Editor’s Note: Ainslee Dicken is an intern at Portland Monthly, a full-time college student, and, until the latest freeze, a server at Carina Lounge in Northwest Portland.
I was hired for my first real serving job at the age of 19. It was 2010, I had just moved to Manhattan, and had no real experience besides making coffee and pressing paninis.
So I lied, making my Italian café gig in Bridgeport Village the year prior sound like a Michelin Star restaurant. They brought me on.
Two weeks later, my manager said, “So, you had no experience, huh?”
What was it that gave it away? Despite my dishonesty, they kept me on. I was a hard worker and a people person. That place was called Bridge Cafe, an establishment built in 1794 that was a brothel and liquor house in the late 19th century. It was reportedly haunted, and it was where I learned the foundations of a skillset that’s paid my rent for the past decade.
Bridge Cafe was taken down by Hurricane Sandy during my last year in NYC, and it hasn’t reopened. My three years in New York included stints as a barista, a fit model, and a waitress at a couple different establishments. The modeling didn’t last, but the waitressing did.
The thing about serving is, despite where you are in the world, you immediately find a family. Every restaurant I’ve worked at, whether it be Palo Alto, Manhattan, Vegas, or Portland, has one thing in common: a chaotic bunch of misfits. It is wild, it is fast, it is dramatic, and it is reliable.
Or, it was.
2019 was one of the best years of my life. I got hired at a fine dining Italian place in Lake Oswego, and I met wonderful people, including my long-term boyfriend. I was maintaining a 3.9 GPA at my college. I finished Invisalign treatment near the end of the year, so, for the first time in my life I had straight teeth (ironic, since no one has seen them since March). Heck, I just mastered the use of my Instant Pot. Everything felt on track.
So, when talk began trickling in of this overseas virus, I brushed it off. Didn’t everyone? Flu, schmu. Some of us will get it, some of us won’t. Plus, (knock on wood) I never get sick.
But then the stay-at-home orders came down, and suddenly I was working the last shift at my restaurant. Monday, March 16. That shift felt like a dream. It was just me and the bartender, and we expected no one to come in. Instead, what felt like all of Lake Oswego came out in support. Neither we nor our customers wore masks; that wasn’t really a thing yet. The owners came in with their own crew and drank late into the night, and we were sent home with care packages ... and a lot of cash.
Great, I thought. I can focus on school until we reopen. Do some home workouts. No problem.
I think I filed for unemployment the day before the shutdown. Or the day after. About the same time as the thousands of other servers in the Portland metro area, anyway. Only, I hit a wrong button. Or marked something incorrectly. Or didn’t mark something at all? My unemployment never came, even as my coworkers started receiving their Bank of America debit cards.
By the end of April, my lease ended for my two-bedroom in Lake Oswego. My plan was to move into a “tiny house” owned by a coworker in West Linn. We had agreed to pay a half month’s rent for the first two months due to the stall in my unemployment.
Halfway through May, my coworker realized she needed the full amount, or she couldn’t make her mortgage payment. I panicked and decided to get a minimum wage (plus hazard pay) job at a local grocery store—eight-hour shifts, long lines of irate customers, and I hated every minute of it. I cried on the phone to my mom a lot during this time, not ashamed to admit it. She convinced me to leave the job I loathed and move to Phoenix, where she and my stepdad live.
Walking out of that awful grocery store on my last day, I remember praying to whoever controlled the sky, “Please, let me be part of a restaurant family again. Promise me that phase of my life is not over, and that I’ll get to experience that feeling of joy and belonging once more.”
But Phoenix didn’t take—I lasted two weeks and came back up to Portland, only to find that my former restaurant in Lake Oswego was up and running and fully staffed. So, I was jobless, and my unemployment still hadn’t come for the weeks I qualified.
This time I had gotten over my self-pity and was determined to turn my situation around. This was mid-June, so I signed up for summer classes and started job hunting. Within a week I found Carina Lounge, co-owned by Peter Kost, former owner of Lucy’s Table.
The restaurant industry around the world was relearning what it meant to be in business. We worked outside, we worked in masks, and we melted our hands with alcohol spray. I learned what it felt like to have upper lip sweat for seven hours straight.
My coworkers and I were carrying dishes from the kitchen, across the restaurant, out the front door, and across our parking lot, where a giant carport tent the owner borrowed from his brother had been set up to create makeshift patio dining. Forgot a side of aioli? Back on the PCT trail with you, see you in 1,000 steps. According to my step counter, we were logging upwards of 20,000 a shift. It was fabulous. Part of my love of serving involves the physical aspect of it. You get paid to move.
Another upside (I say with sarcasm, though I do really love forced workouts) was that we essentially built our patio at the beginning of every shift and tore it down at the end. Imagine three petite girls lugging 15 tables out in the midday heat, and then lugging them in in the cooler air of 10 p.m. It was hard work, and I was so grateful to be doing it.
(I’d also like to give a shoutout to the owner of my restaurant, Peter Kost, for his perseverance, ingenuity, and constant hard work alongside us. For every new obstacle that arose, he tackled it with never-ending problem solving, never-ending determination to create a safe place for his customers to dine.)
