The world’s on fire. I’m back to work. This has been a disquieting time, this great pandemic pause, and the disquiet is far from over. I’m going away for now to attend to my life. I may be back, though I don’t know when. We’ll get together then.
When I’m having a shitty day, I try to remind myself that I’m kind of lucky insofar as shitty days are concerned, because I seldom have them back-to-back. One shitty day is usually followed by a not-so-awful one.
Today is not awful. The sun is out, the sky is blue.
Yesterday, though. Yesterday was hard.
Well, “hard.” Nothing terrible happened to me, or to anyone close to me. I was merely (“merely”) taken over by despair and a sense of the utter not-rightness of life, the universe, and everything. Was I maybe scrolling the internet a little too much? I don’t know. Why do you ask?
All day long I was up and down from my desk, determined to work and unable to find a path through (out of?) my cluttered mind. I wandered the house looking for something worth doing, and found nothing. I tried to make myself go for a walk and refused to even go look for my shoes. There was nowhere I wanted to go other than far away, and even if I went far away, what would I do when I got there? The whole world is shut down.
That’s the thing about a pandemic: it’s everywhere.
It didn’t help to stumble upon, and then read (of course) a checklist posted by someone bent on shaming us on the internet (no!) with a list of “Are You Pandemic-Privileged?” questions like, “Do you have a home to be shut down in? Do you have food? Do you have an internet connection?”
Apparently someone thinks I’m supposed to feel bad for feeling bad because I don’t have it all that bad.
Why do we do this to each other? Why do we do it to ourselves?
Let’s take some comfort, shall we, in the wisdom of Anne Helen Petersen, who may be shut-down-privileged, too, but has the words when I don’t.
Our systems have been broken for some time. It’s just become even harder to pretend otherwise. So don’t pretend. Let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling and let others know too, so long as you’re not putting anyone in danger or being an asshole. Be honest about your limitations. You’re a human who’s grieving. You’re not working from home; you’re working from home during a global pandemic. You’re not parenting; you’re parenting during a global pandemic. You’re not going school or job searching or trying to navigate governmental systems for unemployment; you’re doing all of those things during a global pandemic, and all of it sucks.
It really does.
Yesterday we had two training sessions for our baristas. Two months without contact, the first thing they did when they saw one another was race together for hugs. “No hugs!” I said. Unheeded Cassandra. We do not live in the same world.
* * * * *
Later I moved through an empty cafe, watering plants. Talking to walls. A spray bottle of sanitizer in my hand. A rag for wiping. I sprayed and wiped and arranged the deck chairs on this landlocked Titanic, thought of Nero, who may have fiddled, or strummed a cithara, so much gets lost in translation.
* * *
My music partner and I haven’t gotten together to play since the lockdown started. He sent me a text yesterday suggesting a backyard session, and I almost agreed, until I remembered that I would be spending the day with my baristas, young and incautious and perhaps asymptomatic. Thou shalt not become a vector.
I bought lunch from the café down the street today. It’s something I’ve been doing with some frequency over the past two weeks as I’ve returned to my own shop to begin the process of getting it ready for re-opening. I’ve eaten more carry-out meals in these past two weeks than I have in the past year, which is to say, three times, so it’s a novelty.
And I don’t hate it, but I’m uneasy about it. Uncomfortable. Which is to say I’m torn between wanting to support my fellow café workers so they’ll still have jobs on the other side of this pandemic, and wanting everyone to go home and be safe. But I know they can’t go home, they need to earn a living, and so I order lunch and add a big tip and give thanks that we are all still healthy.
Most of the businesses that line the three-block downtown of my community are family-owned. I want them to survive. I want us all to survive. The clothing boutiques and the three (!) barbers, the two day spas and the hair salon. The lovely shop with all the domestic accouterments: table linens and sofa pillows and candles and gifts. The new zero-waste shop that sells bulk laundry detergent and hand soap. The bridal shop across the street from my coffee bar, with its rose garden courtyard and abundance of architectural gingerbread. The music studio that offers lessons and recording sessions to kids and features a tiny performance stage for their recitals.
And the three cafés: two that are open, one for curbside carry-out, the other with patio dining that just started this week, and us.
I’m nervous for them. I’m nervous for us all.
As I clean and re-organize my shop, as I design new menus and re-arrange tables to accommodate physical distancing, I wonder if any of this is going to work. Most people don’t understand the food business and its tiny margins; they see only that the price of a breakfast burrito has gone up. They don’t realize their favorite café is operating at a loss right now, if it’s operating at all, that places designed to break even at full capacity cannot manage for long at 50%, let alone curbside and carry-out only.
It’s not that it’s the patron’s business to know these things. It’s that it’s in their interest to know, if only so they can learn to fry an egg now that an entire industry they’ve long taken for granted turns out to be so fragile that a few weeks of closure has brought it to its knees.
And so I re-position the furniture and re-arrange displays and find myself enjoying the patron-free space perhaps a little too much. Tables don’t demand anything of me, chairs don’t resist the new protocol. They also don’t pay my salary. So like all of my food business compatriots, I’m steeling myself for what comes next. We’re all learning to live with the uncertainty, some of us doing better with it than others, knowing it was always uncertain, that we were all just pretending it was otherwise.
Most of my journalist friends like Twitter. My artist friends and small business colleagues tend to go with Instagram. When I ran my vegan cafe, I used Facebook, mostly because I was familiar with it.
