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  1. Narratives

Without a job, endless days of waiting and worry

St. Petersburg waitress wondered how she’d make do after her restaurant closed. Then she wondered if she could return.

On her last day of work, after that lunch shift when no customers came, Allison Harris ducked into the bakery, played a punk song on her phone and danced.

A friend joined her: feet kicking, arms pumping, heads bobbing until they were exhausted.

Allison wasn’t sure why. She just wanted to — needed to.

“Maybe,” she said later, “I was trying to dance away my fear.”

For weeks, she had seen it coming. Eateries in Seattle, San Francisco and New York had shut down because of the coronavirus. Business in Tampa Bay had been dwindling. The St. Petersburg restaurant where she waited tables, Baba, had gone to take-out only.

Then that day, March 19, the owners decided to close.

Allison is 40 and has worked in food service for more than half her life. She lives paycheck to paycheck and had no savings. Just $524.

She had no idea how long she would be out of work. She didn’t know how she would pay rent on her one-bedroom apartment. Or how she would feed her kids. If she couldn’t serve people, who would she be?

“I don’t want to lose everything,” she told her friend, after they carried all the tables inside. “I have to have hope that we’ll be back here soon, feeding people and smiling.”

***

Allison grew up in Tampa Bay, and most of her memories are of food. Steamed shrimp and Shirley Temples at her grandparents’ eatery on the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Stone crabs her dad sold to fish houses. Gnocchi her stepdad made at his Italian restaurant while she sat on the kitchen counter watching.

At 16, she got her first job, plating desserts at a coffee shop. The next year, she became a hostess at a seafood restaurant. After high school, she waited tables to pay for classes at St. Petersburg College.

She was studying to be a nurse but got pregnant at 19 and dropped out. Waiting tables allowed her to be with her daughter all day. After her husband got home, she went to work at night, nurturing strangers.

“I have the personality for it,” she said. “I’m an extroverted introvert. I love talking to people, making them feel special.”

Allison has that rare combination of being a good listener and good conversationalist. She is empathetic and down-to-earth. Her hazel eyes match her long hair. Her earrings always are works of art.

Over the years, she learned how to juggle hot plates and customers’ complaints, how to mix cocktails and recommend wine. She figured out when to jump into conversations, when to quietly fill water glasses. She knew when first dates were going well and marriages were falling apart.

She worked at Bella Brava, Peg’s Cantina, Annata wine bar. Everywhere she served, regulars became friends. She sang to them on their birthdays, watched their kids grow up, met their relatives when they came to town.

“Food is a romantic business,” she said. “It brings together people with the least in common and gives them something to connect to. I nourish people’s bodies and love taking care of them. I have a beautiful job. It’s become who I am.”

A mother. A Pisces. A server. That’s how Allison describes herself. Her oldest daughter, Mya, 21, works at a law firm, lives with a friend. Her middle child, 17, lives with her dad. Allison and her ex-husband share custody of their son, Otto, 9.

Allison fills her Facebook page with ethereal photos she takes, mostly waves and sky. She also shoots food portraits for Baba, the Mediterreanean restaurant on Central Avenue where she works, and its sister eatery, Bodega, and runs the restaurants’ social media accounts.

Most of Allison’s friends work in food service. The rest eat out all the time. She couldn’t imagine a world without restaurants.

Then, around the globe, the coronavirus shut down everything — and so quickly.

Allison’s bosses let employees take home yogurt, beets, feta, apples, eggs, potatoes — even wine. That night, no one wanted to leave. The next day, she wrote on Facebook: “I have tons of beans! Let’s share a meal. … If you’re lonely, reach out. This is going to be a hard time for all of us.”

She tried to apply for unemployment but couldn’t get through on the phone, and the website kept logging her out. Every day, for a week, she stayed on hold for up to three hours. None of her friends could get through.

Then Pinellas County officials told everyone to stay home. So Allison sat in her little apartment with her cat, Leonard Cohen, and posted grim numbers: In March, more than 3 million restaurant workers across the country lost their jobs. Florida’s Restaurant & Lodging Association reported 598,000 people had been laid off — more than half of the industry’s workforce.

Allison had enough food to feed herself and Otto for two weeks. Surely by then, she thought, restaurants would re-open.

WEEK 3

Otto didn’t feel like adding fractions. One morning in early April, three weeks after Allison stopped working, the fourth-grader sat at a table, wearing a Sonic the Hedgehog onesie and red headphones, staring at the laptop Perkins Elementary had given him.

“Are you doing all right? Do you need something to drink?” Allison asked. He didn’t reply. She couldn’t tell if he didn’t hear or was ignoring her.

Like so many other parents, while schools were shut down, her kitchen had become her son’s classroom. Every morning, after breakfast, she moved the basket of fruit onto the counter and set out paper, pencil, crayons and scissors.

