The world’s on fire. I’m back to work. I’m going away for now to attend to my life and educate myself and learn how to be better and do better. I may be back, though I don’t know when. We’ll get together then.
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.
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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.
Last week I put on the headphones and listened to an old episode of Meet the Composer, which is not something I ordinarily do, but this one featured Laurie Anderson, whose music has enchanted me since I first heard O Superman in the 80s and thought, wtf is this?
(Did I say wtf in the 80s? Probably not. Never mind.)
The segment with Laurie Anderson came at the end of an hour-long conversation with several other composers of synthesized sounds, and at first I was just going to skip directly to her segment, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend all that time listening to people talk about something I didn’t know much about and maybe wasn’t all that interested in. But here’s the thing: listening to people talk about things they’re really interested in can be really interesting.
Last November I was in a studio in Copenhagen with Brian Eno … and he said, “I’m going to reach into this can because there are, like, thousands of rubber bands in here.” And we spent the next two days making them do every kind of sound you could think of. I just heard things that I never imagined were going on. Now, we played four hours every morning, and then we sat down and we listened to that same four hours. They were so beautiful. They were so incredibly beautiful.
I listened, and yeah, they really were.
In “How to Stay Calm During the Pandemic,” Harvard Kennedy School professor Arthur Brooks parses the difference between risk and uncertainty, between disappointment and regret, and what happens to us when we confuse, in each case, the one for the other.
I appreciate the analysis. I’m a word nerd. I’ve seen — we all have — what happens to language in a crisis. It gets battered and abused. Confusion prevails.
So it’s good to get clear about what we’re actually feeling (e.g., disappointment, not regret.) And it’s helpful to assign agency, to remember what is within our control (very little) and what isn’t (pretty much everything else.) What is known (a few things) and what is unknown (a lot), and maybe even what is unknowable (like when will this be over? which assumes there will be an “over,” which there may or may not be.)
Anyway, when I came to the end of Brooks’ article, I caught a glimpse of something fleeting, like the tail of a dog rounding the corner on the far side of the garage. It was a little throwaway line that made reference to “ordinary life” as something that will resume at some point. When all this is “over.”
I read that and thought, nope. Ordinary life isn’t what will resume. Ordinary life is what is happening right now, in the midst of all this turmoil.
Quotidian, intimate, human, messy. The ordinary has been re-discovered.
The distribution is unequal, or course, like most things in our culture. Those who work in hospitals, those designated “essential,” those in prison or in a shelter or an ICE camp, they’re probably not going to partake of a whole lot of ordinary. But for those of us staying home, in our rooms, with families, with pets, by ourselves, watching out our windows, watching our TVs, cooking meals, sitting down to eat, going for walks, texting friends, kissing our partners, fighting with our partners, lonely for others, missing those we’ve lost, content in the solitude, restless, bored, this is what ordinary feels like.
It’s true that life is circumscribed now, we can’t go places or do things, and we’re facing a horrific death toll that ought to shock us into a new way of being, but likely won’t. The demands of this culture that we earn and spend and produce, produce, produce, will force the acceptance of a false tale that all of this was a one-time thing, an anomaly, nothing to worry about now that it’s over. (“over.”) But right now, the reality of our days, while not normal, given that we’re putting on masks to venture out into a world of shuttered cafes and shops, is nonetheless ordinary. And that’s a good thing.
The lives we left outside the door six weeks ago, two months ago, those lives were not ordinary. For so many of us, those lives were capitulations to a system that requires us to leave behind the ordinary — that which makes us human — so that we can become what the system needs us to be, machine-like and compliant and in service to profit. Such a system can never be ordinary, and it can never have our best interests at heart because it has no heart. And we resist returning to it because it hurts our own hearts to contemplate it.
Of course we’re uncertain and we can’t assess the risks because there is so much we don’t know, and we don’t want to get sick, and we don’t want to see any more of our friends and families to get sick.
But we also resist because we’ve had a minute or two to slow down and look around. We’ve seen our pre-pandemic lives in a harsh new light. The shabbiness of it all gives us pause.
