Scenes From a Pandemic: 43

15 03 2021

by Jason Kotoch

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

(photos: Jason Kotoch)

Postcards From Restaurant-Land

Northampton, Massachusetts

Front of the house. I’m sitting in the empty bar section of a Western Massachusetts restaurant, the kind of place where you can count on finding a Buffalo chicken Caesar salad and a Friday night fillet special on the menu. I’m not here to eat—I haven’t eaten inside a restaurant since the pandemic started a year ago. I’m here to talk to Taylor Kall, one of two people managing the front of house tonight, mostly taking phone orders. 

Taylor stands tall. Above the mask, her eye makeup is perfect. A seasoned restaurant worker, having supported herself through college working in restaurants, studying part-time while carrying 40 hours a week at diners and bars, she learned to love the hectic environment of the industry. Mixing drinks became a manual skill, a social skill, and a source of financial stability that has since vanished. Bartenders will always have work, she thought. Tonight, the laugh track of a sitcom echoing from a wall-mounted television into the barroom amplifies the quiet that has settled over the once bustling townie haunt. Taylor has been on shift for three hours and hasn’t mixed a drink yet.

At around 7, an older couple walks in and takes a corner booth. The two quickly unmask and sink into vinyl seats that squeak as they wrestle themselves into position, not saying a word to each other. Taylor walks over, greeting them with menus and that familiar tone all practiced front-of-house workers quickly master, a sort of customer service code-switching that when performed just right, yields better tips. The man orders a hot tea, the woman orders water with no ice and a cocktail, and asks to have a moment to look over the menu—neither one remasks. The man wipes his nose with the back of his wrist and coughs a little smoker’s cough just as Taylor walks away. 

Early in the pandemic she might have said something. She says she doesn’t have the energy to play the game anymore. She stands mixing her first drink of the night behind a row of plexiglass shields, and no amount of eye makeup can distract you into thinking she’s smiling under her black surgical mask.


* * *

Back of the house. I’m standing in an alleyway on another night at a different restaurant, between a dumpster and a graffiti covered steel door, waiting for Javier behind a popular pizza shop in a dilapidated industrial town that has been left to rust ten minutes north of Springfield. 

At around 5:30, the door screeches open and Javier emerges, carrying two big clear bags of trash to the dumpster. A dirty white apron hangs off his waist. Before we greet each other, he yells over the sound of the compactor to tell me that he wants to use the name Javier for this story because it belonged to his father, a Mexican migrant worker who died two summers ago on a farm in California. 

The air is cold and carries the warning of a winter storm, so we both rush back inside. The door slams heavy behind us, ominously, like we are locked in. Javier is the only person working tonight in the brightly lit stainless-steel kitchen. His only co-worker is taking phone orders. Those print out in the kitchen with a kind of rhythmic timing that occasionally matches step with the bachata music playing from a small WiFi speaker at the front counter. Javier has been the keeper of the kitchen night after night since last March when the pandemic swept the state.

He is a young-looking 37, with short dark hair and lean limbs. He is the father of two children, both born in the United States. His wife was recently let go from her two jobs. A year ago, he says, they had just moved into a two-bedroom apartment. The relative financial stability they relied on then is gone now, and you can hear the stress in his voice when he talks about this.

Undocumented workers are always navigating difficult decisions, but the choices facing them now are extreme. Work, get a paycheck, but risk contracting the virus. Without access to testing or healthcare, Covid could be a death sentence. Stop working and die another way, as those without work authorization generally don’t qualify for unemployment or other government aid. 

As Javier slips a pizza into the oven, he catches the bottom of his wrist on the door. It sears his skin, but he responds as if he hardly notices the burn. It will become one more old cooking scar among the many covering the inside of his right wrist. Walking to the counter to grab a pre-folded pizza box, he looks past a few vacant tables and out a big pane glass window with the words “NEPO ERA EW” painted in big, bold red-and-white letters.

A new order comes through the printer. He begins to shape and smooth another ball of dough into a large pizza, and I ask him what he thinks of the term “essential worker.”

“To them, my work is essential, yeah, but my life, I’m not sure.”  

Jason Kotoch is a photographer and filmmaker living in Western Massachusetts. He was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp for journalists and organizers in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on March 10, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Virtual Life, a Short Film From New York, plus…

Long before the pandemic, in 2013 to be precise, Annie Berman made a short about virtual travel in a virtual city—there but not really, except as recorded in a moment via Google’s Street Views App, and ‘visited’ the way we have come to visit so much now, remotely. You can watch the film, Street Views, which won Best Experimental Film at the Rome Independent Film Festival of 2014, by clicking on the image below. Annie was a participant in the Kopkind/CID Film Camp in 2010. The documentary she workshopped in camp, The Faithful, is about to premier, on March 19. It explores the public’s connection to and veneration of cultural icons—Elvis Presley, Pope John Paul II and Princess Diana—and what this enthusiasm means in terms of memorabilia, copyright law, memory and identity. The new film (see the green box below for information about how to see it) is also an experiment in independent film distribution. With film festivals and small theaters largely foreclosed or restricted because of Covid, and with behemoths like Netflix and Amazon dominating home entertainment, it’s even harder out there for independent filmmakers. Annie and her team are pioneering alternative modes of connecting directly with audiences to strengthen the ecosystem for indie film producers and their work.

About Street Views, Annie writes: “I started making a series of ‘cameraless films’ beginning in 2011. This is the second. It was my antidote to The Faithful, a project that had inadvertently made me an archivist. I was feeling the burden of the weight of my archive and questioning why photograph when the world I lived in had already been imaged by humans and machines alike. It was also my way of grappling with disconnectivity. I was feeling nostalgic for a time when people asked one another for directions, rather than their devices.”

The Faithful premieres live at www.The-Faithful.com Friday, March 19, 7 pm EDT, with additional live showtimes through the weekend at 2 pm and 7 pm daily, and will be available on streaming services March 22. To join the live premiere event, viewers pay, watch and interact with Annie and company on the filmmaker’s own screening platform, the-faithful. Check out the trailer and reserve tickets here: The-Faithful.com. The first 25 people to reserve tickets with the promo code KPKD50 at checkout will get tickets at half-off the standard price.

Counterclockwise from bottom, The King, The Pope and The Princess (detail: The Faithful film poster)

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