Anti-masker’s big night out



“I sure am glad they have a beautiful young girl like you takin’ care of us this evenin’.” Showing half-rotted teeth, a man in overalls and a camo MAGA hat grins disgustingly at me from his booth while his delicate, wrinkled wife sits across from him. “Well actually, I can’t tell if you’re really beautiful with that damn mask on your face.” What a back-handed compliment.

Serving at O’Charley’s in Tennessee taught me a lot about how much I actually hate the South. The people are insufferable, really.

The food quality at this chain was very basic, mostly frozen, and the prices reflected this well. That being said, the restaurant attracted a very specific crowd- college students on a budget and elderly people on pension. Neither of these crews tend to tip very generously, considering their lack of disposable income.

When you mix in the fact that these are the same people who so strongly resist mask mandates and social distancing, you can only imagine the nightmare that is serving in a place like that during a pandemic. Every day, a new challenge arose, and more often than not, it was a direct result of stubborn customers.

Cookeville, Tennessee, is a small college town about 80 miles east of Nashville. Filled with anti-maskers and reckless young people, the place is a hotspot for COVID cases; not that anybody would know, since the testing site never had any lines. As a server there, I was unlucky enough to fall victim to the virus via the carelessness of my coworkers.

A typical Wednesday night in Cookeville involved the O’Charley’s crew going to Revolver for free beer day. The “club” offered karaoke, line dancing, and a mechanical bull; not to mention there were five different bars within the building. As you can imagine, the place was filled with underaged deviants and I don’t think there was ever a single vacant square foot in the whole establishment.

If my coworkers weren’t sneaking booze into Revolver inside their fancy cowboy boots, they were probably snorting cocaine off the hoods of their cars in the parking lot of another local bar. Sadly, this became a normal occurrence to witness, though I never partook. It was jarring at first, but maybe I just had a different college experience than most.

Since I moved to Tennessee with just myself and my dog, I didn’t have much of a social life beyond working and going on the occasional hike. I gave six days a week to my job for seven months straight- two days a week being doubles- and the only vacation I ever received was the 10-day stint when I had COVID. Even then, I got the daily call from my manager asking when I would be back.

At the start of my time there, each time an employee tested positive, the restaurant would shut down for 24 hours to allow us to deep clean and get everybody rapid-tested. Mine always came back negative, but there was one occasion in which I had an inkling that this was a false negative. I had no sense of taste or smell, and I felt sick in a way I had never experienced before. Thankfully, there was never a long line to get a PCR test at the drive-thru COVID site, and my positive result came back two days later. My manager stopped requiring rapid tests after that.

My general manager, Tim, was a real Doug Dimmadome-looking guy. He was six and a half feet tall and almost as big around. His well-groomed white mustache curled at the ends and his voice was deep and dripping with a thick southern accent. The way he yanked up his slacks when he was having a serious conversation made me wonder if his brown leather belt was purely for decoration.

Tim knew every single person that walked through the doors of his restaurant, and if they were new to town, he would quickly win them over with his smooth talking. The one thing Tim did best was chat for hours on end about dull stories nobody asked for. The elderly guests loved him, and the young servers working there dreaded being alone in a room with him for fear of being trapped in his office listening to stories after they’d already clocked out.

The entire theme of O’Charley’s is Southern hospitality, or SoHo as they call it. Here’s the thing about SoHo: none of it is genuine. The smiles are all fake and sass creeps up at the end of every “sweet” sentiment. Plus, nobody tips.

While I appreciated the opportunity to live in Tennessee for close to a year, I was quick to leave as soon as I could.

I have since found my way to the Green Mountain State, beautiful little Vermont, and I couldn’t be happier. With a majorly vaccinated population, it is more common to find places without mask mandates.

It was literally a breath of fresh air to be able to have a bare face at work. I could smile at my customers and read lips when the music was too loud, and I was no longer subjected to the political ranting of anti-maskers. Or so I thought.

When the Omicron variant began to run amuck in our little state, businesses began to backpedal. Mask mandates came back after a short reprieve and working in a restaurant became complicated once again.

It started with employees being required to mask up, and we were no longer allowed to eat or roll silverware at the same table. One by one, our employees fell victim to the new variant, and our already tiny staff dwindled to the bare minimum while the unlucky few recovered.

I was one of the unfortunate souls who missed 10 days of work to sit in solitude in my sixth-floor apartment, just me and my dog. That’s right, I suffered through this twice. By the end of my quarantine, I was begging to go back to work; fortunately for me, there were plenty of unclaimed shifts that were pried from my fellow COVID-19 stricken coworkers.

As the cases once again died down, the masks came off and staff members were allowed to sit together again. This time, however, the managers pulled out all of the extra tables that had been collecting dust in the basement for the past two years and we rearranged the floor plan to what it was pre-COVID. Finally, the end seems in sight.

Each restaurant has been affected differently by the restrictions of COVID-19, and I am lucky to have found a job that attracts understanding and patient customers that appreciate the hard work I do.

As you find yourselves dining out more, remember that everybody is understaffed and doing the best they can to accommodate all customers safely. A little patience goes a long way.