Allison Harris checks in on her son, 9-year-old Otto Nowicki, as he works on a school assignment in their kitchen. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Otto made a witch for art class, with sticks he gathered from the yard. He watched a Spanish video and tried to repeat the new words. In gym class, he did jumping jacks beside the refrigerator. Some teachers recorded lessons. Others had live sessions. Allison cooked while he worked.

“Put down the cat. It’s not time for Legos. Remember, you’re in school now,” she kept saying. He was so used to playing at home, eating in the kitchen.

“I can’t believe Game Stop is closed,” he told his mom after math. “Why can’t we get a blow-up pool?”

She loved having him home, but it was tough keeping him on track and entertained. He hadn’t been around another kid his age in nearly a month. They took long walks at twilight through their Old Northeast neighborhood, rode scooters around Round Lake, stared at the stars. Against her better judgment, she let him play Pokemon GO. “It’s the pandemic,” he pleaded. “If not now, when?”

He told her he was scared of dying. What if he caught it? What if she did? Kids don’t die from the coronavirus, she told him — though she wasn’t sure that was true. But when he didn’t wash his hands long enough, she snapped. She couldn’t tell him she was terrified, too.

They left their shoes outside the door. She mopped the apartment every day.

Every night, she made something new for dinner. When she worked nights, she seldom cooked supper. Now she was experimenting with things she had never tried, using what ingredients she had.

She made beef stroganoff, bone marrow stock, pork roast, split pea soup, stuffed artichokes. She juiced peaches and cantaloupes, baked banana bread. Otto kept complaining, “I miss French fries.”

“I do, too,” Allison said. But she didn’t have money for fast food or gas to drive there.

She had $160 left in the bank. She owed $900 for April’s rent, $100 for electricity, $137 for her phone, $76 for internet — and she still had $6,000 to pay on her Kia.

Her landlord had promised if she couldn’t make rent, he wouldn’t kick her out. The power company said they wouldn’t shut off her utilities. But she knew she would have to pay those bills some day and hated getting behind. As long as she was in isolation, she needed her cell and Wi-Fi more than ever, so she’d pay those bills first, as soon as she could.

She called unemployment repeatedly, one day 200 times, even called her state representative. Still no word. She’d never been out of work for so long, never had to ask for help. She finally swallowed her pride and signed up for food stamps, $331 a month.

Some of her co-workers had gotten jobs at Trader Joe’s and DoorDash. Allison was too worried about exposing herself and her family to strangers. Besides, she kept telling herself and her friends, we’ll be opening again soon. “This will pass,” she said.

When Otto was with her, days flew by. When he was with his dad, they lasted forever. Allison rode her bike across the county, to see the closed beaches. She framed family photos, watched Tiger King, re-read One Hundred Years of Solitude. On Facebook, she quoted the author, Gabriel García Márquez: “Time was not passing … It was turning in a circle.”

On sunny afternoons, she sat on her porch, potting plants, waiting for the masked mailman, waving to joggers. It was comforting, just seeing other people outside.

She worried about her co-workers, the chef, the dishwasher, the other servers, the guys that delivered meat and produce. How were they getting by? She worried about her parents. They were in their 60s, not in the best of health. She missed talking to grown-ups. Missed taking care of people. Missed sleeping through the night.

After work, she had always been so exhausted she had fallen straight into bed. Now, the dark was too quiet. Her head throbbed with questions:

When will this end? Will things go back to normal? What if dine-in restaurants can’t ever re-open? What if they do, but people are too scared to eat out?

WEEK 5

There’s this fund, a friend told her, through the city of St. Petersburg. People who lost their jobs because of the coronavirus can apply for a $500 grant. Small business owners can get as much as $5,000.

“That would be huge!” Allison said.

She called the mayor’s office in late April. She called her bosses and told them to apply.

George and Deb Sayegh didn’t want to shutter their three restaurants. “I kept thinking, ‘They can’t tell people to close their business, can they?’ ” he said. “Then they did. Even while it was happening, I didn’t think it could happen.”

Baba is their fine dining restaurant, which opened last summer. Seven years ago, they started Bodega on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, then added another Bodega in Seminole Heights.

“We let 60 people go between the three restaurants. Many had been with us since we opened,” George said. “It was awful having to make a decision that affected so many employees. But people were getting uncomfortable, staff and customers. I needed to protect them.”

He was sure his workers would get unemployment. But so many weeks passed, and no one got a check. “If I had known it would take this long, I would have kept open the take-out.”

That week, he texted a survey to his employees: Would they feel comfortable coming back to work? If so, when? If not, would they come back anyway?

Most said they didn’t feel safe. But 62 percent said they would come back because they needed the money.

“We’d have to change a lot. Find face masks. Figure out an online ordering system,” George said.

They didn’t get the Fighting Chance Fund, he told Allison. Baba hadn’t been around long enough to qualify. Bodega was too big.

