by Amy Berryman
Amy’s essay appears in episode 24 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
My mind spins and sweat drips down my cheek under my mask as I head out to the patio, wine glasses slipping in my gloved hands.
Drop these glasses on table fifty, cross the bike lane, drop check on fifty-seven, and oh – there’s a regular I haven’t seen in months at fifty-eight. I stop to say hello to her. She is unmasked, stands as if to hug me. I back away instinctively, and she, flustered, sits back down.
“How’ve you been?” she asks.
I swallow, nod, glance around, then step towards the table as a bike almost clips me.
“I’m well, I’m well,” I lie. “How are you?”
“I bought a house in Jersey! I’m moving.”
“Oh, that’s great.”
“And how is everything here?”
I nod again, look into her kind eyes and think, maybe I can be honest with her. “I mean…it’s been tough. Being back, this whole set up out here…”
As I look around at the spread-out tables in the August sunlight, I think back to my job before the pandemic, the best service job in New York City. A true diamond in the rough. In the days before the pandemic, I stood behind a bar and poured wine, talked about wine, ran food, I didn’t split tips with too many people, didn’t have to travel too far to my tables. I was fed well, it was easy, great, great money, great people. As a writer, it gave me space in my brain to create, it wasn’t hanging over my head, it wasn’t hurting my body. God, it was good.
Now, by necessity, everything is outside, I am a server on a large patio. Much harder on my body, and my stress levels are through the roof as I dash around, picking up dirty plates, get asked if I can take a photo for someone, asked to touch their phone, regulars want to hug me, unmasked. People never put their masks on while I’m at their table, and many leave anywhere from ten to eighteen percent tips.
I trail off, and the kind regular nods emphatically.
“You know what?” she says, leaning in, as if she has a secret. “They’re going to find a vaccine and it will be like none of this ever happened.”
I stand there, stunned into silence, but my server brain clicks on, and I nod and smile and say great to see you, but as I walk away my chest is tight and I swallow again.
This did happen. This is happening. So many people are dead. My co-worker’s brother died. My best friend had it. Some of my co-workers were able to receive unemployment benefits, some had to go without them for months. This bar might not survive. The government is not coming to save the restaurants, nor their workers.
I pick up the check I dropped on fifty-seven, a table of women. They stop chatting to turn and explain to me how they’d like the check split up, leaning towards me. I listen, but my mind has also put a filter over my eyes, so that all I see are the droplets from all those diagrams about what wearing a mask does to protect you. I imagine the droplets coming out of their mouths, floating up towards me, into the sun, which hopefully is dissipating any virus particles – but who knows.
We know so little about the virus, still. I think about the droplets all the time. I take the check. A couple approaches me on my way inside, both masked, and ask for a table. I gesture to where they should sit – table fifty-four. I run inside, still processing the unmasked women and the regular’s call to forget this ever happened.
I am exhausted by this attitude, the desire to erase the loss of the past six months, that is present every time I approach a table. I too long for normalcy, but it is as if people believe that the tables they are sitting at have some kind of magical bubble around them, that I am there to serve and protect them, when I have really just signed up to bring them a glass of wine. I want to expect that they will have concern for my well-being in return, but with over ten years in the service industry, I have forced myself to set my expectations low. This pandemic is challenging that mentality. The more injustices that are uncovered, the harder it is for me to keep my expectations low.
I am there to serve and protect them, when I have really just signed up to bring them a glass of wine.
I drop the check off at fifty-seven, noticing that the women have masked up and are speaking to a woman who stopped by their table – a friend of theirs who happened to pass by. They put their masks on for her, not for me. I stop to ask the standing woman to kindly move along – we can’t have people standing on the patio due to government regulations. She looks annoyed and gives a curt “Uh, okay,” while the women sitting don’t meet my eyes during the confrontation as they sign their checks. Little does this woman know she could cause the restaurant to lose their liquor license by standing there. I am not bossing her around for the fun of it. I am just trying to save this damn place.
I notice she continues to stand there as I approach my new table, fifty-four.
The couple at fifty-four has kept their masks on even as they peruse the menu, seated. They ask me a question or two, then place their drink order. I remind them they have to also order food (as per New York state law) and they nod – “Of course, we’ll look.” My whole being relaxes as I walk away. That they kept their masks on while we interacted…I sadly had kind of forgotten what it felt like to be respected like that.
I bring them their wine. They order food, still masked. I thank them and walk away, noticing them drop their masks to drink their wine once I am gone.
Before I go inside to put their order in, I grab some of the glasses on the now abandoned fiftyseven, glancing at their checks. About fifteen percent, all around. I swallow, my jaw sets. I used to be fine with eighteen, but I was always mad about fifteen. In these times, I am insulted by less than twenty. I wonder if my request to their standing friend impacted their tip.
I rush inside with the glasses to put in the order, my anger boiling over. I try to push it down again. Times are tough for everyone, but servers are out here for your leisure working hard, doing a job that allows you to pretend like things are normal, risking infection ourselves.
Things are not normal, and eighteen is not an acceptable percentage, much less fifteen.
I break a glass as I set it down.
The rest of the night is a blur of numbness. I’ve already gotten too angry to spend the whole shift that way – I turn it off and swallow it. As I work, I keep thinking about table fifty-four. They kept their masks on when they ordered. They met my eyes when we spoke, saw me as a human being, but they didn’t ask me to engage with them in some kind of unsafe way. They didn’t overstay and they tipped thirty percent. If everyone added a few dollars to what they normally tip, like fifty-four did, I think to myself, maybe it would make up for some of it. Some kind of semblance of mutual aid.
If everyone added a few dollars to what they normally tip, like fifty-four did, I think to myself, maybe it would make up for some of it. Some kind of semblance of mutual aid.
At the end of the shift, washing down the night with beer, I tell my co-worker, the one who’s brother passed away, the story about the regular who says it will be like none of this ever happened. He just shakes his head – “Yeah, right.”
We sip our drinks, bracing ourselves for the coming weeks and months. There may be a time in the future when it may look like it did before, we all may gather together indoors again, share the same air again. That doesn’t mean it won’t have happened. In the meantime, it is going to get colder. What’s going to happen to restaurants then?
I don’t know, but I hope I’ll have more tables like fifty-four.
I hope things change.
Custom illustration by Corinne Pease.
About Amy Berryman
Amy Berryman is a playwright, freelance writer, and actor based in New York. Her short and full-length plays have been developed at theaters all across the US. For more about her work, follow her @amyrberryman or visit amy-berryman.com.