We had six weeks of our new normal. Then, literally overnight, a thick cloud of smoke descended over Portland, and every restaurant doing outdoor dining was temporarily shut down. For 11 days, restaurant owners lost money just waiting the air out. I got REALLY caught up on school. And did a lot of puzzles. And spent a lot of time on my couch. We had a meeting during that smoky week where we talked about the possibility of indoor dining. Our space was small, and it would take a lot of precaution. Even with proper spacing, we had customers who flat out would not dine inside. I didn’t blame them.
After the smoke cleared, the weather turned, fast. We implemented indoor dining more quickly than we had planned. After finding a rhythm with our patio, we had to relearn how to be safe indoors.
September 23 was my first shift serving indoors since that fateful day in March. It felt strange, but so normal at the same time. We started putting signs on all tables asking customers to please wear masks when interacting with staff. Some read the signs and cooperated. Some read them and didn’t. Some didn’t read them at all. It was a risky game we all played. Every day, clocking in, could be the day we get sick. My hands were permanently dry from all the alcohol spray and handwashing. We sprayed trays after every use. We slowly got into the swing of things, again, and for another seven weeks, things were tentatively OK. (Saying “tentatively OK” in 2020 is the equivalent of saying “absolutely wonderful” any other year.)
On Friday, November 13 (oh, the irony!), Oregon Gov. Kate Brown held a press conference. We had just begun heeding her “pause” effect two days before and had to maintain a maximum of 50 bodies in the restaurant, waitstaff and kitchen included.
What else could she possibly have to say? I alerted my coworkers, and we all waited patiently to hear what new rules fate had in store for us. Before Brown even entered her conference, a spokesperson announced, “She’d like me to inform everyone that there will be a two-week freeze for Oregon, with restaurants going to take-out only, and fitness centers closing.”
Holy fuck, I thought, and immediately texted my coworkers in our group chat.
“Did you guys hear that?”
“What do we do?”
“No idea. Should we file for unemployment?”
Another two weeks without work. This year was proving to be an impossible one to plan ahead.
The press conference continued, and Brown added that Multnomah County would be freezing for a month.
JFC. I immediately thought of my boss, and my heart went out to him.
The group text lit up.
“Are you fucking kidding me?!”
“What if unemployment gets back logged again?”
“Is that rent moratorium still a thing?”
So, with heavy hearts all around and another shift that felt like a dream, my coworkers and I worked the restaurant’s last day, Sunday, November 15.
Loyal customers came in to show support, just like in March. Other servers came in from neighboring restaurants, talking about how they had just worked their last shift the night before. It was a solemn camaraderie. A city with thousands of jobless, yet again.
I understand it’s inevitable.
I understand it’s for the greater good.
It doesn’t make the impact any less threatening to my livelihood or mental wellbeing.
I’m not angry at Gov. Brown. Or the virus. I’m angry at the world. At our lack of cooperation. At the anger and hate that’s been spewing amidst this sickness. As if a divide and dislike of each other will ensure our immunity.
The reality is, I’ve just been laid off for the second time this year (third if you count the two-week “break” when our AQI was the highest in the world) due to circumstances out of my control. It feels as though I’ve time traveled to March, except things are different. For one, I’m more jaded. Brown says we’ll reassess mid-December. What does that mean to me? That I won’t be going back to work in 2020.
In March, we shutdown with the gleaming hope of a phased reopening. Since that first reopen, Multnomah County never made it past Phase 1. We forgot that we were even supposed to progress.
But unlike March, we don't have any federal help this time around. We are not acting under federal rule. We are acting to save Oregon. I understand that the spike in cases means a shutdown was inevitable. I also understand that restaurants are probably part of the problem, though I’ve been thoroughly impressed at the precautions taken and the obedience of our customers.
But independent restaurants are the backbone of Portland. What does that mean for the people who have worked so hard to own these places, and the thousands of kitchen and wait staff who turn their dreams into reality?
I listened to a podcast this morning with David Chang, renowned restaurateur and owner of Momofuku. He was asked what the fate of restaurants would be post-pandemic. He sighed, and said, “I’ve been asked this before, and I believe I’m right. I wish I weren’t right, but I think I am. By the time we’re done with this, I believe 90 percent of independently owned restaurants will be permanently closed.”
This industry has been a rock for me. I have been a part of many families all over the country, met amazing people, and learned under wonderful managers. I’ve perfected wine service and learned to pronounce things in French. I can read tables like a licensed psychiatrist, multitask to an eerie level, laugh in the face of chaos, and thoroughly enjoy the nightmare of working on holidays. The restaurant industry is a beautiful, messy thing, and I pray it never goes away.
I pray that David Chang is very, very wrong.
As for me, I’ll be OK. I’ve learned to be frugal over the years. I’ll get really far ahead in school again and focus on my internship. I’ll do three puzzles at once. I’ll put a thousand miles on my dinky stationary bike. I’ll brave the frigid weather to go on walks occasionally, so I don’t murder my boyfriend (he’s also out of work, now). And I’ll greatly look forward to the day where my mask wardrobe will be a dusty relic.
As a final note, please support your local restaurants! Owners are at a loss right now. There’re no more loans, so instead of being able to pay us to come in and help with the takeout operation, my boss will be manning it by himself, seven days a week.
Local restaurant owners are on the brink of losing everything they’ve ever worked for. Let’s rally to their aid.