Phase 1- The Uncanny Valley of Restauranting

The day was already cooler for a Portland summer- way cooler than the oppressive heat wave we were promised for later in the week- and as the sun goes down behind the buildings and hills of the Willamette Valley, it’s starting to just get slightly chilly.

Perfect weather for eating outside and getting a cold beer or two- as long as you don’t mind your face feeling a bit warm.

In our current mid-pandemic nightmare, small gestures at the World That Was are welcome. Thanks to our phase-inspired plan for opening, my favorite pod is doing business again. Brain is pouring pints again (but won’t refill glasses- new jar every time) and all the carts have worked out how to serve again. Tim and Ashley- the duo behind the grill at Saint Burrito– nailed a three-foot long counter to the front of their window to create distance, and place orders on a small table by the door for pickup. Sun and his team at Fomo Chicken spray-painted social distancing marks on the pavement.

And the seating in the pod is “crowded.” Not so much that there’s no seats left- but you don’t really want to ask strangers if you can share their table. Introverts rejoice!

Lines and waits are a little longer. Brian steps away from the taps more often to wash the extra loads of glasses. Prices are a little higher, and it’s harder to justify hanging out if you’re there by yourself. As I write this, I’m situated in a stand-alone lawn chair, having given up my small table to a couple that wanted to eat together. Even as separated- “socially distanced”- as I am, I feel like one man nursing a beer at a four-top. I’m taking up valuable real estate and should get my ass home.

If there’s one thing I look forward to about making a career out of writing, it’s having my “office” fit in a backpack.

I’m glad for it all. Being outside, getting out of the house, my friends still being in business, cold beers and steamy Korean fried chicken- all of it.

It still feels off, though. The background anxiety of our situation hasn’t faded, and the knowledge that Portland is a hot spot in the state has a lot of business owners fearing a rollback- shutting down again, laying off freshly hired workers, and what to do with refreshed inventory that might just rot in their freezers.

Big chains and restaurant groups have the resources to soak impacts like this. Folks like Brian, Sun, Tim and Ash do not. It’s a hell of a dilemma- don’t feed the public, you go out of business. Feed the public, and they get so excited that your area becomes a hot spot, and you go out of business anyway.

For what it’s worth, as I people-watch over my empty beer, most folks are masked up. Those that aren’t are sitting together and eating, and almost everyone self-consciously remembers as they leave the pod. One woman realizes she left her mask at her table, and is covering her face with her arm as she orders another beer.

This is a little bubble of almost normalcy. Nothing can hurt us here… in the warm embrace of summer memories, what have we to fear? Everything is ALMOST the way it was. It’s ALMOST like it used to be. Surely we can relax a bit and enjoy that fact? Surely COVID won’t catch us over getting a gyro and sitting outside for a bit?

Questions like these assume that a virus cares- or at least doesn’t have a sense of dramatic timing.

I tend to think in terms of history and precedent when faced with thoughts like this. An idea of “Where have we seen this before?” The most immediate event I can think of is the 1918 Flu Pandemic (erroneously called the “Spanish Flu.”) During that time, a world war was putting a stranglehold of journalism. Flu deaths were suppressed in order to preserve morale and avoid projecting weakness to the enemy. Businesses closed, staggered their operating hours, or changed operations to avoid gatherings and contact. Masks and a prohibition on spitting outside were mandated.

There were those who pushed back then as well. One article of the time recounts someone saying they “refuse to look silly wearing a mask.” The answer came back “I’m certain you’d rather hear your family laugh at you alive than cry at your funeral.”

Given this, I’m not sure American culture is more “selfish” now than it’s ever been, but I’m certain that with our information-heavy mass media diet, we think we know more than we actually do. What others might call selfishness in the restaurant-going public, I’d better define as impatience. The unwillingness to accept an “almost there” situation with anything less than “real thing” enthusiasm- despite the potential fallout of their choices. A short-sightedness bordering on the solipsistic.

As it is, I did finally leave the pod- to discourage mass gatherings, all open businesses must close by 10pm. I’ve returned to what seems to be my main writing spot in the summer- my back porch. It’s the next day, and I’m sitting in the shade as the heat builds. I’m gonna finish this post, then crack open a beer and read for a bit. I just got the news that another of my favorite local places, Little Beast, has figured out how to open safely for outdoor dining.

I’m thrilled, and I’ll come seem them soon. But for right now, I’m content to wait for all to feel more real.

Stay Classy,

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