It happened quickly. On Monday we were getting emails about hand sanitizer at every station, by Wednesday we weren’t accepting cash, by Friday midday we got an email about new menu items, and within an hour we were closed indefinitely. Nitehawk, a little indie dine-in movie theater staring at Manhattan across the water from Brooklyn, was an immovable staple of Williamsburg nightlife — or at least that’s what I thought after running food to sold-out theaters for a year and a half. But here we are. My last shift was a brunch shift, so empty the chef could have taken the orders, prepped and made the food, served it, bussed it, and cleaned up all by himself.
On Saturday, we went to the bar to pick up food that would otherwise have been bound for the dumpster. We found it all laid out like an impromptu street market, burger buns and chips stacked high, kale going dark at the edges.
It’s a scene playing out all across the country, from the epicenters of coronavirus outbreaks in California, New York City, and Washington state to cities and towns and roadside diners even in rural America; at least 25 states have mandated the closure of restaurants, but with how fast the news is going, by the time you get to the period at the end of this sentence, that number may have grown. But even without a mandate, so many of these small businesses operate on such thin margins that most will look at their books in the coming weeks and months and find there is no other option. So where does that leave the nation’s 15.6 million restaurant workers?
Most people go through life never really having to think about the server, the busser, the barback, the line cook, or the dishwasher — just figures in black, just glimpses of people as you grab your coat and head out the door. But who are we, we nighttime people swimming through the dark streets, on the crosstown at 3 am, nodding off on the night’s last bus, sitting on the milk crates by the dumpster smoking a loosie and watching the cars on the overpass, smiling when we feel like screaming, dancing until the day interrupts us?
If you took the time to look, you might see the whole of us, the work relationship that blew up on us, the burn of dishwater on our forearms that doesn’t feel so bad a year in, the unpaid loans, the dirty aprons, the leftover food snuck home because we had only 10 bucks for the week, the drunk nights, the early days, and all the friends you had for just a little while.
Insofar as everyone must justify their existence against the market, we are an economic force. Jobs in the industry have grown by 84 percent between 2010 and 2018, according to the National Restaurant Association, and in the ever-venerated field of small business, locally owned restaurants employ nearly 8 million people, the second-largest number of any industry. As the Dow struggles to regain its footing, and people begin to accept that they may not see the inside of their favorite haunt until summer, the true power of our departure is only starting to be felt. But in the numbers, we once again lose the people.
We’re the dreaming people, the striving people, the laughing people. We’re painters and playwrights, comedians, dancers, animators, entrepreneurs, students, musicians, actors, drag queens, skate punks, and amateur boxers. We’re immigrants, from Ecuador, El Salvador, Senegal, the Philippines, and Iowa. We’re new fathers hoping to do it a little bit better. We’re old vets, cuts and burns writing their sentences over the tattoos on our forearms. We speak Creole and Spanish and Hindi. We work three jobs — babysitting, security, freelance PA work, selling weed, teaching yoga, bartending at another restaurant, taking care of our little cousins. We’re working on master’s degrees and business plans. We’ve got schemes and big ideas, weird shows and poetry readings. That’s me, that’s my people, caught at a glance through swinging doors.
Our lives are held together with duct tape; the system sucks it all out from us as soon as we get it. How are you ever going to get three months’ savings when your rent is two-thirds of the money you make and your loans are all the rest? How are you ever going to write your novel when you work 12 hours a day between two jobs?
Forty percent of Americans say they can’t deal with a $400 financial emergency, but now that emergency has come, for all of us, all at once. Most of us don’t know how we’re going to pay rent in a week — and beyond that is a dark jungle of unformed life that seems impossible to hack our way through. What happens now? How do we live? Nowhere is hiring, and bills are still coming. My greatest pillar of support, it seems, is from a Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund on GoFundMe. All these people are out in the cold, and we’ve barely started to grapple with how to help them.
Some economist somewhere, or more likely, a horde of them, is calculating what all this sudden loss will mean for the GDP, that highest measure of our livelihoods. But as historian Rutger Bregman (who had his moment of fame telling the billionaires at Davos to pay their taxes) points out in his book Utopia for Realists, the GDP hides as much as it reveals. “Community service, clean air, free refills on the house — none of these things make the GDP an iota bigger. … And that’s to say nothing of all the unpaid labor that doesn’t even qualify ... from volunteering to child care to cooking, which together represents more than half of all our work.”
It is that kind of work — the kind for which there is little or no financial remuneration — that makes a community. Free concerts at the park, classes at the library, one-woman shows, book clubs, volunteer work, community theater, and open mics are pursuits that require a person to also find a “survival job.” In other words, the very kind of work that puts someone in the service industry.
After this is all over, there will be a massive stock-taking, but if we only look at the numbers, we’ll miss something ineffable. Even if we won’t admit it, we tend to think that wealth measures a person. It telegraphs how much they have contributed, and what they are worth in the end. Every customer service worker can see it: the way a person walks into a store, how they get your attention. But I grant it nothing; all the wealth, the power, the status, the view from the 63rd floor doesn’t mean I hold you higher than the prep cook listening to her textbooks for night school on tape while she cuts a barrel full of Brussels sprouts. Human worth is that deep-down stuff, and our economy has missed it completely.
Part of modern working-class life in America, before Covid-19, is knowing that all those varied people will move along. They’ll find their way out of a survival job, or life will just hit them too hard one day, and they’ll miss a shift and get fired, or they’ll find a better gig, or any one of a thousand quiet ways people leave a restaurant or bar. They become a Facebook friend, an Instagram follow, and drift back into the static. Sometimes you think back on them and wonder if you ever knew them quite well enough to call them up and talk about nothing at all. You think, “Maybe I could have tried to know them a little more.”
At Nitehawk, like at restaurants around the country, it happened all at once. Seeing each other in the restaurant, at our little market gathering supplies for an uncertain future, it had the air of the last day of school, stretched tight over a well of panic. The final indignity of the moment, standing amid piles of spoiling food, seeing my friends on the edge of breakdowns, was that I couldn’t even give them a hug goodbye.
Some of us got drunk that night, the last time we’d be around other people for maybe months, hopping from apartment to apartment until the night grew long and we all went home, wondering if we’d ever see each other again. I could feel millions of people I’ll never meet, all over the country, playing their own variation of that same song.
A job isn’t a family, it’s a refuge in a river. But now we’ve all been swept away. Every working person in the United States who doesn’t have the luxury of working from home is now forced to choose between danger and exhaustion or poverty and uncertainty.
What is this moment going to show us when we look back on it? We’re now seeing the necessity of each industry and the people who comprise it in turn. Surprisingly, we’re finding that it’s the forgotten jobs we’re learning to appreciate most — the service industry worker, the grocery store clerk, the delivery person, the social worker, the teacher, the nurse.
Perhaps we ought to reorder our thinking on who builds a world worth living in, and then build a system that supports those people, not only now but always, because this crisis is one part pandemic but also one part systemic failure. A world of runaway economic inequality leaves our foundations shaky. Now, we are seeing the consequences — not just in the numbers, but for the people.
Luke Taylor is a writer, researcher, podcaster, and service industry worker in New York.