July 24th was one of the worst days at work so far. One of the cooks passed away in a car accident the night before. It was a tragedy. Coworkers adored his spirit and attitude.
Walking into work was as horrible as walking into a funeral. The heavyweight sat on my chest. I had only had brief experiences with the man and I was devastated.
I could not imagine the pain of my coworkers as, one by one, they were told their friend was no longer alive. It’s unimaginable pain to lose someone, especially so suddenly.
Throughout the past few weeks, it’s been difficult to imagine death coming in any form besides COVID-19. Living and working in the pandemic has kept my mind on one thing: staying healthy.
The restaurant I work in is a hybrid restaurant and fish market. The windows show off a beautiful view of Alamitos Bay. When the sun sets, there is an alluring orange hue that makes the boats glow golden. The walls are shades of mint and turquoise. The restaurant is friendly and welcoming. I just wish the guests were too.
Waiters serve shrimp tacos, salmon sandwiches, fish and chips among other items or patrons go to the fish market and create their own tray of seafood. Being on the border of Los Angeles County and Orange County gives the restaurant a wide variety of customers. We are at the end of Seal Beach and at the beginning of Long Beach.
Customer attitudes range from highly snooty to unbelievably kind. The snooty, unfortunately, has outweighed the kindness. While I work, I endure people pulling their shirts over their noses, wearing their masks around their necks and refusing to wear masks at all.
Being a hostess came naturally to me. I am an introvert with extrovert qualities, when necessary. I often disassociate when things get stressful and turn into a hostess machine as I clean menus, deal with angry customers and seat people. When business is slow, but about to be intense, I love to curl up into a tiny ball balancing on the balls of my feet and scream into my knees. The scream is internal, of course.
Working has been a thought-provoking adjustment in comparison to living in lockdown. During the stay-at-home mandate, my mind focused on existential dread. Now I have hands-on experience as an essential worker during a pandemic. By no means is my existential dread forgotten. I am just provided with more distractions now.
I needed the money and my dad, who owns the restaurant with his siblings and uncles, told me he needed hosts. I had never worked in a restaurant before, but had worked around a restaurant my entire life. I was excited to help out my family’s business on the ground floor.
After two interviews I got the job. Nervously, I began to work four to five days a week. My anxiety was high not just because of the new job, but also the pandemic. People say they can’t wear masks for a long period, but I wear one for 4 to 8 hours a day. It’s not hard. What is hard is dealing with people who refuse to wear them.
My favorite response to mask refusal is “I’ll take my business elsewhere!” Nowhere will accept them. Every restaurant in Los Angeles County requires masks. Only on reflection do I take it personally. Later in the day or possibly even days after, my mind runs over the feelings brought on by being accosted by customers.
My mom and I are immunocompromised. In an attempt to save myself and those I love, I wash my hands at least 50 times a day and drown them in sanitizer. The result is cracked skin etched into my hands, but at least I know I am doing all I can to stay safe.
If it’s so unsafe, why work?
Well, my family’s source of income is limited because of COVID-19. I signed a lease for an apartment at school in October and I have to pay for it somehow. There is also the matter of my student debt. Money makes the world go round, and to finish my education I need to work.
After a specifically difficult day, I found myself chatting with one of my coworkers, a server at the restaurant.
“Privilege,” he said. “They think they’re entitled to eating out when we are risking our lives to give them fresh food.”
Privilege is truly the root of the problem.
Once, as I was handling the waitlist, I gave a man a 35-minute wait. The tall gentleman next in line walked up to me and begged: “Please don’t tell me 35 minutes!”
His tone was of utmost rudeness and I wanted to tell him it was going to be 50 minutes, which it undoubtedly would be. I explained to him in a sickly sweet tone that we only had 13 tables operating this afternoon and a party of five would be about 35 minutes.
“I have a boat,” the man responded to me.
Shocked at the audacity of his tone, I responded with a nod and a reaffirmation of the wait time. He stared at me with intensity and anger until I became a weaker version of myself and told him I’d see what I could do. His party went to sit outside and I began to do frequent table checks.
The timer went up at 38 minutes and the man left without telling me.
The phrase “I have a boat” continued to ring in my head as I worked for the rest of the day.
Sure, the restaurant is in a marina, so his statement had relevance. The guest wanted special treatment and loyalty due to his status as a boat owner. I offered him take out and he refused.
The privilege is the problem.
Giving wait times is the most nerve-racking part of my job. I tell them the time, and they either politely say “Alright!” and wait outside or they make a face and have a hissy fit. Over time it has become a guessing game of which reaction I will receive from guests, but it ends up being about 50/50.
It feeds the flame of my anger and resentment towards humanity. Still, I often feel guilty days later for giving an inaccurate wait time. The problem may be that I am emotionally entwined with the restaurant. When I disappoint a customer, I imagine that I am disappointing my entire family.
When I lose a customer I am personally responsible for not being able to pay off my college debt faster. My dad, uncles, aunts and cousins lose money when I mess up at work. I can’t separate my emotional attachment to my loved ones from my job.
I am risking my life to take guests to the table while they wear masks on their chin. The server is risking her or his life to bring food and drinks. The bartenders and bussers are risking their lives helping customers who couldn’t care less about their lives.
Customer service will always involve dealing with rude and difficult people, but the pandemic adds layers to the pain. Knowing the possibility of contracting the virus and spreading it to my loved ones is scary. For now, I will continue to plaster a smile under my mask and serve those who come in. I can only hope attitudes will improve towards those risking their health. Attitudes are multi-layered, and the experiences are one-offs. I don’t know what is happening in the customer’s lives, the same way they don’t know what is going on in mine.
A customer can’t tell by looking at me that COVID-19 took away my great grandmother without getting a chance to say goodbye. Now more than ever, it is essential to treat everyone who touches our lives with kindness and gratitude. The world is suffering as a whole, and while it may be hard to share smiles with strangers under masks, staying six feet apart and treating each other with respect goes a long way.