Thursday, April 29, 2021

Fit to Rejoin Society?

Ernest T. Bass isn't the timeliest reference, I'll admit. For those not in the know, he's a tertiary character from the Andy Griffith Show.  

Over the past 14 months or so, I’ve tried to keep the pandemic talk, or rather bemoaning the realities of living through a pandemic to a minimum. With my travel and restaurant-based writing prompts suddenly limited, I figured my role in the ongoing crisis was to provide a distraction from the world with what little motivation to write that I had. The last thing my loyal readers needed was a year’s worth of “Woe is me!” blog posts from an objectively privileged perspective, so I hunkered down and tried to write and post something silly once a month or so to give anyone reading a brief moment of diversion, if not happiness. 

I’ve been called a loner, hermit, and recluse more times than I care to admit, but I prefer to think of myself as an “Extreme introvert.” As such, I was well-suited for the lifestyle we all suddenly had to adopt late last winter. The only person I saw regularly was my partner, Esmeralda Fitzmonster. I was able to do my day job 95% from home. All my shopping was done online, and necessities were delivered to my door or loaded in the back of my car by the essential workers who were doing well more than their fair share of work to keep society functioning. The only pieces of my old life I really missed were road trips and restaurants, two pastimes that had given me quite a bit of joy since long before I started my ridiculous blog about endangered chain restaurants. 

March 10, 2020 was the last time I ate in a restaurant that I can recall. I gave up shopping for groceries in stores sometime last summer. My distaste for small talk led me to begin cutting my own hair long before DIY grooming became a pandemic-driven necessity, and not having to work daily in an office environment meant I could grow a majestic mullet and beard. (I stopped shaving around the same time I stopped going into grocery stores.) In short, I had gone full Howard Hughes, and my newfound levels of reclusiveness might have spiraled into a Grey Gardens scenario had Esmeralda not been around to remind me to bathe and help her clean up around the house occasionally. I share these details, not because I think I’m unique in these experiences. We’ve all had a long year of uncertainty, sweat pants, and sourdough. Instead, I’m discussing the weirdest year of my life because I now find myself in a time of transition that countless others are also in or will soon be, and my dumb blog feels like as good a place as any to process my feelings. 

As of this week, I am considered fully vaccinated per the CDC’s guidelines, and I find myself consulting the imaginary parole board that lives in my brain to determine if I’m fit to rejoin society. In the time in between my first and second shots, questions of what I could and couldn’t do safely in a few weeks time monopolized my thoughts during my free moments, and I had serious concerns about my ability to conduct myself appropriately in civilized society. I wasn’t sure I still possessed the ability to interact with people out in the world. I was more than a little concerned I’d run around throwing rocks at windows and laughing giddily like Ernest T. Bass the second I tried to venture back out into the world. 

After a great deal of consideration, I concluded that it would be safe, ethical, and honorable for me to start doing my own grocery shopping in-store, eating in restaurants, and traveling domestically again once I had obtained the prerequisite antibodies. My thought process was that as essential workers, anyone I encountered working in a restaurant, hotel, or retail store has very likely at least had the opportunity to be vaccinated, and any other customers I encountered were there by choice whether they were vaccinated or not. Coupled with my strict adherence to masking up to protect those around me and the preliminary indications that it is more difficult for vaccinated people to be carriers, I concluded that I could resume something resembling my old pre-pandemic hobby of seeking out and visiting the surviving locations of broken chains. My body was ready, but was my brain?

I decided to start out slowly only yesterday, with a trip to my favorite local big box store for my first in-store grocery run in nearly a year. I’ll spare you the mundane details of exactly what went down, but the shopping trip didn’t go as well as I had hoped, and I was probably at least 51% to blame. Thankfully, no rocks were thrown by me or anyone else, and I made a promise to myself that I’d get right back on the proverbial horse and ride it to a restaurant with the intention of dining in. 

Carving beef since 1957

Today, I made good on that promise and had a late lunch/early dinner in Royal Oak, Michigan at the last operating Sign of the Beefcarver, the sole remaining holdout of a chain of roast beef-focused cafeterias that once had around 20 locations in and around Detroit and Chicago. Thorough Broken Chains readers will recall I visited and wrote about them in the early days of this blog. Given their broken chain status, Sign of the Beefcarver seemed a fitting place to dip my toe back into the figurative au jus of being a fully-functional member of society, but I felt no small amount of trepidation about dining in for the first time in over a year. Would I say or do something rude, offensive, or illegal like literally dipping my literal toe in the literal au jus? Would eating somewhere other than my house or car feel completely foreign to me? Would I be able to remove my mask long enough to shovel food into my face without worrying about endangering anyone else in the building? These were the thoughts that haunted my drive to Royal Oak this afternoon.

I was relieved to learn my concerns were mostly unfounded. I feel I was able to conduct myself reasonably well; I was at least able to keep my toes and various other appendages out of the serving trays. My largest faux pas was when the employee tasked with carrying my heavy cafeteria tray to my table asked me to step to the left so he could pick up said tray, I stepped to the right and had to be reminded to step to the other left. There were a couple of instances where I was eating while maskless that members of the very attentive staff approached my table, masked, to make sure my food tasted alright and my glass of Diet Pepsi was sufficiently full, and I wasn’t able to react quickly enough to put my own mask on. I felt weird about possibly endangering them, but I took a moment to remind myself that they were probably vaccinated, or at least, unvaccinated by choice. 

This meal made me feel things. 

It was still the same old Beefcarver with only minimal nods to present circumstances, such as clear plastic dividers along the serving line separating employees from the public and chairs removed from half the tables to limit capacity. There were no other diners in my immediate vicinity, and it felt reasonable and safe, at least from my antibody-rich perspective. My only real disappointment was when I noticed the self-serve pickle and beet station was bare, but an employee noticed me noticing and was quick to offer to bring pre-packaged pickles and beets from a nearby mini fridge to my table, along with the horseradish I requested. I even ordered exactly the same thing I had ordered when I wrote the initial Sign of the Beefcarver Broken Chains post, mostly by accident. It was all a welcome taste of normalcy, and I found myself feeling uncharacteristically emotional halfway through the meal. I was suddenly past what seemed to be the nadir of pandemic-related weirdness, and the catharsis was hitting me before I had even tasted my blueberry pie. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice I was going through something, and the meal was largely uneventful. 

Pickles and beets, pickles and beets! I gotta get me some pickles and beets!

I apologize for not taking more pictures, but I had covered Sign of the Beefcarver before, and I am not yet confident in my ability to photograph restaurant interiors covertly after a year of letting my sneaky camera skills atrophy. It’s something I’ll work on in the near future, as I’ve tentatively planned several trips to some broken chains I’ve not yet explored as well as an old favorite or two. Stay tuned, and check back often. The reopening of Broken Chains is upon us. Please wish me luck, and feel free to point out any flaws in my logic regarding the ethics of travelling and eating in restaurants. The last thing I want is for my frivolity to endanger the health of any non-consenting parties. 

On that high note, I’ll conclude. Thank you for your continued readership and for tolerating the sparse, increasingly silly posts. Stay safe, mask up, and get vaccinated!