Friday, July 12, 2024

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Where We Are (Part 2): Finding our way here

In this second installment of Where We Are, I focus on three local voices ranging in age from eighteen to forty-one. They were all born and raised in South County. These first-person narratives have been edited and condensed for concision and clarity.

Zee Vassos, 41 years old, Chef at Number Ten

I’ve been in the restaurant business my entire career since I was 13, as a pimply-faced busboy. Number Ten in Great Barrington feels like a very stable restaurant in terms of the leadership and staff and everybody working towards a common goal. I actually feel in the best place I’ve been, which is ironic given that we came out of COVID and restaurants were teetering on the brink of success and failure. In a market where a lot of places closed and we stayed open, we were able to kind of build up a reputation, I guess. We were able to listen to our customers and figure out what they wanted. It was a lot of pivoting and staying on our toes in terms of what was working and what wasn’t working, that gave us this really nice foundation which post-COVID, we were able to use to push off of and stay relevant. So that’s a really nice thing to have, the restaurant business being so volatile and so unpredictable.

Zee Vassos, 41 years old, Chef at Number Ten. Photo by Chelsea Proulx.

I always wanted to be at work, always wanted to be trying to get better. It was this badge of honor that I wore, the long hours and scars and burns and the cuts. I love working with the young people who are coming into the business because you get to see that passion, that thirst for creativity and new experiences. But at the same time, I’m very candid with them about how hard it is. It’s not a business to get into if you’re on the fence about it. It’s unforgiving.

I think the restaurant business is fundamentally flawed in terms of what it expects from its employees, but I don’t see it changing anytime soon, like a sea change of, ‘Oh, we’re suddenly going to have eight hour work days, four-day work weeks and health insurance and all that kind of stuff.’ That’s not how the business works. But at the same time, you get to work with really amazing people from all different corners of the world and all different walks of life, and you get a really good staff together and that’s a really strong bond. It’s a family feel, you’re all in it together. That’s a real strong piece of restaurant culture, a solidifying piece, that makes it a lot easier.

I’m not afraid of change. I know people want their Berkshires to be their Berkshires, and I think that’s sort of pie in the sky. I see an influx of people to this area brings more good things for everybody. Things are a little bit more crowded, it’s not quite the same sort of experience, but at the same time, it’s still so beautiful and spacious and there’s so much nature.

The cost of living is a tough part of it. There’s always been this sense of like, I can’t afford my own products. I’m not my own customer. We need the people coming in that are spending a lot more money than we would spend on something, like a one-day party or a night out to dinner or a sweater at a clothing store. We definitely also need to have resources here for local people who are not in that same income bracket. There has to be a balance.

We live in Becket. We really like it out here. We got really lucky with our house, but we also love the quietness, the proximity to the state forest. You can pretty much get anywhere in the county in a half hour. Nothing’s really close, but nothing’s really far away. There used to be two little general stores and then they both closed. There’s a small one like over Sherwood Forest area which is in southern part of Becket.

But other than that, there’s a little restaurant and it has its own marijuana dispensary right next door, which is pretty funny. I would say maybe half the homes on our street are second homes or vacation homes. Becket’s got that sort of population that jumps in the summertime.

[My wife Jocelyn] built her [photography] business from the ground up over the twelve years we’ve been back in the Berkshires. The wedding industry is very strong and it’s got its own little community of vendors. She’s close with a lot of other photographers and florists. One of the things she always talks about is community over competition, and that’s something that we both really like to practice as much as possible. It’s not that cutthroat environment of a city where you’re trying to one up somebody or underbid them. My boss Fern who owns the restaurant has always been about, “The more great restaurants we can have near us, the better.”

With the community over competition thing you have to have some confidence in who you are, and not feel threatened. I think it’s a state of mind and an approach to how you want to live your life. I’m not trying to make all the money in the world. I want to be able to do a few things that I like to do. I’d rather have a great community of other chefs that are successful, and we all collaborate and help each other out as opposed to being the best restaurant and putting all the other ones out of business.

Kayla Zigmand, 28 years old, hair stylist at Seven Salon and Day Spa

Being engaged is great. The next step is eventually to have a house, and that seems like an impossibility. You’d be house broke. Like, you could do it, but there’s nothing else that you’re gonna be able to do with your life. You get to just say that you live in Berkshire County. We’re renting now. It would be a lot better if we had a yard for my dachshund, and space where we could potentially put a crib. [My high school friend] lives in the next apartment down from me and she just had her first baby. She’s definitely wishing that she had more space because hers is even smaller of an apartment.

[We’re looking for a house] as far as Dalton down to Canaan, Conn,, and then branching out toward Sandisfield, Becket, Otis. We want Lee, Stockbridge. I wouldn’t say Great Barrington. I would skip right over it and go to Sheffield, because my mom’s in Sheffield.

Kayla Zigmand, 28 years old, hair stylist at Seven Salon and Day Spa. Photo courtesy of Kayla Zigmand.

I need to stay at Seven, and John needs to stay at Butternut because of our salaries. He’s a mechanic in the summer. He works on their snowcats, which are those gigantic machines. When you’re redoing one spindle tire, it takes him like four days to do it. Repairing one machine takes a few months. He’s been at Butternut seasonally for nine years, so he now makes pretty good money by doing that. In the winter he works nights and grooms the trails.

