Chairs With No Seats

Perchance you follow, with some regularity, my musings about a special local eatery. A quaint little hotel restaurant it is, comfortably situated at street level – but not the bottom level – of a building around for over a century. Around the corner on the downgrade is a small basement bar entrance ushering any weary patron into a welcoming cold brew of hometown hugs. It has been, by any normal morning measure, a standard in my life.

This morning, after two months of leery lock downs and patient toe-tapping anticipation, I entered this very familiar place expecting some sense of normal to return. Our color is green in western PA – which comes with a permission slip attached to every eateries’ sign. Flipped to “open” if so desired by the owner, these special signs now have added responsibilities behind them including proper distancing, masking, capacity restrictions, and server requirements. All part of a un-normal world I expected to see as I slowly turned the century old knob on the creaky door I’ve done hundreds of times.

Four folks sat, shall I uneasily say, “comfortably” on seats un-randomly distanced in the front room. Two sat on chair-stools permanently attached to the floor on support posts and the others in booths more than the required 6-feet apart. Of the old wooden seats at the counter upon which my grandparents most likely sat, two of every three were removed and the post tops covered with upside-down cups.

To recap, only four of the twelve normal seat spaces are currently usable, while eight remain cunningly-cupable and advisably unusable unless one needs an unplanned, sudden post-ectomy.

The spirit floating around the front four was understandably cautious. Not one, unfortunately, exhibited signs of a regular crazy person known as a close friend of mine. As normal mornings go, this was not to be. My close friends were nowhere to be seen, heard, or laughed at…

For purposes of being real, I will use initials, not aliases. M.J. won’t be back for a while due to some ongoing health issues requiring heightened caution – and he’s nuts. S.R. was absent for a bit even before the pandemic happened, so she was unexpected this morning – she’s a bit crazy, too. J.F. is always there and leaves precisely at 8:23 when his wife texts. I was there after that smoochy-text-time probably arrived if he indeed was there, so no chance of seeing him – he’s goofy as well. Me, being the only normal one of the group, suffered through this other group of four not-so-unknown group of strangers as I knew them all my name. These level 2 friends engaged my time at precisely 8:55 as a masked server and I waited for my to-go egg, ham, and cheese sandwich from the kitchen.

Staying power lasted through over two months of quarantine, but not through ten minutes at one of my favorite hotel restaurants. Go figure. Dale, Marcie, Barb, and Lance held my attention for scant minutes as I perused the same four walls I’ve seen for years. The pale egg-white painted walls upon which hung two large mirrors held my attention for mere seconds. Aged stainless reach-in coolers behind the counter supported reflections of the decades worn, story filled stuccoed ceiling. Random brochures scattered about, new Covid-19 customer guidelines taped strategically here and necessarily there, … space where space wasn’t before – all keeping my day-off eyes busy for the time.

The vacuous rear banquet room, now, social distanced inside with tables fearing to be close to one another as only one was occupied by four older gentlemen I’ve known for years. Normal they were. Generationally stubborn and unfazed by any and all hysteria as they dipped into breakfast fare as if the trolley and town crier were both still on schedule. Unmasked, fearing only the possibility of being overcharged, once again, for the two cups of coffee and toast ordered every day since retiring years ago … they soldiered on.

Ten in total by my math. A nice binary math number to round out my morning coming out of isolation/quarantine into green. Four front, four back, my server, and I. A nice normal number … so far from normal, otherwise.

This is to be expected, or so I’m told. This past weekend, I drove by many restaurants – big and small, mom and pop, corporate and franchise, drive up, seating in & out – that are open for business … under “green” restrictions, of course. Happy to be so, I’m sure. Customers and owners alike have been waiting what seems a big-bang’s length of time to fire up grills full-flame and, again, turn up the charm-a-plenty. Humans on both sides of serve-and-be-served are emotionally hungry for all of it …

I know some of this because I’m a foodie-vendor myself. Fifteen years this year I’ve been tonging my way around – towing a 10-foot food cart. It’s been an incredibly saucy, drippy, unpredictable past few months in the event-dependable, need-to-have-people-jammed-together, vendor space world that doesn’t exist right now. I’m finding my way around parking lots and corners trying my level best … and, speaking for myself, still loving the ride. Can’t pretend to ventriloquistically vociferate on behalf of my food friends elsewhere. They can write their own words during their own day off. It’s an absolutely beautiful Monday in June and I’m as close to normal as I can be right now.

Today’s weather feels normal. It is, by any normal June morning measure, a perfect day. I have been sitting on this porch writing as a few birds go about their business gathering food. Friends living in the house next door are swimming, and on the other side, different neighbors are sputtering along – attempting to befriend an old riding mower that doesn’t seem to be cooperating. Shade on my weary legs is perfect as it extends out just past the edge of my porch where the sunlight takes over.

This can be normal for me the rest of the summer. This can be my “green”. For purposes of an early breakfast at my favorite restaurant? I can’t yet answer, “my ‘once’ favorite morning restaurant.” Yes, close friends will not be there for some time. Yes, I may not return again until there is some feel of normal again … whenever that is. There are no answers right now.

Just sunshine, birds, and another day to appreciate.

Maybe this has to be all of our new normals for a while. Just be careful of the chairs with no seats.

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