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When Coronavirus Takes Your Livelihood 5 min read

When Coronavirus Takes Your Livelihood

For many, losing a business and career is akin to losing life itself. But one NYC restaurateur shows it would be a mistake to equate the two.

By Cary Littlejohn
When Coronavirus Takes Your Livelihood Post image

I’ve spent a lot of time during this pandemic feeling sorry for myself and those similarly situated. By that, I mean journalists and media organizations. Emails continue to roll in saying some form of “We’re no longer hiring for this position” or “We’ve placed a temporary freeze on all hiring.” My Twitter timeline is full of deeply sad stories from recently fired journalists, often veterans of a publication and just stunned by what happened. Debates raged over whether newspapers could afford to run their coronavirus coverage for free: Was it a moral necessity? Could we blame them if they refused for financial reasons? There’s no way to sugarcoat it: It’s been bleak. I try to think positive thoughts, but I fail more often than I succeed. But a recent story about a restaurant, of all things, written by its owner and head chef, of all people, gave me a moment of clarity, and I gave myself over to positive thinking.

My reality is that the coronavirus pandemic, much like the Great Recession, affected my beginnings. Back in Great Recession, my friends and I were just graduating college. Tough times, for sure. One friend made real to me the reasoning behind universities’ statistics of “percentage of graduates employed within nine months”: It took him almost exactly that much time to find a job. I dodged that particular bullet by taking another; I went to law school and would be among the first classes to graduate into a legal market reshaped by the global downturn in business of all kinds. I reminisced with a law school friend recently about how much those years in law school were plagued by uncertainty; we didn’t know much about the legal world, but we knew enough to realize it had changed right before we entered it. Every stroke of  good fortune for one of your classmates felt complicated, like a mini-betrayal, the ultimate zero-sum game.

My current situation doesn’t feel that different, as I occupy some weird limbo space between journalist and not. I wasn’t laid off due to the virus, but it’s undeniably affecting me in the job market. I’m a recent graduate of the world’s oldest journalism school, but many of the jobs I’m applying to are now being applied to by veteran journalists just let go from whatever outlet that couldn’t afford them anymore.

I mentioned positivity, right? Where’s that part of the story? And how did an article about a restaurant and its chef inspire such positive thoughts? Well, the wait is over, and if you have been online in the past three days, you’ve likely already seen and read this beautifully written love story.

Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune in New York’s East Village, penned this remarkable essay for The New York Times Magazine shortly after she had to shut down her restaurant after 20 years in business. Prune was not just any restaurant; it’s a four-time James Beard Award-winner. What I learned from Hamilton – that in many ways the restaurant industry was just as beleaguered and imperiled as modern media industry – was not altogether surprising. I waited tables during grad school, and the food service industry can be brutal. But what Hamilton’s sublime prose did for me was reorient my perspective on the pandemic and career interference.

I fight self-pity for such rotten luck, to graduate into a booming economy that, unbeknownst to us, was on its last leg, to be pursuing a career in journalism at a time that even a booming economy can’t really save. But like I said earlier: This is my beginning. Hamilton’s loss (and countless others like her) represents something different; it’s not a bumpy start, but an ground-shaking upheaval of the status quo. She’s established. She’s grown. She’s won awards. She turned her passion into a business, where others look up to her and rely on her. There are mid-career and veteran journalists right now that are just as jobless as I am, but that reality represents the loss of something far greater than I’ve ever known in the profession. And while it undoubtedly sucks for me right now, I can’t imagine what it feels like for those folks. Like many journalists, Hamilton doesn’t wield the blunt instrument of coronavirus as the genesis for all her industry’s troubles; it merely stressed a system that, for various cultural reasons, was already in decline:

The concerns before coronavirus are still universal: The restaurant as we know it is no longer viable on its own. You can’t have tipped employees making $45 an hour while line cooks make $15. You can’t buy a $3 can of cheap beer at a dive bar in the East Village if the “dive bar” is actually paying $18,000 a month in rent, $30,000 a month in payroll; it would have to cost $10. I can’t keep hosing down the sauté corner myself just to have enough money to repair the ripped awning. Prune is in the East Village because I’ve lived in the East Village for more than 30 years. I moved here because it was where you could get an apartment for $450 a month. In 1999, when I opened Prune, I still woke each morning to roosters crowing from the rooftop of the tenement building down the block, which is now a steel-and-glass tower. A less-than-500-square-foot studio apartment rents for $3,810 a month.

As with journalism’s decline, I feel Hamilton take true aim at evils closely associated with a way of life my generation made normal:

And God, the brunch, the brunch. The phone hauled out for every single pancake and every single Bloody Mary to be photographed and Instagrammed. That guy who strolls in and won’t remove his sunglasses as he holds up two fingers at my hostess without saying a word: He wants a table for two. The purebred lap dogs now passed off as service animals to calm the anxieties that might arise from eating eggs Benedict on a Sunday afternoon. I want the girl who called the first day of our mandated shut down to call back, in however many months when restaurants are allowed to reopen, so I can tell her with delight and sincerity: No. We are not open for brunch. There is no more brunch.

But more than anything, my perspective was shaped by Hamilton’s; it was clear-eyed, honest, saddened but not panicked, reprioritized, I’m sure, by the chaos unfolding around her:

I have been shuttered before. With no help from the government, Prune has survived 9/11, the blackout, Hurricane Sandy, the recession, months of a city water-main replacement, online reservations systems — you still have to call us on the telephone, and we still use a pencil and paper to take reservations! We’ve survived the tyranny of convenience culture and the invasion of Caviar, Seamless and Grubhub. So I’m going to let the restaurant sleep, like the beauty she is, shallow breathing, dormant. Bills unpaid. And see what she looks like when she wakes up — so well rested, young all over again, in a city that may no longer recognize her, want her or need her.

Read the entire essay here:

My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore? | The New York Times Magazine

Or, in the spirit of one of last week’s recommendations, you could always listen to the story, as yesterday’s The Sunday Read was Hamilton’s essay.

The Sunday Read | Closing The Restaurant That Was My Life for 20 Years

Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Pocket Casts

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