Dispatches from the Damned
Words by Jordan David Smith
My last shift behind the bar was Saturday, March 14th, but at that point things were already someplace other than normal. As a staff we'd spent the majority of our time at a family meal alternately scanning our various sources of news and assembling a tapestry of hot-takes with the threads we'd found.
I'm a pessimist by trade, and I'd grown increasingly convinced that – while there might be some half-assed stopgaps beforehand, we were headed for a full-scale lockdown. Still are, I reckon.
I half-heartedly joked that we're America; we're always number one in everything, good and bad. That sentiment goes double for New York – a city where people will scream in your face about its superior nature knowing that they've never left it.
Yet none of us wanted to believe we were heading to where we are now. None of us wanted to be the one who shifted the timbre. To give further life to the creeping uncertainty. To voice the potential of deaths numbering in the thousands. One coworker thought this would all blow over in three weeks time. Said he'd see me in April, umbrella in hand. Another said she wasn't even sure if they'd cancel her classes. We laughed a little at that one.
Bravado isn't unique to bars, neither is being crotchety, and neither, it should be said, is the sense of camaraderie restaurant work and bartending in particular fosters, though it can feel that way. But the combination of all this in one setting is rare, and can be broadly sustaining. And having that suddenly taken away is painful and harrowing in ways that aren't necessarily obvious.
Many of us turn to the hospitality industry - some unwittingly, others with intention - because the opportunity and duty to take care of others distracts us from how poorly we take care of ourselves. Some of us are escaping something. Some of us believe we don't fit in elsewhere. Some of us cling to the twin highs of novelty and normalcy – the dully stirring promise that you'll interact with people you've never seen before who you were unlikely to meet otherwise, and the comforting knowledge that no matter what else the day holds, you'll get to make drinks, or cook, or sell wine, or run food, or talk to people, and you'll get to experience the immediate, unabashed gratitude of that exchange.
None of the above reasons we find ourselves here prevents us from loving our jobs, or doing them well, nor should there be any shame in viewing it as a loose or binding form of salvation. From finding an intrinsic solace in the fact that you'll get to take care of people in some small way. It's an easy feeling to lose yourself in, and it is one that is often encouraged.
In many restaurants, you're an instrument in an orchestra; you aren't one in a procession of soloists. You are part of a process that is deemed greater than yourself, and you act accordingly. When you're questioning your value, as a person or otherwise, the relative anonymity of this can be intoxicating. There are tolls to pay, to be sure. Emotionally, it can be demeaning. Not everyone you encounter will share your predilection towards the caring for and nourishment of others, or even basic human dignity, and this will sometimes be made clear to you in ways that are deeply unpleasant and remind you that, yes, you are an individual, and can be singled out as such.
Physically, our work is demanding. Aside from the general wear and tear on your knees and your back and your feet that come from working nine to fourteen hour shifts in which you either walk in circles and bend to lift things up and put things down or shimmy a tight straight line back and forth while also bending to lift things up and put things down (but this time, with shaking!), repeated studies have shown that restaurant work yields a higher risk of suffering a stroke than being an architect, or a lawyer, or a neurosurgeon.
When you combine that with the unhealthy habits we often develop either to cope or to feel part of the group we inhabit (smoking, eating tavern food at 3am, binge-drinking, drug use), the glamorous portrait by which we are sometimes presented loses some of its sheen. The sad, open secret is that you don't need to be above dysfunction in order to function at work. I know it's true of me. Hell, some of the best people I've ever seen at their jobs harbored demons dark enough to make Caravaggio blush.
It should chill you then, to realize that for some of us it feels markedly easier to grind down your joints and tamp down your individuality and self-worth and work yourself ragged and give yourself cures for what ails you days over weeks than it is to drag yourself to and force yourself through an honest to God self-appraisal, to spend the hours in front of that mirror and pore over your reflection, scars and all. To chart our failures and see our flaws with eyes unclouded.
The irony now is that we finally possess the time and impetus and in some cases even the hard-fought desire to do so but fewer means to recover from the trauma we might unearth if we do, because we are largely alone. The people most in need of this reckoning are often the people who were and are closest to the brink, who lived only through their work, maintained merely surface-level friendships, and frankly, just survived. Frightfully, the mental health resources available to stop that slip into the pit are dwindling.
Although mental healthcare providers are classified as essential workers, many have reduced their hours, are working from home, or are not taking on new clients except in cases of emergency out of an abundance of caution towards this pandemic. For the people without a preexisting relationship to a therapist of some sort, this presents an enormous challenge, particularly because in the time of quarantine, there is no longer the luxury of burdening a friend. And for the people who have that relationship with a professional, often obtained without affordable healthcare, they're now struggling to find ways to afford to continue that care. Truthfully, it is a struggle to afford anything. Business was slow before we closed, or pivoted to delivery or takeout or selling cocktail kits. Those changes alone will not save us, and most of us do not have the option of working from home in a meaningful capacity.
We may put on brave faces while we answer Instagram DMs about cocktail recipes and have our demonstrative bartending livestreams interrupted by our mischievous pets, but we are hurting, often in many senses of the word. We are not posting from the house upstate that we escaped to, we are not streaming ourselves searing the foie gras we ordered from Baldor, and we are not organizing Corona parties looking for excuses to wear offensive attire and hang tasteless signs, wandering through life sorely in need of a Samuel Butleresque verbal takedown.
We are exiles in extremis. We're calling the Department of Labor several hundred times a day, placing ourselves in a purgatory of dial tones and automated messages and needlessly intricate, repetitive phone trees while taking fragile, hanging breaths in which we wait to hear either a human voice or, more likely, a soulless click. We're wondering what bill we can avoid the longest to stretch out our last paycheck. We're weighing the exposure risk of working at grocery stores through gig labor apps because being undocumented forces us to, because the lack of a true safety net forces us to, because we were told not to work and were left with an immorally inadequate level of support in place to see us through.
We're grappling with the fact that our apathetic governor refuses to peek his head out of the real estate industry's pocket long enough to grant us true rent relief, instead forcing us to choose between food and rent, instead winding up his boot to punt us into housing courts in three month's time to potentially be evicted. We're seeing case counts of this virus continue to rise while people play basketball and ogle a big boat in a harbor like children tripping over themselves to see a shark at the aquarium as many of us keep putting our health on the line by delivering food and beverages in an attempt to make ends meet. We are in an isolation that feels increasingly like it was meant to break us; that we're at the tip of the spear. And we're waiting for help that isn't certain to come.
This crisis is pulling us inexorably towards a shamefully ugly future. But we can still halt its course. We as an industry have banded together admirably, and the lengths to which we as bartenders and chefs and bussers and managers and restaurant owners go to in order to help and support each other is truly heartwarming in what is an otherwise heart-wrenching time. However, it is simply not enough.
Please, if you're financially able to do so, donate to one of the funds organized for the relief of restaurant and bar employees. If you can't, call your political representatives, be they your senator, your councilperson, your congressperson, your member of parliament, your mayor. Express your frustration at how vulnerable people on the margins continue to be in light of everything that has happened. It is not an exaggeration to say that without your help, many of our businesses won't make it. The scarier thought is that without your help, some of our people won't either. Think of the many times we've taken care of you. Please, take care of us.