Remembrances of Things Past

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Last weekend, my family decided to collectively treat itself to Getting Out Of the House. We headed over the coastal mountain range to trek to Half Moon Bay. Specifically, a restaurant we had frequented many times called Sam’s Chowder House. Here is what it looks like from the back porch:

We have been to Sam’s probably a dozen times. It’s one of those places where the food is about 30% too expensive, but people pay for the view, the ambiance, and also because it draws the tourists. Still, we’ve got lots of nice memories there, particularly since it’s right on the beach. We even brought our largest dog to roam around with us before the meal.

Now, to be clear, we had no expectations of a sit-down meal. I know all too well the regulations that are going on, particularly here in California, and Sam’s was one of the few places on the coast that was even offering take-out food. So we placed our order via mobile phone and pulled into the parking lot.

The lot was fairly full of people, some of whom were wearing masks and hanging out by their cars. Since we know it would be a while before the food was ready, so we got the dog out of the car and started heading toward the bluff above the beach.

Immediately, one of the Sam’s employees came out and told us we had to get back into our car: “Governor’s Orders!“.

This was irksome to us, because there were a ton of people in the parking lot not wearing masks and who were gathered quite close together, whereas we were by ourselves and hundreds of feet from any other human. In other words, we weren’t the ones creating a health risk. Still, they were insistent that not only did we not get to walk the beach, but we’d have to wait inside our car!

Our food finally came out, and we drove south for a while to try to find some place to eat it. We couldn’t go to the beach, and the parks and other public places were off limits. I finally wound up parking (very illegally) to allow my family to eat their food in the car, while I took the dog for a stroll and ate my fish-and-chips during the walk. Hardly a replacement for an ocean-side window seat.

The food fairly well sucked. I had just spent about $90 for four entrees of utterly mediocre caliber. Added to that, they hadn’t bothered to include napkins or utensils. So as for the spinach and cole slaw in the bag – – unless you wanted to shake them directly into your mouth, you were out of luck.

Now this isn’t meant to be a nasty Yelp review (I’ve already left one of those). I sort of shook off the entire experience until this morning when I happened to come across an article about how Starbucks would be opening up about 90% of its stores by June 1st.

My first reaction was, “Oh, that’s cool. A little bit of normalcy will return.’ It’s not like I’m a huge fan of Starbucks, but I’ll go there from time to time, and it is a fairly iconic part of day-to-day life in the U.S.

However, I then glanced at a few of the pictures Starbucks provided showing what the “new” Starbucks experience would be like.

In short……….

  • No tables;
  • No chairs;
  • Mobile ordering;
  • Social distancing;
  • Everyone wears masks

To put it another way, Starbucks will be like a drive-through that only sells coffee. End of story. No lingering over the Sunday paper. No chatting with friends. No working on your screenplay. Just take your coffee and get the hell out.

I don’t blame them, of course. It’s the sensible thing to do. But seeing those pictures is pretty damned depressing. I last wrote about “phasing back” in this post from five weeks ago, but my assessment of what “the new normal” will be like has probably taken a turn for the worse.

It seems to be that the administration wants people to believe things are going to be more-or-less back to how they were in a few months, and – – laughably – – the economy will be stronger than ever next year (HA!) But people are scared, and the poll numbers reflect this.

What gelled for me in my mind, through both my Sam’s experience and the Starbucks photos, is that virtually the entire pleasure of places like that is the social aspect of it. Back in the good old days, going to Sam’s meant getting a seat with an ocean view, having some warm bread and a cold beer while you waited for your entree, and chatting with the family.

Now it consists of holding a lukewarm piece of limp fried fish in one hand and a leash on the other.

Remember how when VCRs first came out, the “experts” said it would be the death of movie theaters? After all, who on Earth wants to drive in a car for miles to go to a theater, struggle to find a parking spot, pay $15 for each ticket, and sit in a huge dirty room with a bunch of strangers when you could enjoy movies from the comfort of your family room?

Well, lots of people do. VCRs (and, later, DVDs and then Netflix) didn’t replace movie theaters, because people don’t go to the movies just to watch a movie. They go to enjoy the experience of watching a movie with friends and, yes, strangers.

A mob full of people laughing together, gasping together, crying together, all while watching the same film, is a vastly superior experience than being all by yourself. We humans are social creatures. That’s why eating that limp fish was so sad. I had traveled all the way to have an experience that simply wasn’t available anymore.

Things aren’t going to be normal again next week, next month, or next year. I think we’re going to miss the way things were much more than we thought, and for much longer than we imagined.