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, which 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. Taylor tells me 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 10 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 coworker 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 Wi-Fi 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 all 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 health care, 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 “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.”
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.