“This isn’t just about letting poorer people stay here because they have a right to, which they do, but also because it makes everyone else’s life better.”
A version of the following appeared in Luke O’Neil’s Welcome to Hellworld newsletter, where he most recently spoke to workers at the Bull Moose store in Salem, NH who were all abruptly fired last week, possibly because of a planned walkout. You can subscribe to read his work here, and be sure to check out his latest book, Lockdown in Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia.
Imagine the platonic ideal of the bartender. The consummate hospitality professional who not only knows what they’re doing back there but also gives a shit about you while they’re doing it. You’re picturing Joe McGuirk. The thirty year veteran of iconic Cambridge, MA area spots like Green Street, Highland Kitchen, and the dearly missed B-Side Lounge and Chez Henri, like many others in the service industry, saw his profession thrown into chaos over the course of the pandemic. For the first time in his life he had to go on unemployment, he told me. That experience got him thinking a lot about how the city of Cambridge treats its restaurant workers, and workers of all kinds, and about how many of the places he’s worked in over the years are exactly what makes the city feel so unique. Or used to anyway before all the money started changing everything.
This year he decided to throw his hat into the ring and run for City Council. I care because I like Joe, an old pal, but also because Cambridge is a city I have dearly loved and spent most of my time in over the past twenty years and I’m hoping it can somehow retain some of its character. As I wrote earlier this year:
A neighborhood’s soul is lost then rebuilt then lost again and it goes on and on but there is I think a potential end point where the predictions of a neighborhood’s demise can finally be fulfilled and maybe that’s here for Boston. Places with an abundance of soul can drag out the process for a long time but there are only so many blows they can take. My beloved Harvard Square has continued to be a cultural destination for all these years of loss simply because there was so much to lose in the first place. Now every other storefront is a bank branch.
“As a person who has worked in or around the city for years in a very public role, I know many of the folks whose voices need to be represented in our council,” McGuirk’s campaign page explains.
“As a resident, I know firsthand the challenges of trying to keep a home in a city that is wonderful, but getting more and more difficult for people of modest means to live in. As a friend to many small business owners, I am well aware of the plight of our local business community. As a parent whose children view Cambridge as a home, I am sympathetic to those raising families in the city. Members of my family teach here, work here, live here. I have been serving in Cambridge for many years — now I would like to serve Cambridge.”
I talked to McGuirk about why he’s running, about the service industry in general, and in particular how it’s fared over the past year.
I guess the first thing I wanted to ask you, since I’ve known you for a long time, and you’re running for office now, is this: Do you think you’re fucking better than me?
No! I think I’m worse. That’s why I’m running for office.
While there’s probably plenty of people who read this newsletter from Cambridge since I’ve lived around there most of my life, the reason I thought it would be interesting to talk for a more national audience is that a lot of the things you’re concerned about are representative of what’s going on everywhere around the country, like affordability in housing, and especially something everyone is talking about lately as we start to sort of come out of the pandemic: the service industry. What’s your experience been like the past year through COVID?
I’ve been working in the service industry since I was fourteen. For the first time in my life I had to file for unemployment. Part of working in restaurants is that everyone likes to go out to eat and everybody likes to drink. Whether there are good times or bad times, a job tending bar always seemed really secure to me. The word unprecedented has been used so many times, but… I never would have foreseen something like this. Pretty quickly it became apparent, since my wife works at Tufts Medical Center, that as I was laid off and her work increased, I realized this wasn’t going to be a short term thing.
I was talking to my friends about getting laid off, and we said, well, that’s ok. We live in this wealthy city that clearly values its businesses and its community. We’ll all get through it. I’m sure there will be programs to keep us afloat. On a personal level that was true. I collected unemployment. While my savings took a hit, I didn’t have any huge scarcity issues. But that’s not true of everyone around me. As much as I kind of believed in the system, as the summer went on, my friends at other bars were like, well, they made us pay the liquor licenses, they made us pay the permit fees, and none of them ever got reduced until well into the year. I was like, what, are you crazy? You’re charging these restaurants fees during a pandemic? I started looking into it more closely and bitching about it on social media and someone said put your money where your mouth is. Run for office. So I foolishly decided to do it. Primarily because I looked at the City Council — and I think they’re all very good people — but none of them are currently working in a forward-facing working place. A working class job.
Apart from the politics though, the thing that really troubles me, and you had a tweet about it recently that I appreciated, is that there were a lot of problems in the restaurant business prior to COVID that were not in the best interest of tipped employees. COVID has put the onus on businesses to try to make as much money as they can. They’ve all lost a lot of money. They’re trying to recoup it. What’s happening now is instead of everybody being united to try to get back on their feet, employers and employees are pitted against each other.
Right. COVID has heightened the issues that were already festering.
Whether people are willing to come back to work or not is a huge question. Every restaurant is saying “why isn’t everyone coming back?” Truthfully, why would they come back right now? I’m back to work now, but why would someone with the security of unemployment come back to the uncertainty of tipped jobs when you were making changes that stagnated their wages prior to COVID? And you’re asking them to come back to a job where they make less now prior to what they did four or five years ago.
