When people find out that I am a bartender, that I have been a bartender throughout this pandemic, they usually say something like “oof” or “I’m sorry” or “how have you been doing?” It’s okay, I’m used to it, and to be quite honest, I’m used to the instability of being a bartender in general, even before there was a pandemic to turn the world of the service industry upside down.
“My bar closed for good, so I’m currently unemployed.” — I usually say something like this, sometimes with the caveat that it will eventually reopen, but not for a good six months minimum, and likely I won’t have much, if any time to work there again before I move out of the Bay for good.
What will I do next? I hate that question, yet it’s the one that people ask me the most. What do they expect me to say? Probably nothing, probably they’re just trying to be nice, trying to make conversation. I usually choose to be honest, say that I don’t know. What is there to know when you are twenty-five and have lost your job for the fourth time in two years? What is there to say when a global pandemic has made being forced into unemployment not uncommon? I don’t know.
I moved to California about four years ago and found two serving jobs with no experience because I walked into two separate bars and smiled and asked for a job. My resume wasn’t blank, it had experience working in the Writing Center at my school and whatever else, but it might as well have been empty. There were a lot of places that didn’t call me back, but who cared. I wasn’t paying rent yet and $16 an hour felt like a fortune and I was meeting people. It’s been about four years now and I still haven’t gotten out, even with a pandemic closing more restaurants than we can keep count of.
My old job, the last one I had that wasn’t affected by the pandemic, fired me because of my attitude. I could say that it was because I was singled out, that I was made an example out of, that in reality it didn’t have anything to do with me but with grudges held by management, but, honestly, those reasons have faded a little into obscurity; they feel more like anecdotes now than proof or truth or history.
I got taken down the street from my job into an office I had never been to with a woman I had never met before, and she gave me my last paycheck, and asked me not to return to the restaurant for a while. She told me I should file for unemployment, she told me she would be happy to provide a positive reference for me if I applied to another bar, she told me that I didn’t have to worry. My unemployment didn’t come through for a few weeks; I applied to three restaurants that had me shadow their bartenders in exchange for a free appetizer and then didn’t hire me, I had to ask my mom for help to pay my rent. Sometimes things feel like they are entirely your fault, even if you didn’t really ever have control over them in the first place.
I remember sitting in a small theater in San Francisco for a weekend-long resistance filmmaking class I took through my school, I remember looking down at my phone at a text from my boss at the brand new job I had just started, I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach knowing that a bar with no food had no chance of staying open for takeout, and a brand new bartender at said bar would be the very last one they would save work for. I remember walking through Civic Center in San Francisco back to the BART station, I remember that it was raining, I remember that my shoes got wet. I don’t remember feeling anything.
I remember losing my job at the dog daycare, I remember losing my job at the yoga studio, I remember the remainder of the film class being online, and our final film project being cancelled and we all got passing grades anyway, because of the chaos of the pandemic in that first month.
I got a dog of my own, I accepted the full amount of my student loans in order to pay my rent, I met someone online and we went to the beach together and we kissed and I wrote a story about it. I went to see the Centennial Bulb in Livermore and that felt like a bright spot, the boy from the beach told me he didn’t want to see me anymore, at least not in that way, I cried for one day and then forgot to feel anything more about it. I don’t know what else, school ended for summer break? My cousin yelled at me at a Black Lives Matter protest and I cried until I didn’t anymore, I finally saw Yosemite, my car broke the first time.
I got my job back. It felt like a revelation, it felt like I couldn’t do any wrong, it felt so right to be so social again, to be surrounded by opportunity to talk about myself, to talk about my life as if it was ready to start again. I applied for a Fulbright, I started actively practicing my Spanish, my dog and I regularly went to her favorite trails. I felt happy, like I had escaped.
Some fragments after almost four years in and out of the service industry: the curtain between the kitchen and the dining floor at my first job: going behind that curtain felt like being let in on a secret. Taking shots with my boyfriend at work, the way exchanging glances with him when we worked together forced my heart into my throat. Didn’t you know all the ways you can make grilled cheese fancy? I didn’t, not until I started working in restaurants, learning about bread, mixing bacon, avocado, kitchen spanish, into everything. Beers can be identified in a glass by color, by frothiness, by smell, and it’s always been easy for me to pair a drink order with the face that ordered it. The other day a girl asked me how I can possibly know the ingredients of so many drinks at once, how I can keep brand names, liquor types, ratios, so strung together in my head. I don’t know. If it were you, would you know how?
On the last day of working at my bar, a man on a bicycle orders a beer and drinks it standing up outside beneath the big sign that says The Hunter. As I go back inside to finish setting up, he calls me over, points at a small, ruffled-looking body on the curb next to one of the tables I’ve dragged outside into the seating area.
It’s a bird, shuddering, eyes blinking in slow motion, resignation emanating from its broken body. I can’t remember: was it there before?
No, because, as the man explains, a woman walked by and set him down on the curb just a few seconds prior. When he asked her quickly receding back what exactly she was doing, she turned and said she did not speak enough English to explain. As the man digested that information, she disappeared into the corner store next door to the bar.
In telling me this, his eyes search mine, and I realize, suddenly, that this bird, drawing his last breaths in front of my workplace, has become my problem to solve.
What do you do with something that is dying? I want to cry, but since it is my last day of work and I already feel numb, I know I won’t be able to. The bicycle man suggests we call animal control to come pick him up, but this strikes me as inappropriate; when there were three bats in my mom’s house, escaped from a box shipped to us from across the world, the kind of place with a totally different climate, we called animal control, but this is just a little bird: gray feathers, tiny black beak, wings folded beneath quivering body.
I mention the veterinary clinic a building and a half down the street, ask if bicycle man wouldn’t mind knocking on their door and seeing whether they might be able to do something — for us? for the bird? I’m not sure, but getting more people involved feels like the most appropriate response.
It is my last day working because the bar, my bar, is closing for good. Whispers from the customers closest to my boss tell me about a new location, but it isn’t going to be open for at least six months, maybe more. Where will I be in six months, maybe more? Six months ago I didn’t even have this job, six months ago I wasn’t planning to do a research project in the Dominican Republic, six months ago nothing was clearer, nothing was any more stable. What do you do with time? I want it to speed up and slow down at the same time.
Of course the vet is closed, it’s a Sunday past five o’clock. Between the time when the man finishes his beer and hands me his glass, wheels his bicycle those one and a half buildings down, taps the dark glass window, and comes back to where I am standing, the bird has died. I’ve been watching him — the bird, not the man — and I have seen his tentative last breaths, shallow air forced out of his beak. I know he has died when his eyes don’t blink anymore. Not all birds eyelids close from the bottom up, but a lot of them do, and this one’s did, until they didn’t anymore.
My therapist said that it sounds like I haven’t been processing things fully lately — losing my job being one of them. How do I let the sadness of losing absolute control wash over me without crumbling to pieces? How do I crumble to pieces in the midst of a pandemic without feeling the guilt of knowing that all I have lost is a job, a car, that my loved ones are intact, that I still have a home? To let the sadness wash over me, to allow myself to move through it, feels endlessly more difficult than to run from it, to push it aside, to be kind to myself as I try aimlessly to escape.
What’s next? I don’t know.