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The Shop Keepers' Elegy - May the Spring Winds Blow Warm

Just a rumor, but I’ve heard another of my favorite eateries will not reopen due to the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic. In my small town, rumors swirl, and if all were true, few establishments would reopen when the magic ‘vaccinated’ number, the one no one knows, is reached. The governor will then issue an edict and allow us to go to ‘phase 1.873’, causing the local health district to get out their slide rule to calculate the meaning. Yes! Churches can now have 14.43 worshippers. But some rumors will prove false- I hope. What is not a rumor is what has happened to a dear friend of mine.

For a dozen or more years, my friend has, with patience and persistence, groomed his small establishment by offering a great product and consistent service from a unique historical location- an old beaten down historic train station. A couple of years ago, a national coffee nut magazine named his charming, eclectic establishment the top coffee shop in all of Washington State. The article turned into a wall plaque collects mostly dust today.

Empty freight trains rush by several times each day, sending a rumble through the nearly 120-year-old ornate building. Back in the day, few seemed to notice or care as the coffee jiggles below the froth and the windows rattle. The eyeballs stay resolute on the smartphone, or friends stay locked in conversation. Except for train aficionados, who rush outside for the thrill of seeing thousands of horsepower up close and noisy, it’s just another of life’s meaningless interruptions. But to my friend, this pandemic interruption is anything but meaningless. It is life-changing.

Like many small business people, my friend is a compassionate individual. He’s concerned for his employees and their future. From all walks and creeds, some added to the ambience with charm, rings, and tattoos. He had been allowed to have a few outside tables so patrons can drink their warm or cold brew and enjoy a pastry under an umbrella. Early in the pandemic and with warm weather, this allowed him to bring a couple of baristas back to work using the PPP program monies (PPP funds foresaw a short ‘stay-at-home’ period with businesses allowed to reopen fully. Such has not been the case).

He feels a sense of duty to his loyal customers who have bonded to his kind of coffee experience. They soon had a favorite seat and a favorite drink the barista knows by heart. They would proudly bring an out-of-towner to show them their home away from home. Together they’d catch up on a couch more comfortable than their own. But my friend has been losing money for months. The future of his business, his livelihood, his social circle, his sense of duty and compassion is now in peril. Whatever sense of financial security he once had, has been reduced to a mound of spent coffee grounds.

Like many small business people, my friend is a pragmatic individual. He and calculator have gone over the dwindling numbers many times. His personal savings account, the one he intended for retirement, continues to take a hit. A trend line he tries not to dwell on. With each roll of interrupted sleep, the conflict between struggling on or moving on plays out night after sweaty night. He offers up prayers for divine direction and to find a kind of peace amidst the dysfunction and chaos.

He follows the daily updates on infections. He personally falls into the vulnerable category. The pandemic proved life to be precarious beyond his own age and health. For him, the very real probability of starting anew is perhaps not feasible. His dream was to work hard and slowly hand the reigns over to others. With his savings and a bit of equity, he could retire with some comfort and the ability to take his grandchild to Disneyland every couple of years. His dream is in a blur.

There have been attempts to help my friend and thousands like him. In April of this year, the State of Washington’s Commerce Department provided for a $10 million emergency relief fund for the small businesses in that state. The program was quickly overwhelmed and shuttered when over 25,000 small businesses made application. Do the math. Unfortunately, this money intended to pay rent and utilities is long gone. My friend and many thousands of other small businesses never got a dime and now suffer the indignities and jeopardy of being mostly shut down again.

The coffee house did qualify for some thousands of dollars of PPP money. My friend used it to pay employees when allowed to partially reopen. It has been spent and his shop shut down again. He tries not to succumb to bitterness when learning that the vast majority of the PPP money went to a handful of much larger companies. The 80/20 rule ruled as 80% of the PPP monies went to 20% of the largest firms. He can’t but help shake his head in defeat at the incompetent bureaucracy, nefarious political agendas, and greedy opportunists.

My friend started his business from scratch. That makes him a self-starter, not prone to wait for others to do what he knows he can do himself. That also makes him independent. He prefers to be in charge of his future as opposed to being subject to the vagaries of an employer and subservient to a myriad of others’ plans. He is not very sympathetic to the concept of victimization, nor a fan of our grievance culture, reticent to take handouts, and not inclined to draw attention to his plight knowing he is but one of perhaps millions in some state of despair (that is why he would never write this). He also would never equate his predicament to the thousands of poor souls who were overcome by the virus and died alone amongst a sea of masks and plastic shields and strange eyes.

I suspect we all hope the spring winds blow warm and our friends find the will, energy, and resources to start anew. I’m convinced many will- at least a valiant attempt. The unique human spirit to dream and imagine a future of their own design is not easily extinguished. But if life’s circumstances make that not possible, then we understand.

This elegy by Alexander Pushkin perhaps says it well.

I have outlasted all desire, My dreams and I have grown apart; My grief alone is left entire, The gleamings of an empty heart.

The storms of ruthless dispensation Have struck my flowery garland numb, I live in lonely desolation And wonder when my end will come.

Thus on a naked tree-limb, blasted By tardy winter’s whistling chill, A single leaf which has outlasted Its season will be trembling still.

Alexander Pushkin

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