Another thing the pandemic took from us: Work friends
I was scrolling through Facebook not too long ago, catching up on the various and sundry things friends were doing. One posted photos of views from a solo hike into the hills; another posted video of a stellar musical performance filmed in her cozy living room. A third offered pictures of a Covid-inspired art piece. It was of a solitary figure, standing in a haze of what looked like an orange-hued fog with barely discernible faces hovering in the air, out of focus and out of reach.
I marveled as I caught up with my peeps’ latest artistic endeavors, pleased that so many had found creative outlets for the surreal way of life thrust upon us since so much of the world shut down on March 19. A day that happens to be my birthday. (And to think that when I blew out the candles on my cake those months back, I silently wished for a gift of less stress in my life.)
Living in Los Angeles, I was used to a relatively topsy-turvy life. Nightmare traffic, absurdly high housing costs, restaurants that ranged from God-awful to divine and weather that has you bundled up in faux fur in the morning and poolside come the afternoon. I was also used to a life peopled by artists from seemingly every discipline. Los Angeles is a textbook company town, and nearly everyone I knew worked in the entertainment industry in some form or another. Some were writers and actors, like me. Others were editors, costumers, makeup artists, producers, directors.
One great thing about learning a language during a pandemic is that it requires no physical exertion. It does, however, require discipline, motivation and hope.
Almost everyone lived in L.A. because they aspired to more of a career than Hometown, U.S.A., could offer. We put up with an insane life, one of atmospheric highs and subterranean lows, to pursue our dreams. And almost all of us worked a rainbow of maintenance and service day jobs — waiting tables, detailing cars, tending bars, catering parties — all to maintain a life in an unforgivingly expensive city in order to be present when “the call” came in.
Though my friends and I danced around these same interconnected career loops, I rarely, if ever, saw them outside of work, either our day jobs or the industry jobs we landed when we were lucky. We all lived in various parts of the L.A. sprawl, and most of us spent our personal time on the career-path treadmill, with classes, workshops and the daily search for artistic employment. There wasn’t much time left for socializing.
But it didn’t matter; we saw each other at work. The very nature of these jobs allowed for abundant socializing. Work allowed us to keep in touch and up to date with everybody’s highs, lows and in-betweens. We celebrated birthdays in the kitchen and gave back pats of congrats at the coffee station on landing a gig or hugs of support while passing each other in the hallway when that gig fell through. We were there for each other.
We shared a true communal love affair.
Maybe some are treating the dating-during-coronavirus process more respectfully, maybe it’s different in the straight world, but pandemic or no, the state of courtship is dismal.
I know this may sound bizarre to anyone not pursuing a career in the arts, but a love affair is what it was.
For those who choose a career in entertainment or the arts, there is no 9-to-5 job, consistent and secure, to greet you every day. There is no pre-set career path laid out before you with obvious and logical steps up from entry-level to top of the heap. There are no paid holidays, no bonuses, nothing remotely resembling any type of security. For me and countless others in my circle, the only comfort and security is being wrapped in a blanket of others in the same position, a collective of fellow dreamers providing desperately needed emotional support, any time, day or night. Providing love.
But like most love affairs, I couldn’t really see or appreciate it until it was over.
Since my birthday, since I made that damn wish over that cake, I haven’t seen a single one of these friends. Film and television production stopped, parties were canceled, restaurants closed and bars were shuttered. Every avenue of income, from high-paying industry gigs to minimum-wage-plus-tips serving jobs, disappeared overnight. Since that date, my only contact with many of these friends has been through a post on Instagram or Facebook, assuming we had already connected there.
A chill slithered down my spine when I first realized I didn’t even know the full name of many of my cohorts. We were all on a first-name basis seconds after being introduced. When your first how-do-you-do is followed moments later by being thrown into the trenches of work, there’s no time or reason for last names and family history.
And yet, between passing hors d’oeuvres and pouring coffee, we shared our deepest of dreams and darkest of fears. With the sharing of dreams and nightmares now exclusively online, how could I possibly find and connect with someone when the only search criteria I had was a first name? Do you know how many “Daves” there are on Facebook? Even if I lucked into finding a few, I couldn’t possibly fill the physical void that grew more vast with every passing day.
Besides, posts and “likes” are woefully inadequate substitutes for hugs.
We’ve started a new year and the normal we once knew is still a far dot on the horizon. But there is a way to rekindle some hope: Get your hands into the soil.
One day as I scrolled through post after post, I noticed that many of these work friends are not just socially distanced from me. They are now physically distant as well. With no way to pay L.A. rents, my cohorts had fled town, spreading out to the corners of the Earth in search of a place to live without fear of eviction.
A pang bounded through my heart. I realized I’d likely never see many of them ever again. Certainly not in the way I had before. Some were a county or so away; others were at the other end of the country. A couple of them had fled the States altogether. All had depended upon the gargantuan hospitality job segment of the Los Angeles economy, a segment almost completely shut down since March. When a few restaurants were allowed to partially re-open with outdoor dining, only one in 100 jobs at best survived. For cater-waiters, like me, there was absolutely nothing.
Even in a best-case scenario, a super-duper vaccine with lightning-fast distribution, it will take months, probably years, for everything to return to some semblance of normal. How many of my now-departed friends will be able to return? How many dreams will, or even can, survive the wait for the world to get back on its feet?
As I looked at my computer screen, I felt as though I were looking at a school yearbook from eons ago — photos and captions of people I had loved who were now just memories waiting to fade. We don’t didn’t even have the structure of class reunions to offer the chance to re-connect.
I know the only way to heal my hurt is to recognize that it stems from the loss of love, for that is what it is. I loved these wonderful, crazy, irritating, inspiring people, and my life is a shell without them. But there is an exit from this maze. What I can do is grieve this loss as I would the loss of any love. I can heal this hurt by acknowledging the pain my work friends’ absence has caused. I can then move on from the pain by celebrating the joy they brought me. The laughs we shared as we bused tables, the thrill we all felt when somebody got a gig, the Fourth of Julys, Thanksgivings and Christmases spent together working.
There is a hole in my life the size of the universe, but I trust it won’t always be so. I know that the love I freely gave and eagerly accepted is waiting to be given and taken again. My world will once again be re-populated with fellow journeymen, artists seeking to carve out a life in Los Angeles. When they appear, I will embrace them. I will gleefully fall back into the supportive and uplifting arms of fellow artists. But from now on, I will do more than enjoy the moments spent in the physical company of my friends. I will treasure every one of them.
The author is an actor and the creator and writer of the animated series “Firewalk” and the book “Conquering the Film and Television Audition.” He is on Instagram: @kevin_scott_allen.
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