Against my better judgment, I decided to buy one of those Starbucks double-shot espresso drinks. It was early evening, cold and dark. I clutched the tiny can as I walked up Evergreen toward Flushing. At Green Central Knoll, seemingly 100 dogs weaved through each other, their voices ricocheting off nearby buildings. Then my phone buzzed. Interview canceled. He had to attend to something, a family matter.
I turned around and walked back, caffeine surging into my fingers. The era of cancellations. Shows, dates, interviews. People are sick. Or, they might be. Or they will be because they kissed someone who is. I reached Myrtle and turned right. Instead of going home, I walked into Birdy’s to get drunk.
Laynie Bell stood behind the bar slicing limes, she’s worked at Birdy’s for about three years. I asked her what it was like working in the early days of the pandemic.
“I craved something to do everyday, I wanted to go back to work,” she told me. “But I was terrified, obviously. When you saw someone you knew, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re alive … That’s great.’”
In a sense, for Bell, those early days — the time of to-go drinks — were quite isolating.
“I’m a single woman,” Bell said. “And I would like to date … but I know I’m, like, the dangerous one because I’m around people constantly.”
She poured a glass of whiskey and handed it to a man behind me.
“Once I got vaccinated, I felt like I could resume normal life,” Bell said. “But obviously that wasn’t a thing.”
In December, Bell took 12 consecutive Covid tests in preparation for traveling home for Christmas. Still, because she needed to work, and because she couldn’t isolate, she felt uncertain about going anywhere.
“I didn’t know if I was going to bring it to my family,” she said. “Especially with this last wave, I feel like I know 70 f***ing people who’ve tested positive. It’s like, I guess I’m just going to get tested as frequently as I can?”
Business, of course, has fluctuated over the past two years. Last summer was “busy as sh*t.” December up until this past weekend was “dead as sh*t.”
“I like that you have to be vaccinated to be inside,” Bell said. “But I hate having to check for it, because people give you problems. Like even today, this guy would not show me his sh*t …People act like a**holes.”
She grabbed a Bud Light and walked it to the end of the bar.
“People are just f***ing mean about it,” Bell said with a sigh of resignation. “It’s not the majority though.”
Bell noted that a level of generosity seemed to exist in the early days. And it’s gone now.
“At the beginning, when it was take-out, people were tipping so much,” Bell recalled. “People were just like, ‘thank you for doing this, thanks for your sacrifice,’ or some sh*t like that.”
She laughed. She was only doing her job — the one that she needed to do in order to pay her rent.
“But then slowly it turned back into normal tipping,” Bell said. “Like the before-times.”
I asked her where her head is at now, what she expects, looking forward.
“I really hope that this is the beginning of the end, that another f***ing strain doesn’t come back,” she said. “I guess my outlook is hopeful but still skeptical?”
Yeah, I don’t know what to think either, I said.
“I don’t know if anything will ever go back to normal, but at least at a bar there’s alcohol and you can pretend, right?” Bell looked up and smiled, and then she tossed the sliced limes into a glass jar. “Until you get the a**hole that won’t show you their vaccination card. Then you’re like, ‘okay, I’m not safe.’”
Next door at Happyfun Hideaway, Bruno Coviello had just finished setting up the bar. The place was still empty. I asked him about the early days too.
“Part of the reason I wanted to work was because I knew how depressed and isolated everyone was,” he said. “So I felt like it was almost like a community duty to engage with people and try to mitigate fear.”
It was a service that didn’t go unrewarded.
“The tips were amazing,” Coviello said. “And definitely part of it was that people getting that unemployment check were like, ‘Here, take my money.’”
But that was a moment. And the moment’s gone.
“People are stiffing us a lot now,” Coviello told me. “That feeling of appreciation ended. I don’t know if it’s an economic thing, or if it’s just an attitude of ‘we’re in it for ourselves.’ But I’ve worked in the industry a long time, and I’ve seen more stiffing in the past year than I have my whole life.”
The Omicron wave sucked the energy out of the bar, the neighborhood, the city. Still, Coviello showed up to work.
“I had a lot of friends calling me up being like, ‘You shouldn’t be out there,’” said Coviello, as he pointed a disoriented delivery driver to a restaurant down the block. “I was just, like, I don’t have the luxury of being – you know, I knew people who could work from home … I didn’t have that luxury.”
I asked him where his head is at, looking forward.
“I’ve been hearing it again, like, ‘This is it, this summer is gonna be nuts,’” Coviello said. “I’m just sorta not gonna have my expectations up. I’m taking it day-by-day. The problem with the way things have been is that there have been these expectations, looking forward. And we’ve been way off.”
He shrugged, put his palms in the air. It is what it is.
“I do feel like the whole thing has taught me a lot of lessons.”
Be cautious of hope, perhaps.
Featured Image: an illustration drawn by Emily Rappaport.
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