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Frontline Diary


Hailey Nicole Warner

When I was in junior high and high school, my dad drove for a yellow cab company in Chico, CA. He worked 60 hours a week, sometimes more, with a side hustle playing keyboard around town in funk bands, mostly casino gigs and concerts in the local plaza. He even picked up a few students on the side, young pianists looking to play charts or have their classical stiffness banged out of their fingers. He was a regular at Angie’s poker club on and off for years, and though he never spoke about it to me, my mom hinted that he wasn’t half bad. According to her, some months he made enough for bills and child support just from playing poker.

My dad had a way of turning his talents into money. He improvised until he had something that worked, and he was good at it. For years he cycled this strange work clock, driving nights and dedicating his days to the odd jobs. He was always tired. I never saw him without his travel thermos of coffee, and his kitchen table was cluttered with cabbie dispatch notes, sheet music, fast food wrappers, and coffee-stained napkins. The table of a working man.

I couldn’t live like that, but now I understand his brand of proud tiredness. For wage workers, the day really begins when work ends. Only so many hours truly belong to us. So they count.

This year, as Covid shook San Francisco, I worked two jobs in the Mission district while I finished my last year of college. For five months I hopped from the opening shift at a café to the closing shift at a small retail shop.

In the beginning, people were overly nice. We were all in shock, and the initial fear made us careful. People saw a glimpse of normalcy in the café. In March and April that seemed like something sacred.

Summer was a different story. People felt pent up. In October, I watched a lady throw her smoothie at a man who had wronged her in some way that I didn’t catch. Her exact words when she did it—I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be. Damn.

The squabble fizzled out from there, but still, these were complete strangers. I was taking an order when it happened. I mentally checked out for a second during the transaction to keep from laughing or screaming. We all wanted to scream by then.

The cafe’ was located in the kind of tech-dominated, eight-dollar chai latte gentrified block that makes me want to set San Francisco on fire. It’s in close proximity to Dolores Park, one of the city’s most notorious party parks. When pride season came in May, we had lines out the door, and the park looked just as it had the previous summer—packed to capacity. Aside from masks and stickers showing customers where to stand, it seemed nothing had changed, which was good for the owner, but it made me nervous as hell. Even without tourists, the café was almost back to normal capacity, but with half the staff.

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When we opened our patio for outdoor dining instead of takeout only, my manager sat me down for a serious chat. We’d become close over the two years I worked there. I knew both her daughters, and her husband was a chef in the café’s kitchen. Her youngest son was just starting junior high. The mother in her told me to be careful, to sanitize everything, and we hugged with our masks hiding something we wouldn’t say. We were terrified, but that feeling was muted by routine.

In the mornings we’d help ourselves to coffee it and our greeting was always the same: How are you? Tired, but good.

When fall came, I knew I couldn’t work at the café anymore. I wanted to scream every day, but at who? Maybe not at the people leaving crumpled napkins on their table, or people who pulled down masks to order, but it was heading there. So I quit.

My second job would be enough, I thought, and I was at a much lower risk of infection there, working at the same small retail shop located deeper in the Mission, further away from Dolores and its foot traffic.

Maybe I needed to run around less, too. For the entire year, I’ve felt like I was in motion. Since July I’ve lived in three different districts of San Francisco, though my bus to work hasn’t changed. In September I moved into a studio in San Francisco’s Outer Tenderloin. That means it’s on the edge of what remains one of the city’s few seedy neighborhoods. From the fifth floor there’s a view of the taller brick buildings and hotels that make up the block.

The first night was like a scene straight out of a sitcom: two small town best friends turned roommates finally have their own little piece of the city. My roommate and I were exhausted from moving. We pushed our mattresses together to make room for the boxes we couldn’t deal with. We ordered Pad Thai and popped a bottle of champagne. It had been a long time since we were excited about something. Our apartment in this city of insanely high rents was a small victory to hold against the year of losses.

We opened the bay windows and listened to the sounds of the city below us. Then, like an emaciated Gandalf, there he was. In the window directly across from ours stood an old man wearing only a tee shirt. He was trembling slightly, looking right at us and jerking off shamelessly.

We laughed at first. How could this be happening? But it did, constantly. We realized that the more we reacted the more excited he became. He haunted us day and night. He was there so often I wondered how it was even possible—physically, I mean. We were dealing with a serial masturbator, so we called the cops.

That got him to stop—for the most part. And I didn’t notice as much, for a while, because I wasn’t there.

A month after I quit my job at the cafe and a few weeks after I moved into the apartment, I tested positive for COVID-19. I am grateful for early detection and for symptoms so mild that they almost went unnoticed. The city of San Francisco put me up in a hotel. For two weeks, everything stopped. No bus rides. No need to act cheery to customers.

No Gandalf.

Since then, I’ve fallen back into the routine of work hours and free hours. I’m resigned to it, but sometimes I still get that urge to scream. I don’t have the temperament for poker, I guess.

I’m still keeping it together at work, but when I see the serial masturbator any modicum of sanity disappears. I’ll come home and not always, but still, often enough, he’ll be there. It’s a little different now. Since the cops talked to him, his retreat is easily won by me leaning out the window and screaming as loud as I can:

Knock it off buddy or you know who I’ll call!” 

Maybe that’s the silver lining of all this. That’s the kicker. Now when I come home, tired and ready to scream, I have a target.

I’m still not poker-faced like my dad, but it does feel like the cards are starting to line up, in their own peculiar way.

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Hailey Nicole Warner grew up in Chico, California. She is a senior at San Francisco State University majoring in creative writing.

Look Through Any Window :::: The Hollies

Julie’s Working/Fuck ‘Em ::: Shel Silverstein

Hard Working Woman ::: Mississippi Matilda

9 To 5 ::: Dolly Parton

Silhouettes ::: The Rays

Hard Workin’ Fucked Over Man ::: Captain Beefheart

Working For You ::: Rakim