Twitter is enervating for me, though I do appreciate a well-developed Twitter thread; I have encountered some that read like poetry. Insta has always felt over-curated. Who has that kind of time? (Well, okay, a lot of us do right now, so have at it.) But I’ve found myself returning to Facebook during the pandemic, saying hello to friends, wandering through their lives a bit. It’s been nice.
“Saying hello.” On Facebook it’s a comment below a post. “I love this!” I type beneath a friend’s photo. They heart me back. O hi. You’re here, too. I’m glad.
The other day I dropped off some art at a friend’s house. I left it behind the potted plant on their porch for a no-contact delivery, but as I made my way back down the sidewalk, they came out onto the porch to talk. Lots of people are coming out onto porches to talk. That’s nice, too.
It doesn’t take much to satisfy my desire for connection. I’m one of those strange folk who doesn’t like hugs. It’s a peculiarity, I know. (I also dislike massage. True fact.) I need words, though. Apparently. Yesterday I worked with one of my crew members at the coffee bar, doing a deep clean of the kitchen. It took nearly four hours. I swear I talked for at least three of them.
That’s what two months of isolation will do.
What kind of talking are you doing these days?
The café I manage remains closed because of COVID-19. I go in every day or two to do some cleaning, to organize cabinets and wipe down shelves and re-think original concepts that proved unworkable or overly-ambitious.
I do all this with an eye to the calendar, knowing that time is passing even though it feels like it’s standing still, and that I will have to make the decision, one day soon, to re-open.
Strangely enough, it’s my decision to make, even though I’m not the shop owner. The shop owners have decided to leave the re-open up to me, more or less, which might be a sign of their confidence in me, I don’t know. All things being equal, I’d rather be the one deciding than the one being told what to do.
But all things are never equal, and no matter how I parse it, it feels a bit like an abdication. Yes, those who do the work ought to have a say in how and when, and even whether, the work is done. But where does the responsibility of ownership lie? As I look around at businesses that have re-opened, or that never closed, I’m seeing the job of enforcing safe re-opening protocol falling to those front-facing workers who must tell resistant customers to wear masks, to stand apart, to wait their turn. I know that when I re-open my cafe, I will be placing myself and my crew in that position, and given the mixed bag of behaviors I’ve witnessed, it’s hard to feel good about it.
In my community, some people are paying attention to mitigation guidelines, shopping solo, maintaining physical distance, using hand sanitizer, wearing masks. In other places it’s the Wild West, as a friend of mine remarked after going to a home improvement center and finding himself in the midst of a jostling crowd, his the only mask in sight.
So I wait, and I wonder, once we open, then what?
Because even if everyone is super-chill about our heightened sanitation protocol, my crew and I are still the contact points for potential contagion. Every person we serve can bring in or take away more than any of us intended. We can sanitize counters and wipe down door handles and wash our hands all day long, but the greatest danger is in the sharing of space. The more people we share our space with, the greater our risk.
And the risk is going to go on for a long time.
You can say it’s always been so, and of course it has. Though this virus is supercharged and more deadly because of its novelty, we go through something not entirely dissimilar every flu season, and I can’t remember the last time I attended a large gathering and didn’t come home with some kind of crud in my lungs.
Some folks get eaten by bears. Life is risky. Yes, it is. But why this risk? Why are we feeling the pressure to accept it? To what end?
Well, we all know to what end. We’re re-opening our shops and restaurants and work spaces in order to get the money flowing. But once that money is flowing again, then what? We’ve just kicked the can farther down the road in the hope that the fear of getting sick will subside into the undifferentiated background anxiety that is part and parcel of this culture, co-mingling with every other risk that we take on in order to keep that money flowing.
There’s got to be a better way.
Is it any wonder, as the days roll one into another and we have to check our phones to find out it’s no longer Wednesday but Saturday, that a post intended for Friday doesn’t get published on time? What is time, after all? Just another construct, like the rules for badminton, and the divine right of kings.
The days of the week are named for gods who ignore us now that we’re all contagious.
In this oddly anachronistic moment, I find myself unwilling to think about tomorrow because the part of my brain that creates patterns wants tomorrow to look like yesterday, circa 2019, not because 2019 was all that great but because it is integrated into the pattern. And tomorrow isn’t going to look like that. It’s going to look like today, mostly, only more so, and today is patternless.
It’s exhausting to project myself onto an unfamiliar landscape, there is so much slippage. And so I stay with the immediate demands of the day and know they will resolve into a pattern sooner or later, given a sufficient number of them and a long-enough now.
People ask when my coffee bar will re-open. We’re re-doing the menu, re-organizing the storeroom and the pantry. Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. But a re-open date lies somewhere beyond the scope of what can be known. There is insufficient data. My state has begun to ease mitigation guidelines and it is as though the gates at Churchill Downs have been sprung open and people are hurtling once more toward who knows what. Where are you going? I want to ask them. What is so urgent?
A man at the local Menard’s was led away by police for refusing to put on a mask. This is the hill we’re going to die on?
It’s disheartening, sometimes, to be human.
As remedy, I’ve been listening to Howie Kahn’s Take Away Only podcast, in which the journalist talks to restaurant people about what they’re doing and how they’re coping during these patternless coronavirus days. This one, featuring Irene Li of Mei Mei in Boston, was particularly inspiring. When the day comes that I can imagine how tomorrow might look, I think I will want it to look like Mei Mei.