Whatever your views on the whole coronavirus situation, the last year has been some of the most intensely taxing “times” I’ve experienced. We’ve been at war for all but four years of my life, and nothing has ever taken such a deep toll on me and those around me like the events of 2020. We are almost halfway through 2021 now, and I feel pretty confident saying that the experience of living in 2020 may just be the experience of living in the third decade of the new millennium.
I’ve never been particularly ambitious, just naturally inclined towards to things that demand some amount of free time and resources. So when offered unlimited free time, it seemed like a gift directly from a genie. I remember how weirdly happy it felt the night the restaurant shut down. We all immediately adjourned to the nearest bar and toasted the end of the world until those bartenders joined us. Since this was within ten miles of the first US cases, we were some of the first restaurants shutting down. Those first few weeks of quarantine, no one really knew how masks were supposed to work or even what counted as a mask.
Hell, for a while, the government specifically discouraged wearing masks. Then admitted to manipulating public opinion to preserve mask stocks for medical workers. This feels like a distant echo of a message sent from the American government to the entire world all of last year: No matter who’s in charge, None of us will ever give a half belch about You.
For a few weeks, the sense of community was intense. The first wave of layoffs was filled with people making food for each other, helping with child care, grocery deliveries for the most vulnerable. It was all free, it was all neighbors looking out for each other. People made masks when they were impossible to find. No one questioned the need for quarantine, we all knew what was happening, this would be an intense couple of weeks but we would all get through it.
Two nights before the closure, I was counting out my till with one of my managers. I asked them if they thought we were going to be closed for longer than two weeks. The long stare back at me told me a lot.
That sense of community would fall away, quarantine would slowly take away bonds of camaraderie built from daily conversation. I avoid logging into Facebook where a lot of the coworker and friend chats were taking place, but from what I hear, things got tense as two weeks turned into four weeks into months. The culture war got into it, and battle lines were drawn. If you’re reading this, you probably know what I’m talking about without much need for elaboration.
The punishing blows of bad news following bad news felt like acid rain drizzling over the rest of the year, an election cycle that felt all dominating yet somehow no one won.
Then, without much fanfare, summer demanded that the US reopen. The mighty engines of commerce were shaking themselves apart in the shackles of stay at home orders and social distancing. The party must go on. So, state by state, we restaurant workers were told to come back to work or be thrown to the horrors of real unemployment with the first stimulus having long run out. Summer kicked off with big plastic barriers, anti-masker spectacles, elaborate sanitation rituals that demanded dedicated employees to perform. The look of my summer involved disposable gloves, the smell of tequila-cask-made hand sanitizer, and a general sense of malaise rather than relief. Every other conversation involved how excited our patrons were to be out and about, while we were being literally forced to work there, day after day being told by guests with glee that they were so excited to see us and that weren’t we so happy to be here? The glee was the most haunting thing. Didn’t they know we were working twice as hard for each table and wages were down?
Right before Covid-19 really kicked off, the state I live in was cracking down on un-taxed tips (which is ironic in a state that doesn’t have income tax) so there was already turmoil in “the industry.” There was a cook shortage, and it seemed like the only solution was a wage increase, but restaurant owners everywhere would be damned to capitalist hell if they ever gave anyone a raise. Their solution was to “include the cooks in the tip pool” which had the enormous benefit of immediately pitting the infamous Back of House vs Front of House sides against each other instead of at the ownership. As one of the FOH tip earners, I was now giving more of my money out at the end of the night to people who had a higher base wage than me and it was hard not to feel a little resentful. Most didn’t make the effort to resist. We were shedding servers faster than cooks after that change, then Covid hit.
I worked hard last summer. The stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment didn’t make me feel lazy. It made me feel energized. It made me feel like I had a cushion, that I could try to actually build my life with that cushion of savings. So I hit work hard, and most of my play time went back home or to outdoors activities. I climbed a couple mountains with my much more athletic roommates.Yet, with bars and hotels and small stores and pretty much all public spaces either closed, or had weird and inconsistent hours. I felt more productive than ever, but there was nowhere for the excess energy to go. At that point, a lot of my more anti-authoritarian friends were starting to bristle at the mask restrictions and the wastefulness of having dedicated, tipped out employees to just wipe things down and stand around.
We went to the lake on one of the hot weeks of the year and it was so crowded that dust from the cars clogged the air in the parking lot. The day after we went, someone fired a gun there and the park service closed the lake for the duration of the summer. So home we all remained. Friendships disappeared, people moved back home to their parent’s place, slowly people were only socializing through their phones. Even as a glorious summer reigned, we all sat on our porches and thought about how nice it would be to get to enjoy some time away from the house before going back to work.
