Leftovers: A long, strange trip indeed

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While I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Grateful Dead, the lyric “long, strange trip” from the band’s freak-flag anthem “Casey Jones” just sums up the past year.

With more unknown strangeness to come, volumes have been written about the changes we’ve been through thanks to the trifecta of COVID-19, the 2020 election, and the monumental Black Lives Matter movement. Sequels are already being written about what we’re going through now, and what we might face in the coming months. 

So, isn’t it less amusing and more appalling when we hear about people who still think COVID-19 is a hoax, or a man-made virus, or is simply a scamdemic? Believe it or not, vaccinated or not, and like it or not, we’re all still in it. 

Everything is different and no matter how slightly, almost everything has changed. For example, look at the workplace conundrum that has been all over the news. Some friends outside of the restaurant business have little or no desire to return to their offices.

“At the end of the week, I find I got more done than if I’d been in the office,” said Mark, a data analyst for a medical research company. “At first, I missed seeing the people at work and weekly happy hours, but I sure didn’t miss the commute. Now that I’m vaccinated, it’s going to be the best of both worlds. At least I hope.” 

Paula is an old server buddy-turned legal assistant who also cherishes her time at home. Like Mark, she previously accepted office life as a given and now wonders why.

“Everything in my field is encrypted and with the ability to get signatures with DocuSign, this has been a long time coming,” she said. “Unless you’re getting money or something, no one wants to go to a lawyer’s office anyway. But, knowing my boss and what we do, it’s doubtful I’ll get to keep working from home. But I’m going to negotiate at least a few days.”

Paula’s boss owns the historic Massachusetts building where his law firm and four other businesses are located.

“I know he’s concerned the tenant downstairs might opt to vacate,” she said. “We do mostly real estate, stuff like that, and one thing we’re already seeing are holes, openings in commercial leases. With the internet, a storefront shingle doesn’t mean as much after this past year.”

Still, Paula understood when I told her I have a colleague who dresses to the nines and fully embraces being in the office. She’s amazing at what she does, a poster child for positivity, and reinforces that for every variety of change brought about by the past year there are just as many coping responses to make things survivable. 

Further conversation about coping, survival, and normalcy led Paula and me to wonder how we’d feel if we were married, or had children living at home, or were furloughed, or worse. What would our lives be like then? Obviously, it’s an individual journey as much as a group trip. 

As for my friends in the restaurant business, most are eager to get back to work and many already are working again. One of them, Lucia, is a crackerjack bartender and server at an upscale spot in Falmouth.

“It’s been wonderful to be back,” she said. “People are really happy to get out and are eating and tipping well, too. This is going to be a great summer.”

She was forthcoming when asked about the hospitality staffing issue that always resurfaces in Portland this time of year: “It’s the back of the house where help is needed. It’s always that way but it is worse this year, I think.” 

That means dishdogs and line cooks may be harder than ever to hire. Have they accepted other jobs out of necessity? Are extended unemployment benefits keeping them on the couch? Did they move away?

Regardless, my dining companion and I were over the moon to be visiting Lucia, eating Damariscotta oysters, drinking wine, and enjoying the atmosphere. For one split second, I felt as if last year’s trifecta never happened. But the sight of a blue mask next to my wine glass reminded me that we’ve only turned a page, not finished the chapter. 

Working from home and the ramifications it brings is just one of a multitude of things to consider. Fewer prep cooks in an already tight market is another. As is coping, surviving, venturing out, and then taking off our masks to think about it. 

Bottom line? We’re still in it. We’re smack dab in the middle of the train tracks, the book we’re unknowingly writing, the collective trip we’re taking. As long and strange as it may be, hold tight. The station is somewhere around the bend.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].

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