Is that something that you’ve heard from colleagues and friends? It’s not worth going back now?
For sure. So many people have said, well, I’m never coming back again. I’ve got a new gig. A lot of people used the year to try to find different careers. Things they can do from home… Real estate has been a popular one. A lot of them are still just waiting to see how the chips are going to fall. And some are picking and choosing, trying to find the right gig. The place that pays $20 an hour and lets you keep your tips is better than the one that gives you $4.95 and you’re gonna tip the dishwasher and the host. The restaurant industry has never been very well organized collective bargaining-wise. The small independently owned businesses that I’ve worked for, the people who work there don’t think of themselves as career restaurant workers. Maybe they’re artists, writers, whatever.
I was doing it until I was like 37. I loved working in the industry but I was just doing it so I could be a writer.
Around that age is when a lot of people start to think that. I’m 35. I’m 40. I was supposed to finish grad school, do this or that. I started tending bar 30 years ago as a summer job. None of us think coming into this that this is our future. So we’re not really great at collective bargaining, even knowing the rules that apply to our industry. So when the jobs come back open and they don’t know that they’re going to make a bunch of money, they’re not going back out of love of wiping mustard off of people’s chins.
There are people who do love it though and I have a ton of respect for that. I’m not trying to say it’s some kind of shitty job for morons. I have great respect for people like you who take it seriously. It’s an honorable profession.
Of course. Every job has dignity. That’s part of the problem with the perception of this job in general. That it wasn’t given dignity by society, or by the industry, who know they can pay you $2.13 an hour and make everything else up to you. Currently the job doesn’t give you dignity because they know they can pay you minimum wage, make you earn the rest with tips. No paid breaks. No paid time off. We all love TV shows about famous chefs and everything, but this job has not been treated like a real job. And even now that employers can get a tax credit by making employees report 100% of the tips, they still aren’t respecting them.
The conversation has been framed as people are lazy and that’s why they’re not coming back and that’s just not a fair assessment.
I hate that framing. Especially some of these restaurant owners like this guy out in CA who said he’s trying to pay dishwashers $21 an hour and he can’t get anyone. The idea is to suggest that unemployment benefits and any type of social safety net is going to ruin the entire industry. I really chafe at that. $21 is barely a living wage on its own.
[I wrote more about this in a recent issue of Hell World here]
Right. What is $20 an hour? You might say you made $300 last night bartending. That sounds like great money. What’s $300 a night? First of all you’d have to make it every night. And that’s if you can even work every night. If you don’t get hurt and can’t work anymore.
Are these things a city counselor can improve?
Not directly on that, but giving working class service industry people a voice, in a city that has seen incredible jumps in cost, a city that wants to retain the authenticity and the uniqueness that has made all these people want to move here, is important. People aren’t moving here because they were trying to avoid a commute. They move here because they want to be around cafes, restaurants, little independent clothing stores. They want to live in a city with diversity, where their children can grow up in a more equitable place. I really do believe these cities, “innovation cities” that are filling up with younger people, they’re thinking like, I’d like my life to be here. Where social justice is important. The snapshot of what they thought it was when they got here in the last five or ten years, they want it to be like that, but the wealth that’s growing is making it impossible for the city they imagined to continue to exist.
Cambridge has got this big tech sector and all these wealthy people coming in. It’s pushing people like me and you out. And also the things that people moved there for in the first place. To say nothing of the people who have lived there their whole lives and are being forced out. That was all happening before COVID, which exacerbated everything.
Yeah COVID kind of made me take my head out of the sand and start paying closer attention. My whole life I’ve always paid attention to the bigger picture. I love history. I love politics on the national stage. But I more or less trusted my city government to do what’s best for the city of Cambridge. Which I think they have done. But there’s a huge tide of money coming in and it’s difficult to stop that wave and protect the populations that are at risk. Especially people who don’t make as much money. So I thought I’ve got to do something for them. Me and my two cousins are the last two in my family that can afford to live here. Both of them are in subsidized housing and I rent. I rent from a landlord who could get $1,500 more a month for this place. I’m still rent burdened, but he could get $5,000 for this place. I also realized that this isn’t just about letting poorer people stay here because they have a right to, which they do, but also because it makes everyone else’s life better.
You’re old enough to remember how awesome Harvard Square was right? Harvard Square sucks now and that’s what’s happening to all of Cambridge.
It’s bank branches on every corner. Everywhere we used to go see shows, late night diners, now it’s all fucking… Bank of America. From Harvard to Central Square there must be, I don’t know, twenty banks on Mass. Ave.
We all need banks everywhere right! I was walking around Harvard Square the other day, by the Dunkins on JFK St. I remember when there was a fight to put that in, because they wanted no chains in Harvard Square. Now it’s all chains.
Here’s one thing I would like you to do if you can if you win. Can you get that fucking guy to actually do something with the old movie theater finally?
