Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

Petula Dvorak: In a storm, it’s interesting to note who’s ‘essential’

When Josh Genderson came to work Monday, there was already a long line of people at the front door of his store. At 9 a.m. On Sandy’s D-Day.

He doesn’t sell water or milk or AA batteries or duct tape.

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Genderson runs a wine shop. “People like to be locked up with their libations,” he explained.

When I got there at 10:30 a.m., the place was packed.

Genderson is the fourth generation of his family to run Schneider’s on Capitol Hill, and throughout years of natural disasters, the family has shuttled its workers to the store, fed them and even housed them so that the store can stay open when Washingtonians are at their thirstiest.

“It’s part of the deal when you’re a small business,” Genderson said. “You find any way to just keep going.”

And so it went across the region, where the biggest institutions shut down and the smallest businesses struggled to stay open.

It's like a weirdly inverse chart, where the folks with secure government jobs, the ones with SUVs and more affluent addresses, get to stay home, bundle up and wait out the storm.

And the folks working the minimum-wage jobs, who frequently rely on public transportation, have to find a way — any way — to make it to work.

The less you make, the more likely you’re getting wet and getting to work, no matter what happens.

The very definition of “nonessential employee” is turned on its head. Law offices, lobbying shops, consulting agencies — all dark. The corner store with Ho Hos and wine bottle openers? A beacon of glorious light!

Across the city, federal buildings were locked up, the Metro silent. But there wasn’t an open seat at Peregrine Coffee on Capitol Hill.

Baristas carpooled, bicycled and walked to work to help caffeinate the masses.

“A lot of our employees live nearby, so they could walk," said Randy Kindle, as the wind howled outside and he poured another espresso.

Baristas, as it turns out, are America’s new postal workers — neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will keep these baristas from getting you your nonfat latte.

The same goes for the wait staff at neighboring Le Pain Quotidien, where general manager Ashley Bundy called for all hands on deck and made sure her employees could carpool or bunk together to keep the restaurant open.

“We may not have fresh bread, but we’re going to try to have hot food and coffee and Internet access and anything else,” Bundy said.

Roberta Blanchard, owner of the Fairy Godmother book and toy store on Capitol Hill, was open for the early part of the day.

She knew that soon enough, Capitol Hill parents would be flooding in to stock up on puzzles and games to make it through the next couple of days of forced intimacy with their spawn.

The rain was intensifying Monday afternoon at Washington Harbor along the Potomac, where workers in full rain gear were making sure the floodgates were up.

Tony Cibel, the owner of Tony & Joe’s Seafood Place, made one last check on his gorgeous, shiny new restaurant, as the Potomac River floodgates went up outside.

The restaurant reopened a week ago, after being closed for 17 months because of a devastating flood in April last year. The floodwalls weren’t raised, and the restaurant was under about 10 feet of water.

“I think we’ll be okay this time,” Cibel said.

He closed the restaurant for the storm, figuring Washington Harbor will be pretty empty during a hurricane.

Tell that to the guy perched on a ladder, shuddering in the wind.

“Day off? What’s a day off? I don’t get a day off!” he yelled through sheets of rain. He is part of the crew assembling a new ice rink at Washington Harbor.

Apparently his work was deemed dire, even in a storm.

What is expendable? Doggie day care, apparently, as some dog owners cringed at whole days with their cooped-up pooches.

This was an obstacle for Genderson, the wine store guy. His bulldog puppy, normally in day care, will have to come to work with him on Tuesday.

He’s gotta show up. Given the forecast, it’s going to be a busy one.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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