For Restaurant Workers, What a Difference a Year Makes

A veteran waiter reflects on a year lost to COVID-19, and the hope he now feels for the future.

Masked server setting an indoor table
Photo: Getty Images

Last March at the first sighting of the crocuses peeking out from the ground, I wanted to tell those blooms to go back into the dirt where it's safe. The world was crumbling as we grasped the severity of the pandemic and I envied those flowers for being so naive and hopeful. One year ago this week, all restaurants in New York City shut down due to the looming presence of the coronavirus. I had already unknowingly waited my last table for several months, but thought it would be for just two or three weeks. The only thing that was certain was the uncertainty and we had not yet grown weary of the word "unprecedented." Anxiety was creeping into our lives as is evidenced by my March 16 journal entry: "Hi. Are we gonna die?" The only journal entry of 2020 more concise than that one from May 18 that simply says, "I can't."

Twelve months ago, any sense of normalcy was so far away while the sound of sirens was entirely too close by. Optimism was harder to find than a clean teaspoon in the middle of a sold out Sunday brunch.

What a difference a year makes. My restaurant struggled to stay open, but it managed to do so. We have reduced seating, we have tents on our patio with heaters under the tables, we're up to our armpits in to-go containers, and hand sanitizer is more popular than any entree on the menu. But we're open. On March 19, restaurants in New York City will be able to seat at 50% capacity which is very hopeful and a far cry from 365 days earlier when I wrote in my journal "I think by the end of the month someone I know will be sick or dying."

Smiling with my eyes is now a special skill on my resume. 

By now, most of us have experienced loss because of the coronavirus. The lucky ones have only lost a job or lost their social life, while the most unfortunate of us have lost so much more than that. Living in the same neighborhood as the restaurant I have worked in for 10 years, I notice when one of my regulars stops showing up. Before COVID-19, the assumption was they moved away or found a new restaurant they liked more than mine. Things are different now. It was impossible to not think the worst about the elderly couple who I'd served for a decade, but hadn't set foot in the restaurant for over a year. Were they OK and being very, very cautious or did they become a statistic? It was quite a relief to see them both a few weeks ago, wearing masks and walking their dog three blocks from my apartment. My wave to them went unnoticed, but I look forward to serving them again someday soon: no salt and no oil on the veggies, half the portion of fries, water no ice, and a basket of bread with softened butter as soon as they sit down.

Twelve months ago, a vaccine seemed like a far away dream and now it's a reality. As a restaurant worker, I feel incredibly grateful to have been eligible for it and I eagerly waited in line for an hour and a half to get my first shot. My second dose came four weeks later and now I am fully vaccinated. The mask, however, will remain as much a part of my uniform as my apron and my non-slip shoes. Now, when a customer walks into the restaurant holding their shirt over their mouth, I won't worry so much about it. And thanks to my mask, they won't be able see the sneer of disapproval on my face.

April 2 of last year is when I pulled out my sewing machine to make masks out of old bandanas and some elastic cut from complimentary airline sleep masks. It felt awkward wearing it for the first time in public, but knowing how it keeps customers from reading my facial expressions, I might be wearing them for years to come. Smiling with my eyes is now a special skill on my resume.

There is hope now, but that doesn't mean what we've all gone through isn't huge.

This spring upon the first spying of the crocus, those tiny flowers seem even more full of hope than they did last year as they stretch out to the sunshine and their bright future. How lucky they were to have been buried in the ground these last ten months, dormant and not having to come out again until things are better. I feel like those flowers, just poking my head out into the world to see what's ahead. With the Moderna vaccine coursing through my body, I feel like Superman. Coronavirus-infused droplets of saliva bounce off my chest exactly like bullets bounce of the Man of Steel. There is hope now, but that doesn't mean what we've all gone through isn't huge. Our lives will never be the same and some of our losses will never be replaced. We just have to imagine that we are spring flowers waking up from hibernation and that a brighter future is ahead of us.

One year ago, I was scared. Today, I am grateful and enthusiastic about our future. My restaurant is open for business and I welcome customers with open arms and socially-distant hugs. What a difference a year makes.

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