Commentary: Essential Lessons From the Greatest Generation

Commentary: Essential Lessons From the Greatest GenerationEXPAND
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I am a young millennial living alone in the city.

In early March, I became an “essential worker.”

I get paid $15 an hour to cook food for over 120 senior citizens in a Denver-area retirement community.
I started working as a waiter in 2018, for $12 an hour and no tips. I was living in my parents' basement then, and seldom emerged from my subterranean setting. I had been hopelessly wandering the wilderness of depression, social anxiety and suicidal ideation for more than five years.

Fortunately, I remained wholly uncommitted to committing suicide, and instead found work at the retirement community. Unfortunately, self-isolating — and the acute loneliness to always accompany it — are concepts with which I am already intimately familiar and experienced.

As a waiter, I became personally acquainted with many of the seniors I served. I learned their names and their histories. I unwittingly absorbed some of the knowledge and wisdom they wittingly and unwittingly exuded. I exchanged banter with World War II veterans and Vietnam veterans. I waited on former NASA employees, retired doctors, lawyers, pilots, dentists and orthodontists, psychiatrists, teachers and engineers. I commiserated with co-workers when one of the residents passed away. I did not and do not like all of them, but I believe all of them have something to teach, whether they know it or not.

The seniors are unaware of my mental health struggles. Most of them only see the positive in me that I fail to see myself. When I tell them my age, they laugh and say I look like I’m in high school, which is flattering. I’ve never told them how many high schools I was expelled from, or about my experiences inside psychiatric hospitals or juvenile detention centers. I never told them how often my mother and father had to call the police in response to whatever risky behavior I was exhibiting that day. I never told them how many times I’ve peered over a building’s ledge and watched as my tears disappeared into the obscured haze hundreds of feet below.
The seniors don’t need to know, though. All they need to know is how their resolve is helping to fortify my own resolve to keep living. They have persisted through wars, droughts, famine, depressions, recessions, etc., and now they will persist through a pandemic. That much is already abundantly clear, and provides me with a deep well of inspiration.

Since early March, when the pandemic became a part of our daily routine, the peaceful life for which these seniors had toiled for decades to obtain has been subjugated by a virus hellbent on silencing and separating them from each other and their loved ones.

The dining hall was indefinitely closed in early March. Takeout or delivery were the only options available after that. An already abbreviated menu was further reduced to soup of the day, salad of the day, fruit cup, beverage(s), two entree options, three available sides and one dessert.

Executives and managers began administering temperature checks to every senior who came to get their food. Only ten seniors were allowed in the dining hall simultaneously, and the staff pleaded with them to stay six feet apart at all times. The dining hall — capable of seating 100 seniors — was stripped of all tables and left with only ten consistently sanitized chairs, each placed more than ten feet apart, for seniors to sit in while they waited for their food. A single front-of-house manager and a few servers were left to manage this ebb and flow of hungry seniors, and to ensure that they were practicing physical distancing.

Couples walked in lockstep and held hands; seniors bumped shoulders while waiting in line to get their temperature taken, fill out an order or receive their food.

In mid-March, every employee was required to have their temperature taken at the front desk to start and end every shift. No exceptions.

Shortly thereafter, every employee was assigned a single cloth mask with a number written in Sharpie on it. Two servers quit the next day. The masks make the face itch; the taut, rough bands that go behind each ear rub the skin raw and red. I feel like my ears are being sawed off. They are particularly uncomfortable for an uncool cook in a scorching hot kitchen. Every employee in every department, especially the dining department, must wear their masks at all times while in the building.

The mask edict was quickly followed by a new, even more austere edict: Every individual meal, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, has to be delivered to a senior’s apartment. This appears to be the new norm for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, seniors are only allowed to leave the property for medical reasons. They are not allowed to go to the grocery store or liquor store. They are not allowed to go outside for recreation, or go to a friend or family member’s home. If they do so, they will be forced to quarantine for fourteen days when they return.

Seniors are allowed to receive deliveries from friends and family members, but they are only allowed to retrieve their deliveries once the deliverer has left the lobby. Some seniors were bringing supplies into their apartments via a smuggler who transported them over balconies and through patio doors.

Now the entire building has been purged of furniture. There are almost zero surfaces for an ass, hand or drink to rest upon. It feels like moving day, or like we are going out of business. The once bustling and fully furnished lobby has become a cavernous echo chamber. One soft-spoken secretary wearing spectacles, a pink mask and a snug pair of black latex gloves devoutly commands the concierge desk. She takes the temperature of every employee at the beginning and end of their shift, then she collects their signature, before disseminating the assigned masks that the housecleaning department is now responsible for washing day and night.
This onslaught of upending change initially led to mass confusion.

Food orders were lost, or delivered to the wrong apartment, and as a result, some seniors didn’t get a particular meal. I’ve seen more seniors than ever before show up unannounced in the kitchen’s epicenter, whether after lunch or after dinner, their vocal cords unable to pierce through the kitchen’s rackety bustle. One senior wheeled his oxygen tank past the server station before he stood dejectedly by the ice-cream cooler and stared longingly at the cook line. Another senior came stumbling through the side entrance/exit, directly past the dish pit toward expo, her arms outstretched and headed for the nearest cook (me). She didn’t exactly know where she was, but she definitely knew she was hungry.

I’ve had the opportunity to ask many of the seniors about their well-being during this pandemic. Their responses vary from serious and thoughtful to lighthearted and humorous to apathetic and carefree. I’ve been surprised to hear most of them chuckle at the entire ordeal.

This pandemic already ranks as the most memorable and historical event of my lifetime, but these seniors have seen a century’s worth of history: World War I, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II, the Forgotten War, JFK, MLK, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War (am I forgetting any fucking wars? of course I am), the AIDS epidemic, the Great Recession, almost every school shooting, Obama, Trump, etc., and all the other crazy shit in between. These seniors have lived through and experienced more than any writer could ever imagine. They have lost husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, foes. They saw JFK get assassinated and watched Jack Ruby whack Lee Harvey Oswald. Those with their memories intact remember what life was like during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They can recall events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, or where and what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. They have certainly had to contemplate their own mortality.

They have the steely resolve of a population that helped build the planet’s most preeminent superpower to date. It is too soon to know where this pandemic will rank on their personal lists of historical events, but these seniors will fight this virus with the boundless valor we already know they possess, and in my estimation, they will win. Even as the rest of the country begins to open up, this vulnerable population is still in lockdown. But they haven’t cowered from a fight for their entire lives, even when the odds were immeasurable.

Neither shall I.

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