My family started a new tradition shortly after the Governor declared a state of emergency in New York. To support our local businesses, break the monotony of being at home all day, avoid preparing dinner, consume delicious food, and establish an event to look forward to, we decided to order from a different restaurant on Fridays. At this point of the pandemic, we were instructed to stay home and social distance. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were increasing at an alarming rate in New York City. Cases were confirmed in Otsego County. Consequently, we ordered our food online and requested contact-less delivery. One of the first restaurants we ordered from serves Jamaican-American food. It was slated to have its grand opening on the day the Governor ordered businesses closed. Luckily for us as connoisseurs of Jamaican food, the owners decided to transition to the take-out model. When the owner delivered the food to the house, I was on my front porch. She and I maintained a distance of at least six feet as she gently rested our food at the top of the stairs to my porch. She was grateful for the business and I was grateful for the delicious food.
We continued this pattern of contact-free delivery of our Friday meal until early May when we saw signs that the COVID-19 situation was improving. At this point in the pandemic, COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates were slowing down in New York. We were now required to wear masks in public when social distancing was impossible. Our next-door neighbor had closed his Japanese restaurant in March and promised to open only when he felt the pandemic was under control. We were happy when he announced in late April that he was reopening his restaurant for takeout. To celebrate the opening of our neighbor’s restaurant, we decided to order our Friday meal from him. We were feeling braver and decided to venture to the restaurant and pick up our food order. We walked to the restaurant. We wore our masks. We picked up our food from our neighbor. He met all customers at the front door. He was thrilled to see us. He wore a mask and gloves. He placed hand sanitizer on the pick-up table for his customers. He prominently displayed a sign about the benefits of wearing masks and good hygiene. He gave us our food. We returned home and enjoyed our delicious meal.
We continued our Friday tradition into June. On one Friday, as our region entered phase three of reopening, we became even bolder. We decided to order from a restaurant we had never previously ordered from or dined at in pre-pandemic days. We had heard good things about it. We followed the usual pattern: order online, go to the restaurant, wear mask, get food. As I approached the restaurant, I noticed a sign on the door indicating that customers entering the restaurant must wear masks. No problem. We were wearing our masks. We entered the building. There were two staff and one customer in the restaurant. Ironically, none of them was wearing a mask. I greeted the staff. The person behind the bar looked uncomfortable and confused. “May I help you?” he asked. The question was distinctly unfriendly. “I am here to pick up my food order,” I said in a friendly and polite manner. My response appeared to confuse him even more. “What did you order?” I told him. More confusion. What was the problem? My mask? The sign on the door specifically stated that anyone entering the restaurant must wear a mask. I was wearing a plain white mask on this evening, not the other one I kept at home that declared my allegiance to the Toronto Raptors. Was it my brown skin? My curly black hair? My brightly colored dress? One of my daughter’s health care providers once informed me that the yellow fleece I was wearing was “rather bright” and the comment was not meant to be complimentary. Was it because I was not a regular? Was it my Canadian accent which still has traces of a Jamaican inflection that he could not quite place? Many years ago, a SUNY Oneonta faculty member once asked me if I was from Long Island. I thought that was an odd question, but I digress. Did the man behind the counter think I was a fugitive from downstate? An outsider? Still looking dubious, he moved to the kitchen to ask the chef about my order. The chef emerged from the kitchen with the meals I had ordered and passed them on to the waitress. She started fiddling with the cash register. “I already paid,” I said, keeping my tone even and still friendly. My husband tried to make small talk with her but his attempts did not break the tension in the room. The waitress confirmed my payment, gave us our food, and we left.
“Is it just me, or was that really uncomfortable?” I asked my husband when we were safely in our car. “Nope,” he replied, “That was definitely unwelcoming.” “It’s a good thing you were with me,” I responded. Once an outsider, always an outsider, despite living in Oneonta for almost twenty years, I thought to myself. Well, at least we had our food, though unfortunately it turned out to be like the service, unpleasant. “Next week, we ought to order dinner from the Indian restaurant,” my husband suggested. “Yes,” I agreed. The food is delicious, the staff is friendly, and they wear their masks.