He had applied for payroll protection, a small business loan, rent forgiveness — but hadn’t heard anything. When he asked his insurance agent about coverage for losses during the coronavirus, the guy laughed.

“Whatever we decide to do,” George told Allison, “we’ll need you back.”

WEEK 6

Whenever Allison’s cell rang, she answered. She used to let all calls go to voicemail, but by the end of April, she was so starved for conversation, she would talk to anyone. Even spammers.

“Depressed. Stir-crazy. Super lonely,” she said, when someone asked how she was doing.

She knew she was lucky. She was grateful to have family, her health, a safe place to live, some chicken left in the fridge. She tried to dwell on the positives: A customer had mailed her a $500 check, another left $100 for her at the restaurant. That covered her phone and internet bills. When her $1,200 stimulus check came, she paid her rent.

One Friday, she hosted a Zoom cocktail hour for her co-workers. The next day, she called the dishwasher to check in. She texted her daughters. Went kayaking at Weedon Island. Stopped by Baba’s garden to take pictures of new bean sprouts. She tried to make zucchini bread but was out of flour.

Finally, she strapped on a mask and called her mom. She was going to brave the grocery store. What could she get her?

Allison Harris' selfie on her way to Publix. [Courtesy of Allison Harris]

People at Publix eyed everyone suspiciously, shied away from each other. Allison hurried through the one-way aisles, anxious to get out of there. At the check-out, she used her food stamps and tried not to be ashamed.

When she got home, she washed her tote bag, disinfected her debit card, took a shower. Her worries over money had turned to terror about the virus.

If the restaurant re-opened, would she go back?

Her kids were scared. Should she put them, or her parents, at risk? Should she look for another job, something safer, where she’d come in contact with fewer people?

She kept trying to picture herself doing other work, leaving restaurants behind. But she couldn’t think of anything else that would give her that sense of purpose. When her boss called, she knew what she had to do.

WEEK 8

On her first day back at work, before the customers started coming, Allison walked past the bakery to the garden and picked an orange flower to garnish the mushroom risotto.

Her friend — the one she’d danced with — joined her. “That was scary,” said Dominic Soto, 20. “I thought we’d go under.”

Allison wanted to — needed to hug him.

But she pulled on her mask printed with Raggedy Anns and stayed away.

“I can’t wait to get back and take care of people,” she said. “I really missed this.”

Allison Harris prepares to start her shift on Friday, May 8. She was both nervous and relieved to be getting back to work. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

While Allison had been in her apartment, Dominic had spent quarantine in Ocala, with his sister and her 5-year-old daughter. He had seldom left the house and had dressed “way too many Barbies” with his niece. He was glad to be back to work, worried to be back out in the world. “I didn’t think so many people would be out here this quick,” he told Allison, watching folks stroll and bike along the sidewalk.

That Friday, May 8, Allison and Dominic had gotten to Baba early to pull tables onto the patio, spaced 6 feet apart. Allison disinfected chairs, wiped door handles, set out pots of daffodils.

The owners were reopening only for to-go orders and outside dining. They had moved the hostess stand to block the entrance; printed disposable menus; traded cloth napkins for paper. And they amended the menu, adapting for ingredients suppliers no longer had.

“It’s going to be weird talking to people with a mask on,” Allison told Deb just before 5 p.m. “I’ll have to project, be theatrical. Tonight, they’re going to get dinner and a show.”

As Allison tied a white apron over her T-shirt, Deb leaned in and touched a purple thermometer to her forehead. “Okay,” she told Allison. “You’re good.”

“I’m a little nervous. Actually, a lot,” Allison admitted. “But I have no other choice. This is what I do. This is who I am.”

A couple came in, wearing matching masks, asking how clean the kitchen was, whether the chef wore gloves. They ordered to-go entrees and waited by the street. Then another couple sat down. “Hi! I’m Allison and I’m here to take care of you,” she said. “Are you ready for wine?”

Three friends soon joined the couple, ordered two bottles of Pinot Grigio, a hummus appetizer, lamb chops, orzo and a new pasta entree. “I’m sick of the lockdown. Sick of being afraid,” said Michael Littlefield, 59. “Time to open the economy and support our small businesses.”

Allison Harris refrains from hugging the regulars on the first day back. "I really like to hug my friends and customers that I've known forever, so that's huge for me." [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]

Her next table came in at 6 p.m.: A 30-something couple, the man in a blue blazer, the woman in stiletto sandals. Allison always waited on their Friday date nights. “How are you? I’m so happy to see you!” she said, walking over.

After two months, her world suddenly started to seem -- not the same as it was -- but at least familiar.

“It’s good to be out again,” said the man. “I starved myself today.”

Allison leaned in, then stopped and stepped back. “Wait,” she said. She pulled down her mask. “I have to smile at you.”

• • •

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