The Week the Dream Sank

The Week the Dream Sank
San Francisco’s Sutro Tower Skyline Photo:Joan Summers

On Monday, my husband trudged into his former chef job at a somewhat swanky restaurant to pick up his last check, possibly ever. The two years he spent there on the line were the happiest of his life—stressful, but satisfying. He’d regale me each morning with all the recipes he’d tested, customers he’d served, bonds he’d formed. That’s all over now, of course. He likely won’t find another restaurant to work in for some time.

After he left, I sat on our porch, hoping that he’d call me and tell me they’d changed their mind or found some way to keep their doors open without laying off the entire staff. That didn’t happen. Eventually, he appeared on our now-empty street and we walked inside quietly. I took his hand, and he asked what I’d like for dinner. I could tell he’d been crying.

Like my husband, service workers across the Bay Area are experiencing mass layoffs, as restaurants frequented by affluent tech workers shutter their doors per county-wide lockdown edicts. Many of his friends who work around San Francisco as chefs have been told by management that the layoffs are “indefinite.” The San Francisco Chronicle already reports that coronavirus was the catalyst for mass layoffs in the restaurant industry. Nationwide, unemployment across the service industry has similarly surged.

His own chef has already informed him that there will be a hierarchy to any hire-backs. Not every laid-off employee has a job waiting for them at the end of the shutdown, if ever; depending on how long this drags on, many restaurants may never reopen. But this precarious existence—which seems to have surprised Bay Area business owners, considering the immediacy of layoffs—is nothing new for us or anyone we know, already accustomed to life on the fringes of San Francisco’s tech utopia. As landlords hike rent across the Bay Area and startups push increasingly exploitative forms of employment, you’re either reaping the benefits of this economic divide or being crushed under them.

The warning signs were clear, and still, he and I persisted, defying what seemed like a fate that was rapidly closing in.

Long before Salesforce Tower was erected and its techno-priests flooded the city with their religion of scale, San Francisco cast an entirely different shadow across my childhood imagination. I’d squirrel away in the living room while my parents slept to watch grainy videos on Youtube—then just a newborn—featuring drag performances at bars in the Castro. When I was 17, I lied to my parents about a late-night theater rehearsal and changed into my approximation of drag in the bathroom of a CalTrain, having stolen a wig from the “drama shed” and a PacSun dress from my sister. The conductor looked at me funny as I sat alone on the near-empty train, map printout clutched between fingers weighted down by costume jewelry. I called myself Phoebe and walked around San Francisco until I got lost. On the way back, a woman told me I should practice eyeshadow some more, and then laughed. At home, my mom asked how my rehearsal had went. I smiled and told her it went better than expected, eyeshadow notwithstanding.

My parents would contest the claim that I was “kicked out,” but there isn’t much interpretive wiggle room in telling your 18-year-old that their childhood home would close to them should they start shooting estrogen into their ass. And so I fled to somewhere that seemed safer, more welcoming to teens buying black-market estrogen off the internet and calling themselves “Joan.” I’ve now lived here for six years, but I would call it surviving. Or foraging, considering all the groceries I’ve stolen in the months when rent was short.

My first apartment was a closet in the back of a garage, a barely livable space the home’s owners had built to pad their upcoming retirement. If I stirred in the night their dog would bark, waking my landlords. In the morning I’d get a text: “Could you please be more discreet?” I worked the register at a popular grocery store chain down the street from my hovel, perhaps the busiest store in the city. I was also going to school, so I’d wake up each morning around 4 a.m., and hike up the hill to work. At noon, I’d change in the dingy bathroom into something less embarrassing than a grease-stained uniform and sleep through my first two classes. For dinner I’d eat popcorn, maybe a spoonful of peanut butter. I ignored the hunger pains, and the incessant dog scuttling, and the overly rude customers who’d order me to fill their Teslas with groceries. I was living in the best city in the world. I could die then, happy.

It didn’t take long for the dream to sour. I was injured frequently on the job, but our bosses kept our schedules just short of qualifying for benefits. Worker’s comp was an option, but I already didn’t make enough to both eat and pay rent. So I paid my rent and took long showers at school to soothe the aches in my back and shoulders. The company, meanwhile, insisted we were family. This wasn’t true, of course, but they believed it would instill in us a sense of camaraderie, so when hours were cut, or holiday pay was taken off the table, we could tell ourselves: “We’re doing this for the crew! For each other!” On Thanksgiving, when our pay was unchanged and lines of angry customers extended down the aisles, I’d hear coworkers call me by a long-dead name—my “legal name”—and laugh knowingly. I’d smile, because we were all in this together.

This is the only picture that exists of me from that time. Image:Joan Summers

I can’t remember when I first collapsed at work, hunger and sleeplessness overwhelming my desiccated body. The last time it happened was on a cash register, shortly after handing a woman her four cents in change and some bananas. Afterward, my health declined swiftly. I became irritable and somewhat irrational, crying and yelling for no reason. Later I learned these were symptoms of malnourishment, stress, and lack of sleep, but at the time, I couldn’t understand the changes coming over me. Coworkers began skirting widely around my register. Customers would approach my manager and mention I looked “sick.” At home, the dog upstairs kept me awake until it was time to go to work again.