Then the fires hit, the entire western coast of the United States went up in flames around us. The air was a hot orange or a sickly yellow for weeks. The masks weren’t enough and it was legitimately hard to breathe outside. The air warnings weren’t enough to close the restaurants though. We had the deck open and you could enjoy as much time sipping beer with ash-flakes in it as you wanted and we’d serve it with a smile. I distinctly remember a particular guest who’s name was Wolfgang, he was north of 6 and a half feet tall, built like a snowman and topped with a thick, grey high-and-tight. He was German, here on business with his wife, an equally large woman who wore big sweaters. He grimly accepted that our Hefeweizen was nothing like what he considered acceptable, but the only thing worse was our Kolsch, so Hefe with an orange it was. He would grimly sip the beer while his wife would pick at an order of fried halibut and chips in the hot breeze with the umbrella tilted to shade from the hot, deep crimson sun as it glared through the smoke. He tipped exactly ten percent and never had a pleasant word to say. People that get self loathing about how obnoxious American tourists are, are really just committing their own little form of exceptionalism.
This dragged on into infinity, and eventually it had the effect of making us all miss quarantine. The world was still burning. I haven’t touched the election, the riots, the protests, the CHOP, the ever present threat of more war than we were already dealing with. Mostly because I always had work the next day. As people fell off, or got COVID (always hushed up because what if we had to shut down again?) we just buckled down harder. The restaurant labor market runs off of a constant stream of untrained labor applications to churn through and find the few that stick with it. Now there was no stream, so the only applicants were the rare person who got screwed out of unemployment or people that were generally not used to getting call backs. However, there was no alternative for us, so like sailors halfway across an ocean we got up each day and put in our labor and continued on. It’s not like any other industry was hiring.
Except that wasn’t true at all, it just wasn’t true for us. We had no way forward. The smart ones started getting out. Me among them. But the reality of the world is such that if you quit without a plan to change industries, you have to take what you can get because it’s all bad. My friends that did get out have mostly all come back to the restaurant business because the job kind of rewires you. It’s an extreme thing that takes endurance and composure to pull off. Especially doing fine dining in a pandemic where you would have had support staff. It takes skill, memory, and social ability and an amazing tolerance for nonsense. You’ve got to be giving a family a wonderful birthday night out, while managing a drunk who is trying to grab his own drink, while getting a six way check ready for the bunch of friends who won’t stop arguing about who ate what appetizer and you just got two more tables and probably forgot about the old guy who’s sitting there “patiently” with an empty glass and a card at the end of the table. It’s thrilling and immediately satisfying compared to office work or retail, and it can pay well too. But it ages people faster than anything and people retire from it looking like they built railroads while cranked on meth for forty years. When I left my fine dining job after Halloween, the Head Chef took me aside and said “Wheeler, you seem like a smart guy, you have plenty of time. Get out of the food industry. Took me thirty years to get it through my head, work on getting it through yours.”
So I write to you here on the other side of ANOTHER quarantine, but one that curiously didn’t exist for a large chunk of the country. Since I left that job there has been an election, an “insurrection,” a reopening, the numbers moving up and down, the vaccines have been released and are being distributed and ignored, yet the haze remains. That mind numbing sense that the future is completely unpredictable for more than two weeks in advance has not receded.
Maybe that’s not correct, maybe it’s more the sense that the future can be overwritten at any given point. If you don’t have some measure of income reliably coming in, which an enormous fraction of the country does not, then the ability to plan for the future is destroyed. Even if it’s just because your hours may be less some weeks than others, it can be the difference between making all the bills or tumbling further into debt or even just stopping from frustration. At the place I’m working at in between, every week it’s a possibility that we will show up to locked doors because the Covid numbers in a city on the other side of the water may have closed us back down again. Many just stop showing up.
It’s no way to live.
The current thing that is happening in this segment of the work force is restaurant workers in general are quitting their jobs and leaving as fast as they can. The work has changed. For an entire year, fast food workers, delivery drivers, app based gig workers, retail workers, restaurant workers, sanitation workers, the list goes on, have been the people that have received the blunt end of the public’s anger. We’ve weathered the force of customer bases consisting of far more than normal levels of Bad Customers. We’ve felt the downward crunch of management as they watch numbers fall for reasons that they cannot control and anxiously, but still maliciously, taken it out on the one thing they can control: the lives of their workers. And the well is drying up. More and more people are choosing to go elsewhere, to figure out other ways to barely scrape by and maybe just possibly establish a morning routine again.
So we march on, if you can get an inch ahead, you can make a billion dollars, but a LOT of people are trying to get an inch ahead. Maybe give yourself a break? I’m rooting for you.