Wouldn’t that be awesome? Harvard Square Business Association recognizes they have to do something. There’s a task force on trying to revitalize it. Some of the ideas I have are about what to do with all these places that have closed down. Maybe they can’t afford their rent. Why don’t we start doing short term rental things. See if something works in that space. You have to make rent connected to sales so they can get going. Maybe a good relationship between the business and the landlord starts that way. Prioritize businesses owned by women and people of color. But local people who lose a restaurant and can’t afford to reopen? Give them a chance to try to do some short term thing to try to get foot traffic back in Harvard Square. It’s basically a tourist destination now. It used to be my kid’s backyard. My daughter, ten years ago, I remember her looking around saying, my god, what happened? She sounded like an 80 year old woman. She was 23.
The change is happening quickly enough that people only in their twenties can see it happening not just old guys like us. Back in the day now is like last year.
Exactly. I’m not trying to say bring back Out of Town News, or where’s the Tasty? Although bringing the Tasty back would be awesome. Change is inevitable. Cambridge has got a lot of money. It has the ability to be the agent of change rather than just letting it change. We need to identify what our values are. If it’s getting every last nickel for every square foot maybe it’s not a city I want to live in anymore. But I don’t think that’s what our values are.
Housing and food insecurity are two of your main things. What do you want to do about them?
I respect a lot of what Cambridge has already done. There’s something called Daily Table in Central Square, an awesome new project. Food insecurity at this point, for people who think about it and care about it as a concept, they themselves at this point have become food insecure. Restaurant workers I know who came back to work last fall or summer, got off unemployment, wanted to work…then fall came around, the money started drying up, they have a job they couldn’t just quit, they’re making $30 a night, they can’t afford their rent, they can’t afford food. There were kids saying I’m eating ramen can they please just lay us off. A lot of people who never believed they would be food insecure have become food insecure. That’s a terrible thing. But it has made a lot of us realize that food insecurity is not just a theoretical issue and it can happen to all of us. I think maybe there’s an opportunity now to expand on that.
For housing, there’s something called missing middle housing. An idea that started eleven years ago or so about creating housing density. Getting rid of some of the zoning restrictions that in the last half of the last century didn’t exist. A lot of these zoning issues were just ways to reinforce racist policies. Some of them were pretty good ideas but are out of date. There are some people who want to upzone, get rid of these zoning laws. That seems like a good idea on the surface because creating housing density will potentially create a bigger housing stock, and thus bring down pricing. That’s the theory. In my opinion that’s a risky move for Cambridge. The proposal coming forward as it stands does not target affordable housing. So I’d like to use this idea, missing middle housing, while getting rid of some of the restrictions, but in a way that Cambridge can have an active say on what’s getting built. I’d like to see more middle class housing that families can not only rent, but buy, and create some generational wealth that way. Which is part of the problem with the housing program right now. Some of the programs you buy from the city but you don’t get to pass it on at the end of your life.
When I think about Cambridge I think about a lot of generational wealth. It’s a dense city in a lot of parts, but then there’s these freestanding massive homes everywhere. People like me, we just got pushed out of the area, and people much worse off than me can’t even come close to it. People are being deprived of the opportunity of setting up these roots that we see in all the fancier areas.
Somebody said to me recently that there’s no social contract that says you get to live in the town you were born in. I said, hm, that sounds true. I was born in Cambridge, but I grew up in Concord. I could never dream of buying a house in Concord. In my early twenties I moved back to Cambridge because that’s where I spent all my time, all my family was here. It felt like home. It is my home. But while maybe people don’t have the right, they should definitely at least be able to aspire to it. It shouldn’t require a doctorate or engineering degree or something to live in Cambridge. Why can’t, say, a teacher who grew up in Cambridge, and taught in Cambridge be able to live in Cambridge? Well not on a teacher’s salary. We need to create opportunities for people to aspire to.
You’re in Watertown?
No we moved further out to ___ because we couldn’t afford anything else.
I know it well. I lived there for a while.
I like it so far. It’s not Cambridge or Watertown even. It’s much more suburban than I’d like.
Let’s say you were a DPW worker in Cambridge and you have to live in ___. How far are you supposed to travel to your job so the people who moved here for an authentic experience have clean streets? Clean homes. Can get a coffee. From a fairness point of view, how far are the people who make your Cambridge life possible supposed to travel to do it? You’re a forty minute drive. If there’s traffic even longer. And you’re lucky to have gotten a house there. Every one of these towns around us is becoming more and more expensive. Cambridge is an innovation center. Let’s be innovative on how we’re going to retain our middle class. Not just retain it but make it stronger. The wealth gap in Cambridge is enormous.
Alright well I wish you luck and hopefully we can get the word out here to some voters.
You can tell them I copied AOC.
That’s right. The bartender to politician pipeline.
I’m just a bartender. I don’t know if people take that seriously. I do know everyone that lives in this town though. I certainly hear what people are talking about. And guess what, if they have a problem with me they can find me. The job doesn’t pay well enough for me to quit my night job.