My husband and I are restaurant ‘lifers,’ we have both been in the industry since we joined the workforce as teens. We have almost always worked for small local businesses. Years ago, when he got a job working for a corporate steakhouse we started to joke that he had ‘sold his restaurant soul.’ It was even more ironic because we haven’t eaten beef in more than a decade, but they have full benefits, stock options, retirement matching contributions, a paid vacation allotment that we could only dream about before, objective metrics to gauge performance and no drunken owner trying to sleep with every female in the building (trust me, that’s a huge bonus.)
When this all started and businesses began to close, we anxiously awaited his turn. The restaurant is within spitting distance of a HUGE super market and we reasoned there was no way that having others cook and serve you food would be deemed essential, right? Food is essential, having it served to you is not.
As the weeks went on, it became clear that the company would not shut down locations unless the government made them. To add insult to injury; the kind of people still coming out to the bar and dining room were in complete denial about the severity of this situation. Bonafide “door knob lickers,” telling everyone loudly (with maximum spay) how this whole thing was a hoax. We were (are) terrified. The switch to carry-out was a relief but it became clear there would never be a chance to truly quarantine and re-group, as working from home is a privilege denied to many.
We found our family in the same boat as all the other ‘essential’ workers of this nation. Trading our future health for money. Over the years, we have experienced crippling financial situations a number of times. They suck, but we have made it through. The concept of financial consistency at the expense of our family’s well-being was not a trade we wanted to make, but there seemed little choice in the matter. If you quit, no unemployment, no health insurance and no income. With smaller restaurant operations closing (many for good) there would be little chance of finding another job anytime soon. We counted ourselves lucky that as a manager, he had some control over the procedures and risks him and his employees would be exposed to.
It has been a stressful time of unparalleled proportions. Way worse than relocating across the country with no leads on jobs or housing. More disquieting than deciding I should become a stay at home mom for our daughter, effectively cutting our household income in half. For us, there is no compensation that offsets the worry of serious illness. Like so many, it is not a lack of choices, it’s a lack of good choices. This dichotomy highlights the disparity in this country between WANT and NEED.
When the boys were small, they would often pitch fits about things they “NEEEEEEDED.” From candy to toys, they preached about the essential nature of these items. I was always quick to correct them. These things were ‘wants’ not ‘needs.’ I told them I would always provide them with the things they need; nutritious food, water, shelter, air, etc. But that many other things were not necessities for a long and healthy life. Now, as young men they point out these differences unprompted and make good choices in this regard unfailingly. (With the notable exception of wanting to own ridiculous sports cars.)
Decades in the service industry have rendered me unsurprised by the inability of adults to grasp something that small children had no problem doing. The attitude that taking even the most basic of precautions to protect people 6 feet away, from a deadly virus, is an attack on liberty itself– is disgusting. Defining nonessential services that one COULD preform oneself, as an inalienable right is wrong.
The sentiment that these services should be offered at the expense of others’ health is disheartening. When did we start defining our country as an economic system separate from the citizens that make it up? When did people start denying the humanity of others, rendering them nothing more than cogs in a machine that cares for nothing but endless profits for the few?
(The answer; is that was a preexisting condition, laid bare by the pandemic.)
This event has highlighted the disparity in our healthcare system, food chain and showcases the systemic issues that have pledged this nation since its inception. Historically, we are a young nation and we are acting like it. Whining about the things we want, and that we should not only have them, but that they should be available NOW!
There are so many creative solutions that can address the needs (and even wants) of people without endangering others, but the way things were before is unsafe in the current situation and “the situation is The Boss.” I understand it is not the answer we want to hear, but it is the unvarnished truth of the matter. We will have to reinvent many industries, but “we can do it.” We must let go of the insistence that things should just snap back to the way they were before without regard for the people that will have to make that happen.
I decided a while ago (after I lost count of how many school shootings had occurred that year) that the definition of an American ‘hero’ is too often a person doing the best they can in a situation that society should have shielded them from. My husband is not a hero, he is a father risking his health to provide finically for his family while preforming a service others could do without.
Frontline healthcare workers are heroes in the true sense of the word, but the word is being applied to people who are made to preform tasks that could be done differently, due to a lack of imagination. It will come at the cost of profits for the few, temporaraly. I can’t see it fair to expect others to forgo their safety for the cravings of others. There ARE safer ways to accomplish the things we love doing.
Gatherings can be held outdoors as long as people are cognizant of their personal responsibility to be safe. Nonessential items can be shipped, but don’t insist that it happen in a matter of days. Local businesses can be supported, items purchased online or over the phone and picked up curbside. To-go food is reasonable.
This used to be a nation full of innovators. Armies of people who figured out how to provide the things people needed, in new and better ways. I have faith that we can do that again. We got so good at it, many of us were able to forget what lack looked like.
We can flourish in these unprecedented times, but only when we realize this is a long term situation- and it is undeniably in charge. There are work-arounds for our desires but they require a serious attitude adjustment. One that puts the needs of others above immediate access to individual luxuries. It involves checking our previously unchecked privilege. Above all, it means not conflating desire with rights.
If my husband can wear a mask in a sweltering kitchen so that others can eat filet mignon that they didn’t have to cook for themselves, then masks can be worn while shopping. It is not a “muzzle” or “gag” it is an act of caring for others. We are all in this together, and if we are to survive as a nation intact it must be done with deference not defiance. We are all stressed, but we can still be kind. The solutions can only be achieved through community, graciousness, humility, connection and love.
Take care of one another, it is the first and most essential step toward the future. Please, take it with me.
*Image taken from: https://static.stereogum.com/uploads/2014/01/grateful-dead.jpg