We’re waiting until we’re married before we even apply for a combined loan, but he applied for his own, and there’s nothing in the area for that amount that doesn’t need serious work. There’s the first-time home buyers’ loan and they will match you on your down payment. John knows way more about it than I do, he’s definitely more savvy in this department. He’s on his phone, looking at listings. My parents always rented so I always kind of looked at it like, ‘Well, why don’t we just rent a house, a bigger space that has a yard?’ I don’t really feel the need so much to be a homeowner as he does. Even though I’m making the most money that I have ever made, that amount is not enough to have a house and do all the things. It’s like a choice, one or the other, you can’t have both.

I’ve been there [Seven Spa] for four years. For the past two, I’ve been a hair stylist rather than assistant. It’s been great. Mark and Maurice are fabulous. I’ve had a full book. I do four ten-hour days. I’m very accessible, and my personality is very maternal. I think that my years in the restaurant business contribute.

My dog is making me happy. My mom and I have a great relationship. She’s single and able to really enjoy life doing things for herself.

I’m over Great Barrington. I don’t go there for anything anymore. I avoid Great Barrington at all costs. I don’t even like driving through when I need to get down to Sheffield. I don’t feel welcome there. It’s really nice that in Stockbridge, you can sit here and still be a local person in the summertime and not feel completely pushed out like you do in Great Barrington.

My mom and I drove up to Pittsfield and went to Misty Moonlight Diner, because that’s the kind of thing that you want sometimes that Great Barrington doesn’t offer anymore, to feel good about eating and not feeling as though you’re being ripped off at the end. West Stockbridge is fun. There’s this new restaurant, Amici, and we’re loving that. We just go out to eat. What else you got to do? We hike, we bring the dog to Monument on the offseason. It has to be when nobody’s there.

We’re gonna settle down for this portion of our life here. I’ve always known that I’m going to make my money and raise my children until a certain age here in Berkshire County. Am I going to want to maybe retire to Florida someday? Absolutely. Or Rhode Island like somewhere where I can wake up and walk on the beach. But where we are and the people that are here, and the money? You’d probably take a $30,000 pay cut, no matter where you go.

John and I will discuss, like, sillily, not taking it seriously, moving somewhere else. But his twin brother lives in Portland, Ore., and with the homeless situation, they take things, his car gets broken into like, once a month. It sounds pretty awful. So, I think that that’s part of the reason that we’re both like, we’re good where we are.

Deisy Escobar, 18 years old, senior at Mount Everett High School

I was born in Great Barrington in 2004. My mom is from Colombia, and my dad’s from Mexico. Right now I’m working towards applying to colleges. I’m not sure where, but I’m just looking. I see myself going away to college. UMass Amherst? or Boston? Salem State? I’m not sure. I’d like to stay in the state.

I have a bilingual radio show on WTBR 89.7 FM with my mom. I also work with Railroad Street Youth Project as a co-chair of their Southern Berkshire Health Coalition. They do meetings every month at each of the schools and we talk about substance abuse, risk, and protective factors, and we do a bunch of workshops and activities with youth.

Right now, we’re talking about merging both schools, Monument and Mount Everett, and we’ve been having forums for students. I’ve been helping facilitate that. It’s been very productive. Obviously, there’s been a lot of things that have come up, a lot of disagreements, a lot of misconceptions about both schools, people saying, ‘Oh, well. I heard that your school’s this and I heard that this other school’s this.’ We’ve been asking, ‘What are you afraid of losing?’

Deisy Escobar, 18 years old, senior at Mount Everett High School. Photo courtesy of the Railroad Street Youth Project.

A problem we’ve been having is that not a lot of Mount Everett students right now have been joining. The first one we had was at Railroad Street’s drop-in center, and almost everyone registered was from Mount Everett, and no one from Monument, but only Monument students came to the actual forum. So it left us with questions about why. We’ve been trying to work hard on getting more students from Mount Everest to really talk about it. A lot of people are like, ‘Well, my parents are gonna vote against it anyways,’ or ‘No one’s gonna allow it to happen.’ That’s the attitude.

I was also able to join an advisory network for the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, and I’m the youngest member there. I haven’t felt once that they’ve like looked down upon me because I’m young. They’ve invited me for what I think about, how we can make places like the Mahaiwe more inclusive for different communities. I felt really welcomed there and like my opinions actually matter.

I’ve been a part of the mentorship committee for Latinas 413. They’ve also welcomed my opinions. I’ve never really had that before because mostly it’s been just the adults talking or the adults talking for the youth. But this time they’re actually letting them bring in ideas on what should change, how we feel the direction of different things should go, and the future of the community. So it’s really exciting, as a teenager, seeing that change.

[On the other hand,] there’s a general lack of resources in my school, like for regular things like mental health, and for the new immigrant students. For example, Monument has a person who’s bilingual and comes and helps the students, but in my school that isn’t there.

It’s isolating here. I wish there were more activities or more sense of like, community. Sometimes it feels like there’s not a lot of spaces where people can connect. For example, [applying to] college. It feels like you’re kind of left on your own and I’d like there to be like more like guidance on that. My guidance counselor, he has so much work with the other students that he doesn’t sit down with you and say, ‘Here is step by step. I’m going to show you how to fill it out. Maybe we can schedule a session for you and your parents.’ Or, ‘Let me explain to you how to fill out the FAFSA form and what you need for that.’

I’ve had to look online for resources and it’s really confusing. And it’s not just even for me as a first-generation student. There are other students whose parents went to college and everyone’s lost. It’s mostly left to us—to the students to help each other out. We have a club called The New Day club. We offer support to new immigrant students, but we can’t do it all by ourselves.

If you or someone you know would like to be included in a future installment of “Where We Are,” please reach out to Sheela at sheelaattheedge@gmail.com.

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