It’s not very often a cocktail columnist for a desert newspaper gets to pretend to be an “in the trenches” correspondent. It’s pretty chill here, and I write about drinks.
Now here we are.
It’s Sunday, March 15. I am sitting in an empty hotel bar with my computer, practicing social distancing, conversing about the situation with my buddy the bartender, as well as a tattooed stranger from L.A. We’re all at least six feet apart. The pool outside hasn’t slowed, however. Dozens of half-naked people still touch, breathe all over each other and swim in the communal water.
I just found out I am unemployed.
I was planning on writing a little piece about how moving Coachella to October would affect the bars and restaurants in this town. I was excited about that for a couple of reasons. Through some informal polling, I got some good takes on why that could, in the long run, be a good thing for the local economy.
Now I am being told, in real time, that I need to move from the empty bar to the pool area, which is crawling with people. It’s not the manager’s fault. They’re following the letter of the law, and I completely understand that. Nobody knows what to do.
Let’s flashback a few days. I had taken Wednesday off as a precautionary measure—I wasn’t feeling great, and though I had no COVID-19 symptoms, one can’t be too careful. I felt great Thursday, but due to slow business at work, I left around 8 p.m. and walked most of the way home to get a feel for things.
There was no VillageFest. A few people were walking around; a couple of the local dives were half-busy. It wasn’t eerily quiet or anything; I am used to Palm Springs being quiet at night. It’s part of the reason I like it here. It felt like a Tuesday instead of a Thursday—otherwise, not too jarring.
On Friday, I rode my bike into work. It’s a 25-minute ride, slightly uphill, and it was into a strong headwind, just in case anyone wanted to question my being healthy. (That sounds petty, but I didn’t want anyone at work to question that I would ever put their health in jeopardy over a shift or two.) I was scheduled at the restaurant, but the bar had two staff members stay home as a precaution, so we were a little short-handed overall. Only a few parties cancelled, and we stayed busy most of the night. People still fought over the limited seating at the bar—standing two deep behind the chairs, breathing and leaning all over each other. We can only do so much; if the guests wish to be unsafe, that’s their prerogative. Behind the bar, we used the strongest sanitizers, washing hands in between even the slightest possible contaminations. Our hands were chapped from the soap and hot water. We took the situation very seriously and parsed every possible vector of transmission. Do we toss the pens after each use? Do we sanitize them? What about the menus … do we recycle them after each use?
I went over to help next door at the bar. A wedding party of 40 had walked in, taking over a whole side of the room—hugging, sharing drinks, sneezing and coughing all over the place. To a co-worker, I referred to them as “plague rats” and “zombies,” and finally “plague zombies,” which felt the most accurate. Regulars were trying to shake hands with me and hug me; a couple of drinks makes the pandemic go away, after all.
On Saturday, there was a slight dip in the number of covers at the restaurant, and frankly, we three bartenders were beginning to get bored—but once 9 o’clock hit, the zombies were back. People were three-deep at the bar, breathing on each other, up close and personal. Regulars were sick of watching the news and coming in for a friendly face and a bite to eat—all jockeying for those precious seats.
I had mixed feelings. Not knowing how many shifts I would have left, the way things were going—or even if people would leave the house for two months—I felt fortunate that we were still busy. There are no easy answers here. A medical crisis or an economic one … who is right, and who is wrong? How the hell am I going to make money for the next month, or two, or year? Is it right to choose to save a small percentage from death only to put millions upon millions out of work? I started thinking of my college political-philosophy 101 classes and John Stuart Mill for the first time in decades.
I had a guest sarcastically tell me my expensive undergrad degree was “doing me a hell of a lot of good” as a bartender recently. Well, pal, when you’re right, you’re right.
Coachella … who the hell cares right now?
Now it’s Sunday. I went for a ride on my bike to this hotel, to write in the dark and have a burger. Now it’s hard to write by this pool, although I am 20 feet from anyone. All of these skinny people here are from Los Angeles, escaping the grim realities of that city for a day or two. It’s hard to blame them. I am imagining them in six months, smashing store windows in Silver Lake for toilet paper and White Claws.
It’s hard to write this; I am worried for myself. I’m worried for my parents back in Massachusetts. Worried for the local economy. For my friends who work at bars, or own bars, or just work with the public at all.
My mind keeps going back to almost 10 years ago, when I was working at an outdoor bar in downtown Boston when the marathon bombing happened. Restaurant and bar managers were trying to make decisions on the fly as to whether they should close on the spot, or not. Everyone was looking suspiciously at strangers. Soon after, the governor and mayor told everyone to effectively shelter in place. We sat at home glued to the news, police scanners and social media.
That only ended up lasting a couple of days, and things got better. With California’s tourism-based economy, and this little desert realizing it has lost a desperately needed season, it’s hard to stay hopeful. We’d already lost a new bar, Glitch, in town before this hit, and many more are teetering as it is. I fear the landscape here is going to be bleak this summer. The labor crunch will be over, if there is a silver lining, as places go out of business and lay off workers. The corporate hospitality groups will feast on the remains, and I fear fast-casual brands will slide like hermit crabs into the dead shells of mom-and-pop places. Perhaps I am being too gloomy; a friend commented the other day that New Englanders panic better than anyone. Maybe this will all just blow over, and I will look like a Chicken Little. I certainly hope so.
Riding home, I have the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” in my head. I’ve got some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days.
Now it’s late Sunday night, and we’re with a small group of friends saying goodbye to a local bar that fills a lovely niche space in this town. It didn’t take long for the fallout to start.
I’ll see you on the other side. Cocktail of the month, straight shot of whiskey.
Kevin Carlow can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.