After a few months, my manager finally called me into an abandoned room buried deep in the labyrinthine warehouse attached to our store. He told me, quite solemnly, that I was being let go “for my health.” I made my coworkers uncomfortable, and customers were beginning to take notice of my fatigue and irritability. “This is for your own good. You should take some time off, figure yourself out.” I remember crying, and the look on his face. He didn’t see a broken young girl in front of him. He saw a kink in our well-oiled family.

After graduating to poor grades and little fanfare, I moved into another closet on the opposite end of the city. I’d begun taking odd photography jobs which mostly involved tacky weddings with hundreds of people. I was always fed, squirreling away the leftovers in a Tupperware I’d stash in my lighting bag. I also took a part-time job at a startup, which I will simply describe as a place that made the wealthy wealthier. I met my husband at that job. On my first day, I showed up to a cavernous break room filled with stale, half-eaten bagels and some crusted cream cheese and quipped that considering what our jobs entailed, you’d think they’d offer more than bread as stale as a brick. Sitting with some other coworkers, he was the only one who laughed. I took to him immediately.

Bit by bit, I began to claw my way back to sanity. When I wasn’t sending flirtatious Slack messages to my now-husband, I was bypassing firewalls to binge-watch Desperate Housewives, or rolling joints in my car. And while the money was barely enough to live off of, it was more than I ever made at the grocery store. Things felt stable, predictable.

He wanted to work with his hands—tools and plants and food made sense to him.

On our first date, he invited me over to cook barbecue and pitched me an elaborate vision for his future. He wanted to work with his hands—tools and plants and food made sense to him. As the hot dogs cooked, he showed me the planting beds he’d built, and the old sewing machine he’d turned into a desk. I could smell vegetables grilling while he stacked the wood he’d foraged in the firepit he’d dug. Matt dreamed of building a sandwich shop, he told me; he’d live above it. On the roof, there’d be a garden. But mostly, he cared about the sandwiches. “Everyone needs a good, affordable sandwich.”

Our second date, or maybe our third. He always insisted on cooking. Image:Joan Summers

His excitement and wonder at the future filled me with warmth. I enjoyed being pressed up against someone—whether by circumstance or fate—who loved something so much it made them breathless and starry-eyed. So when he got the call, some six months after our first date, that a kitchen he’d been interning for on the weekend had a prep position opening up, I urged him to take it. It’d be a pay cut, but what use was there in ignoring your dream when the world would someday end? Better he spent what time there was in the kitchen than wasting away behind a computer

A few months into that new job his father died suddenly and unexpectedly, while on vacation with my husband in Europe. I got the call while high in the mountains around Palm Desert on a vacation of my own, floating in a pool after downing too much LSD and sangria. He had been crying and could barely choke out the details. I later learned I was the second call he made; the first had been to his head chef. In the throes of grief and shock, he was terrified of losing his job.

Exactly 12 hours after his father’s funeral service, Matt walked into the restaurant and worked an 11-hour shift. The next day he did the same.

Last week, he came home hours earlier than expected, because business was slow and the restaurant was cutting hours. Across the Bay Area, restaurants primarily catering to sit-in diners were experiencing similar slowdowns. I was afraid because I could see how it would end, even if I wasn’t yet brave enough to say it out loud. And then, I didn’t have too. A few days later, his schedule was axed entirely. On Monday, he went to pick up his last check, hoping for a last-minute miracle. The only person working was the head chef. The restaurant itself was closed, the only other inhabitant its owner, who said goodbye to my husband and sped off in his shiny, pristine BMW to deliver takeout.

Exactly 12 hours after his father’s funeral service, Matt worked an 11-hour shift.

For six years, he and I have pieced together a salvaged existence. I stole more groceries than I bought, sold more of my own belongings than I can remember. There’s been a perpetual red minus sign in either his bank account or mine. And still, he and I held on, believing in that fickle fantasy of this city. Just this morning, my husband confessed to me that he’d go back if he could. He’d forget how callously he and all of his coworkers were dismissed. He wants to feel fulfilled, and useful, and he wants to feed people, to watch as they try something new for the first time. I’m sure he’s not alone in the sentiment.

The wildflowers that bloom in our yard came up early this year, defying the natural order. As I sit here, I can already see them wilting under the unseasonably harsh sunlight. In a few weeks, we will pack what little belongings we have and move in with his mom. There is no conceivable way for either of us to maintain the apartment we live in. Our landlords want to keep increasing the rent, and there’s little hope he will find a new work as a chef amid mass layoff. I’ll cry, as we pack up the U-Haul, but those tears will have to dry quickly. It isn’t just the Bay Area that’s untenable—it’s everywhere.

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