Now Or Never

Why this Ontario man decided to live at his small town grocery store

Mike Carter of Milverton, Ont. has been living in a trailer behind his grocery store since early April.

Mike Carter of Milverton, Ont., has been living at Milverton Food Town since early April

Milverton Food Town is the only grocery store in the community of Milverton, Ont. (Mike Carter)

By Now or Never host Trevor Dineen

"Hello, Milverton Food Town, this is Mike speaking."

He's only said eight words, but that's all it takes for me to hear the exhaustion in Mike Carter's voice. He's tired and he has every right to be.

Mike and his partner own Milverton Food Town, which is the only grocery store in Milverton, Ont., a community of almost 1,600 people. Since the pandemic hit, his life has almost entirely been spent at his grocery store.

Being apart from each other has been the hardest part for Mike and Bev Carter. (Bev Carter)

"I couldn't tell you the last day that he didn't work at the store," says his wife Bev, with a concerned tone in her voice. 

"He must be mentally and physically exhausted, and the fact that he is still going every day, putting in the long hours, I can't believe any person can do that. I think he's going on sheer will at this point."

Not only is Mike working 18-hour days — he's also living in a trailer in the parking lot behind his store. 

He's not doing it because he wants to be closer to work. He moved there to try and keep his family safe.

Mike is currently living in this trailer behind his grocery store. There is no running water so he uses the town fire hall to shower. (Mike Carter)

Losing a friend

As a front-line worker, Mike didn't want to risk bringing the virus into his home. And it's not just because of what he had read in the paper or saw in the news; it's what he witnessed first-hand. His friend, Craig MacDonald, who owned a grocery store in a nearby town, died at the end of March after contracting COVID-19. 

"When he first got sick it was scary enough, but when he didn't get better, it was horrible, just horrible," says Mike before quietly adding, "It's very real. Very, very real."

It was made even more real by the fact that his wife is a health-care professional at the Stratford General Hospital. With both of them in high-risk professions, they didn't want to take any chances. 

So Mike packed up a bag, borrowed a trailer from the local fire chief and set up his new living space a mere three metres from his store. It's small and has no running water, but it's a nice upgrade from the cot in his office that he slept on for the first couple of nights.

When COVID-19 hits closed to home

Mike thought his living arrangements would be short-term. But then, he got the news: his wife Bev had also tested positive for COVID-19.

Now, after working long hours in the grocery store, he spends his evenings isolated from the one person he wants nothing more than to hug and take care of. 

"[It's] hard, cause I'm here, and she's there," he says. "We're so close and I'm here while she's struggling, and she's there while I'm struggling."

Thankfully, Bev only had mild symptoms and has slowly been recovering. Unfortunately, she hasn't been given the all-clear to go back to work or see her husband. So once a day, Mike goes to the house and stands in the backyard, waving to his wife from a distance while briefly playing with their puppy. 

Once a day, Mike goes to stand in his backyard so he can wave at his family and play with his five-month-old puppy. (Mike Carter)

"It's my one release. But I can't do it more than once a day. It would be too much. It would be too hard to leave [home] the second time."

Essential to the community

So back to the store he goes. To work, to sleep, and to be there for the people in his town.

"We have a need in our community for a grocery store to be open," he says. Mike becomes emotional when talking about the employees at his store.   

Mike standing with Brandon, one of his employees. (Mike Carter)

"They are called essential. It's not really fair. They didn't sign up to be essential workers. You couldn't pay someone enough money right now to stand at a grocery till every day and pack someone's groceries. And yet, they still come."

And so will Mike. Every day, for as many hours as it takes.

"I'm not gonna lie to you, there are nights where I go home and cry. I think: What have I signed up for here? I've had enough. But then you get up and get at it again," he says.

"I'm tired. But I'll worry about that when this is all over."