John Roney has been a waiter at J.G. Melon, the old-school burger joint on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, since 1986. He has worked through plenty of urban disasters, including Black Monday, Sept. 11 and Hurricane Sandy. But the coronavirus outbreak posed new challenges.
“When the pandemic hit, everything was gone,” Mr. Roney said. “While the restaurant was closed, we collected unemployment and received the pandemic check. We were OK,” he said. “But having no structure and not being in the restaurant felt awful.”
In April J.G. Melon started offering takeout. As the city continued to reopen, the restaurant expanded its outdoor seating from seven to 17 tables, two more than it has inside. Mr. Roney, 61, has returned to waiting tables, this time on the sidewalk and streets. He enjoys the “birds and street noise” of working outside, he said. “It’s lighter.”
Mr. Roney lives in a one-bedroom apartment on West 55th Street with his wife, Tess, 56, also a server at J.G. Melon who does some office work there too, and their son, Aidan, 20. Their daughter, Mae, 23, lives in Astoria, Queens.
STRETCH AND PRAY I wake up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. without an alarm. Tess sleeps till 8. I make coffee. We’re big fans of whole beans from Starbucks House Blend or Life Begins at 40 from Fairway. I do some yoga postures and stretch out. I’ll have some oatmeal, a handful of cashews and almonds. We’re members of St. Malachy’s Church, the Actors’ Chapel, where my daughter is a cantor. Before the pandemic we’d go to Mass. Now I watch it on YouTube. It’s a shorter version, 30 minutes. I do that from 8 to 8:30. I leave before Tess, around 9:30.
SET UP I started taking the subway again. Before I was driving because parking was easy. I wear a really good mask and gloves. Or I’ll walk. I’m at the restaurant by 10 and for the next hour I set up. I turn on the neon Melon’s light and see what needs to be done. I check the landscaping. I’m the gardener here. Since we have more outside space, we bought rosemary and blooming jasmine, which give a nice waft, mandevillas in red and white, ivy and two tree wells. I set the barriers, put out the chairs, adjust the tables and put tablecloths on them. I set up the waiters’ stations, all of which reminds me of “Brigadoon.” It’s kind of magical the way it transforms from a sidewalk and street to a busy restaurant with people laughing, talking and eating food.
PERKS OF THE JOB From 11 to 11:30 everyone eats. I order a feta, spinach and tomato omelet — with well-done home fries, of course. Tess orders the same thing. Everyone throws their talents in. She helps with the books, scheduling and deals with computer issues in addition to waitressing. Then I tuck my shirt in and it’s off to the races.
SLAMMED From 11:30 to 3 it’s nonstop. I like being outside, it’s a slower pace. We all take a breath. Melon’s has energy inside. It’s the noise of the grill, the screaming of drink orders at the bartenders, glasses clinking, all the orders are shouted to the kitchen, and there’s the music from the jukebox. Outside is not as frenetic.
STEPS The neighborhood feel is returning. People are coming back. We’re starting to see regulars. Now it’s a different kind of hustle. We have to police the sidewalks. There are small spots where people can sit, and if they can sit, they can have a drink. They go to the takeout window and order one. Not a lot of people want to drink while they’re waiting for a table. I work the 74th Street side of the restaurant, which is now a long walk back to the kitchen. Before you could stand in the middle of the restaurant and everything was right there — the kitchen, the tables. Getting through the crowd of customers was like playing hockey. Now it’s a hike if something is missing or you forgot a spoon or straw.
SYMPATHY BOUNCE For the first time we’re taking credit cards with hand-held devices; before it was always cash. But no one wants to touch cash right now. We might go back to that, but for the time being it’s a whole new world. I’m not a tech guy. We still write everything by hand. The checks are totaled by hand; that keeps a lot of us mentally nimble. In terms of overall revenue we are below what we were making. People are aware and that leads them to throw you a few extra bucks, so there’s been a sympathy bounce.
SLOW DOWN There’s a little lull from 3 to 4 where I get to take a breath, grab a moment with Tess, while my feet start reminding me that they’re there. I do a couple of stretches and then the evening rush kicks in. At 4 we get a mix of people who slept in all day and are getting out for the first time, and young families who have little kids and want to eat early and get them into bed.
SIGN OUT My shift ends at 5. Each day is getting better. Before we were getting by, now we’re busy. There’s a feeling of: “We can do this. It’s going to work.” Business is increasing. I give my relief person whatever checks are open. I sign the book out and change my shirt. Then I jump on the Q. I’m home by 5:45. I talk to our daughter who lives in Queens. Then I cook dinner, leftovers from the weekend. I reincarnate chicken breast from Friday and turn it into chicken and pasta on Sunday. Or we order in sushi or Italian, usually from Da Tommaso, Nocello or Aroma Trattoria.
A DEEPER TIRED Tess gets home around 7. We grab a plate and sit down to eat. By 8 I’m watching “60 Minutes,” which I tape, or the Smithsonian channel, which I love, or the Vice channel. Tess gets on the computer and catches up on Facebook. I’m exhausted, it’s a deeper tired now. Work is different, but it’s better. I don’t finish the TV show. I start falling asleep by 8:30. And then it’s lights out.
Sunday Routine readers can follow John Roney on Instagram @jmjroney.