"I spent my furlough days sending money to others who had been furloughed."

Fingers speaks with reporter Paige Cornwell about the Journalist Furlough Fund, and why American media workers need a better safety net

Welcome to Fingers, a newsletter by me, Dave Infante, about drinking culture, being online, and beyond. If you haven’t already, please sign up for future dispatches, OK?
Follow @dinfontay on Twitter & @its.fingers on Instagram. Send tips, praise, and pictures of barroom graffiti to dave@dinfontay.com, thank you very much.

I got laid off at the beginning of August. Upon hearing of my misfortune, some of my fellow media masochists—the ones who still have jobs, mostly—tried to Venmo me some money to get me drunk. This very-generous gesture is a thing journalists often do, and I wrote about it in this Fingers essay, “Who’s got the bar tab Venmo”:

You know that thing that dude who peaked in high school used to say, presumably at his high-school peak? “Every time you do [thing], god kills a puppy,” or whatever? Well, every time you see someone tweet “Who’s got the bar tab Venmo?” a media company lays off a journalist. Usually more than one, in fact!

I think it’s a pretty good essay, and you should read it if you want. The folks at VinePair apparently thought the essay was good enough to expand into a reported story, to which I said “god forbid I go a month without a byline, the ego-death would be severe, let’s fucking do it.” That piece just went live over at VinePair dot com, and I think it is also pretty good. Check it out please, thank you.

One of my sources on the VinePair story was Paige Cornwell, a reporter at the Seattle Times who administers the Journalist Furlough Fund. Launched in March 2020 on GoFundMe, the JFF has raised nearly $100,000, which Cornwell herself has been doling out to working reporters, editors, photographers, etc. across the country who have fallen on hard times. It’s one of several efforts that have sprung up to distribute dough directly to journalists in response to the absolute shitshow of a year American media is having. (And, y’know, America in general.)

I interviewed Cornwell in early September about her experience launching this massive, grassroots crowdfunding effort, how journalists can help each other out, and—crucially—how they can’t. Our interview is below; follow Cornwell on Twitter, and donate to the JFF if you’re able. (For transparency: I have contributed to it in the past.)

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Meet Paige Cornwell, Seattle Times reporter and creator of the Journalist Furlough Fund.

Dave Infante, Fingers: Hey, how are you? You said this is your work phone—are you like, back in the office?

Paige Cornwell, reporter: No! Oh god no. This is my work phone, but it’s through my laptop.

Got it.

I don’t know if it’s because [management] wanted us [to stay home] to save money, or whatever. But I like to think it’s for health reasons!

So I’m reporting this piece for for VinePair about bar tab Venmo. Are you familiar with that practice?

Oh yeah, I’m. very familiar with the bar tab ritual. I’m trying to think about the very first time I heard about it. I don't remember when I first saw it.

So tell me about the fund. Where did this come from?

At the beginning it started with people I knew actually sending me like $10, $5, however much, for like a for a latte. Back when [the coronavirus pandemic] first started happening and we were one of the only newsrooms covering this full-time. So I started seeing how that was really nice. I would go to a nursing home with cases, then go to a coffee shop afterwards, and it was this nice ritual that helped me get through.

Shortly after that, [the pandemic] started spreading, and I started seeing my [journalism] friends being financially impacted by layoffs, or pay cuts, or furloughs. I started sending some of my friends money—like $20, something like that. And someone sent it back and told me “give this to someone who needs it more.” It was like that joke, the same $20 being passed around to everyone.

At some point, I posted on my private Instagram, like “Hey, I want to raise some money for some people I know who financially impacted, here's my Venmo if you if you want to.” I got a huge response, even from people I didn't know. People were screenshotting it and putting it on their own profiles. But that was weird, because all these people I didn't know were sending me money on Venmo. That was a little odd.


>>>RELATED: Fully Automated Luxury Newsmaking


I can imagine that’d be kind of disorienting.

Right, right. So at some point, I started a GoFundMe, and I posted on Twitter about it. It really just took off from there.

When did you start doing the disbursements? What did that process look like? I know you have a form in place.

The form started pretty early, just as a way for me to keep track of it. I would say maybe 10 people had reached out to me before that to say they could use financial help, so [I implemented that] pretty early.

Do you have a rough count of how many disbursements you’ve made at this point?

Yeah, it’s hovering at around 400.

Wow. Are you through all the funds, or are you still doing disbursements.

We're still doing it. There's still some money coming in. It’s definitely slowed, but I’m hoping to gain momentum again and get more donations. It’s certainly slower than it was before, but people are still being financially impacted in many different ways, especially now with wildfires and protests and so much more.

Someone else can figure out how to save journalism. I’ll just make sure a reporter can buy their daughter’s school supplies.

Do you feel like these disbursements are a way to build solidarity amongst the people receiving them, or is it more transactional, or what?

