work that he said had been dropped off earlier by a supporter. It contained toiletries, clothing, water and food — the sorts of things someone who sleeps outdoors might need.
He knows, too, how he must look to the people he’d most like to help.
“I try to be approachable, smile and wave at people,” he said. “I knew what kind of reaction I’d get.”
Either it’s not too bad or word about what he’s up to has spread. Within minutes of showing up at the bus station, a young man named Joshua Temple approached and posed a familiar question: Anybody got a dollar they can spare?
Night Watch replied that he didn’t have cash, but quickly produced a pair of gloves, a bottle of water and a few snacks. And then he offered to walk Temple the six blocks to transportation to one of the city’s overflow emergency shelters.
He talked to Temple like an old friend, rattling off the names and locations of homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
No doubt that the scene looked strange to passersby, a helmeted and goggled young man walking side by side with another young man who sounded as if he could use a break.
“We gotta look out for each other,” Night Watch said.
There are far worse sentiments on a bitter cold winter night.