Prosecco sure. Lambrusco, naturally. But the fizz on my tongue incited by our pinot noir was suspect. We were thrilled to have scored four stools along the outside of the square inside-outside bar of a bustling French brasserie in Naples, Florida. After multiple sips, it took a few of my well-honed cool-guy, upward “Hey bartender” head nods to finally alert busy-him to my urgent dilemma. After all, the foie with port-poached figs was due at any moment. Such fun! His own well-honed “customer is always right” response comforted. With “Let’s do this” face, he plucked a fresh bottle from the center bar and opened it with practiced efficiency. He presented a new glass and poured some sample ounces, deftly twirling his bottle while simultaneously wiping its lip and stepping back at black-vested attention. “Same,” I frowned, opting for my confused puppylike face versus my bougie wine snob frown. I was clueless. With stubborn intention, he repeated the entire action. New glass, new bottle, head cocked: “Sir?”
Swirl, sip … “Weird. Maybe it’s me?” He grabbed yet another bottle with such commitment that I wondered if he was mocking me just a bit. One in our group suggested the whole case was tainted. I now wondered aloud whether the (extraordinary) Gorgonzola in our (excellent) honey crisp apple-endive-walnut salad was maybe reacting with the wine. Those kooky bleus. I shrugged and decided to stick with it — three bottles deep and simply stoked to be dining again among happy, shiny people.
Then, a thing happened. Dude lowered his mask before orating upon minerality in wine.
My “at risk” friends gasped. We noted later with faux offense that our hot and hustling bartenders stopped throughout dinner to share bits of hospitality, each time lowering their masks. “Where the hell are we right now?” we wondered. The patio was full. The bar, full. The dining room, too, while the sidewalk bustled with diners waiting. “There’s no COVID here” we joked throughout multiple restaurant visits in the Sunshine State. “They missed the memo!” The joyful guest and former “prisoner” in me was tickled by the abundant normalcy while the Northern restaurant owner in me cried inside each time. Why can’t we, too, be in denial? Why can’t we, too, calculate risk for ourselves?
We had gone “over the wall,” escaping the confinement of extremely cautionary, cold, and oft-depressing Massachusetts for a grand buffet of alternate reality — the “wild west” of Florida. Having personally never been overly concerned about getting the virus (call me what you will), I indeed got it months ago. It is theorized that I then passed it to family members as we met in my small condo and projected our restaurant group “decision tree” on my TV — analyzing worst- to best-case scenarios. We all promptly quarantined, suffered mild flu symptoms and mostly recovered in days. I was relieved by both getting it and getting over it — and that my loved ones did, too, as we padded the growing numbers of those who went from “positive” to recovered. I hopped a flight weeks later feeling liberated, excited, guilty and burdened with business no better off and eternally fearing the worst — be it someone becoming ill, another unaffordable repair bill, or another press conference, each one a kick in our industry ass.
At first, it felt wrong to leave our struggling teams behind, perpetually perplexed as to what else we could be doing to positively influence fractional, static sales. In my heart, the answer had been confirmed over the past year. Very little. And trust me, the stress rides shotgun — chattering morning, noon and night. There is no true escape. Conversely, the potential for discovery travels, too. The reality is, while working from Florida the comfort of warmth and a rogue community (call it what you wish) proved a welcome breather when all the tossing and turning, reading, researching, emailing, zooming, and staring into the sunny abyss came to the end of the day. Freedom rings.
When I shared my observations on our Facebook pages, I inspired dissension — the best kind, as I am mostly connected to intelligent, thoughtful and respectful “friends.” (Whom I pray are avoiding the absolute poisoning of our society by Facebook’s pursuit of profit. A column for another day.*) I asked how was it that per capita, “the numbers” in living-life Florida were reportedly better than locked-down Massachusetts. Comments followed. “Density,” one friend theorized. “That’s bullshit,” dropped another. “Florida fudges their numbers.” “They test less.” “How does anyone know that Florida isn’t reporting true numbers?” And so it went. This debate rages on because there is limited absolute truth — we all have varied core values and beliefs while the science continuously evolves. Yes, we should protect one another. And yes, we should have control over our own fate. (And reporting false numbers should face harsh penalties!) Personally, I am reminded of a Virginia Woolf quote from a favorite movie scene: “This is my right; it is the right of every human being. I choose not the suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs, but the violent jolt of the Capital, that is my choice.” Here is wishing good luck and good health to both the safekeepers and the risk takers, and sunnier days ahead for us all.
*I recommend “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix — an eye-opening portrayal of how social media is negatively impacting our society.