It’s that pause that has the profiteers worried now, and they’re scrambling to get us all “back to work.” For they know that if we’re too long away from the demands of that system that has no heart, we might realize (surprise!) that we prefer the rhythm of our own hearts, that we like being immersed in the ordinary, we like the connection and kinship and pleasure and intimacy of our small daily satisfactions. That if it weren’t for the money we need to keep ourselves afloat, more than a few of us would say, “No thanks.”
And when enough of us figure that out, who knows what might happen?
All day long I’ve been dreading the governor’s press conference, dreading the announcement that’s due any day regarding the lifting of the stay-at-home order that has shuttered my place of employment since mid-March.
I’m dreading the announcement because it will force a reckoning I’d rather postpone for a little while longer: that the work I’ve been doing for the past 20 years, the work of gathering people together in one place or another to serve them coffee and food, so that we might read stories to each other, and poems, and listen to each other’s music, is going away. Not for good, but for a good long time.
For as long as I’ve lived in this place by the river, my work has been an interaction. If the CDC guidelines are any indication, it’s about to be transformed into a transaction: boxes of food handed off to harried people whose faces, like my own, are half-hidden behind a mask, people to whom I cannot offer a table, or a hug, only a caramel latte in a carry-out cup, pushed across a counter from six feet away.
I’m not sure I can do it.
This is not my story, but still, it’s breaking my heart. The author is in New York City, and I am a six hundred miles west in flyover country, but I feel it, too. I feel it.
I don’t know whom to follow or what to think. Everyone says: “You should do to-go! You should sell gift cards! You should offer delivery! You need a social media presence! You should pivot to groceries!
I cannot see myself sketching doodles of the to-go boxes I will pack my food into so that I can send it out into the night, anonymously, hoping the poor delivery guy does a good job and stays safe. I don’t think I can sit around dreaming up menus and cocktails and fantasizing about what would be on my playlist just to create something that people will order and receive and consume via an app.
Like the author, I opened my first coffeehouse as a place where people could talk to each other. In those years before the iphone, I didn’t even welcome laptops. But the world has moved on. In truth it moved on long before this time of Covid-19. Covid is just the guy with the broom at the end of the cartoon, sweeping the dust from the stage.
Stage Four, I suspect. And no worries: the world still turns, the governor will tell us his plan on Friday, and this, too, shall pass.
I’ve been talking with the young chef who works with me at the fancy coffee bar from which we are both furloughed. We’re attempting to re-conceptualize our cafe menu in light of all the changes we’re facing, trying to guess at what may emerge at some point in the future when we’re able to serve the public once again.
Curb-side carry-out is the new black, but we’re also trying to imagine how our patrons will feel to actually come back into our space when circumstances allow. To sit down. At a table. With others in (relatively) close proximity. We spin out scenarios based on assumptions that are probably inaccurate, but what else can we do? Old data is no longer reliable, and we have to start somewhere, even when the most honest answer to just about every question is, “I don’t know.”
How do we re-imagine a business that’s based on gathering people together, when gathering will continue to be fraught for a very long time? We’re a public house (sans the pub.) Our patrons come in for lunch and a latte, but what they’re buying is a space to be. Surrounded by old brick walls, wood beams, the tin ceiling high overhead. The comfort. The company. The cozy chair in the corner.
Without that space, what is our business, exactly?
I don’t know. (See?)
It occurred to me after this conversation with my chef that I’ve been thinking about things all wrong. I’ve been assuming that this crisis is a temporary disruption. An interim. A Sunday. And when Monday comes, we’ll move into a new normal, disorienting at first, but mostly familiar.
But it isn’t Sunday. And I don’t think this is an interim.
I think it’s a shift from stasis to flux. I think we’ve entered the very long wobble of a future that won’t settle down. It’s like Eldredge & Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, and we’re in the phase of disruption, where rapid change makes previous assumptions obsolete, the phase where (to paraphrase Webster’s) new forms appear, especially from small sub-populations of the ancestral form.
I like the idea of new forms emerging from old. From the vestiges of what has survived for millennia. It gives me hope.
Why not have hope?
My question is, could these new forms that appear from ancestral forms help get us back to the garden? And will people still want lentil walnut tacos when we get there?