I’ve certainly seen the solidarity. I was actually really surprised by the support from people who are, let’s say, “journalist-adjacent,” people who work with journalists, or just [generally] support journalism. So I think it has been big on solidarity because you are seeing people tweeting like “Hey, this helps me, now I want to help someone else, so once I get my unemployment check, once I get back on my feet, I’ll donate.” And I’ve actually seen that—people who received money in April who then donated it back a few months later.

Yeah, the “journalism-adjacent” thing is curious. I was looking through some of the people who commented on the GoFundMe page and saw several people who like identified as PR professionals, flacks. Were you surprised by that?

You know, I was. I think it’s funny that the people who commented and were very open about their donations were a lot of public relations-type people, whereas others were a little quieter about it. There were a lot of pretty big donations that were listed as anonymous, which was interesting to see.

What do you make of that? In my experience it’s more of an adversarial relationship between PR and journalists.

PR people… I mean, there might be an adversarial relationship, but I don't think that PR people don’t want journalists to be there. There can’t be public relations people without without the journalists to disperse the info.

10 large for journos from a T-Mobile comms person, I find it hard to be mad at! Source

Like the Batman-Joker relationship.

Right, right. I also feel like people often think of journalists as a monolith, whereas this fund really shows the individual impact layoffs and furloughs have had on people. That to me has been interesting to see. People really do want to support journalists on the ground. They might not support the companies, they might not support, like [the media] as one big monolith. But when it comes to the actual people and the actual work they're doing, they do support it.

How much labor are you doing to route these disbursements where they need to go, vet applicants… that’s the question, I guess. How much work are you putting on yourself?

It is some work. The vetting doesn’t take as much time as I thought it would, because often people are very public-facing. There have been a few people who have applied and I wasn't able to confirm with them like where they work or what they do even when I emailed them. So it does take some time.

It’s interesting to see people be like “yeah just let me donate and you figure out where it goes.” [Laughs.] It helps that I put in [the updates] like “This much went to a journalist in Missouri who was laid off and using it to buy equipment,” or something. I think seeing that kind of specificity really helps [encourage donations] too.


>>>RELATED: “I think we have a debt to pay” | The Fingers interview with J Nikol Jackson-Beckham, Ph.D


Do you think… and I’m not trying to belittle what you’ve done here at all, it’s amazing, but do you think this type of solidarity, this crowdfunding… is this “enough” to close the gaps that are constantly widening in the American media ecosystem?

[Laughs.] No, it’s not enough. We’ve made that clear with the fund. This isn't a way to make up for someone's loss. This is more of a crutch for someone, like, if someone’s unemployment check hasn't come through or, you know, they're waiting for [payment] or they like… it’s for keeping before keeping someone from the edge. So often we’ll see people be like, “I need $100 to help me to like not have to dip into my savings,” or “I need $200 like buy a laptop because my company isn't providing one now,” or “I need this so I'm not late on medical debt.” Things like that.

There should be a focus on the industry and the predatory companies who are causing this in the first place.

[The JFF] is definitely not there to save everyone, but I think [it can help with] keeping everyone from the edge. Because that's really scary when someone says, “If I don't pay the medical bills, they're gonna forward it to collections.”

It’d be really cool if journalism just paid well enough in the first place that everyone wasn’t a few inches from the buzzsaw.

Right! I mean that’s the thing. I thought: someone else can figure out how to save journalism as a whole, but I’ll just make sure that someone somewhere will be able to buy their daughter's school supplies. It’s just so ridiculous that we even have to have those conversations. But we do. And I'm happy to be the one to help them.

So as we continue to venture further down this path that we're on as a country, presumably there are going to be more journalism layoffs. Have you thought about formalizing this into a non-profit or anything, or do you want to keep it intentionally low to the ground?

Yeah, I have thought about figuring out a way to like make this a continual thing, because I think there's a need for it, and an interest in it. People want to help. I don't know yet how I'm gonna formalize it, and for now it is kind of nice having it informal, because my schedule is so crazy at the moment. Being able to work on it when I’m able to is helpful as well. Sure I would like to look into the future of this being a “keep journalists from the edge” fund.

Where do you come down on the spectrum of this being a form of charity vs. a sort of professional obligation for journalists to contribute to?

So when I first started this, I saw a lot of national reporters and like better-known reporters & journalists tweeting about this and saying, “I rely on local journalists for what I do,” because at first it was a lot more of the local [media outlets] impacted. And of course now it’s everyone. But I think you see a lot of people recognizing that within a journalism ecosystem, we rely on each other whether you want to admit it or not. So it doesn’t matter where the hole in the ship is because we’re all gonna sink. I certainly saw that a lot… I don't know if there's an obligation, but just acknowledgement that we need to help each other. Like, if the lowly journalists are being impacted, eventually it’s going to come for you, too.

I don’t think anyone should feel obligated to… I don’t know, it’s weird. Like, we should be [able to rely] on our employers to help us. It's not our fault if we can't afford to help each other. So I think it's good, but I also just think that there should be a focus on the fact that it's often the industry and predatory companies who are causing this in the first place.

[Editor’s note: a few hours after our call, Cornwell followed up with me via text to elaborate on this answer. Turns out that during our interview, she’d been coordinating Seattle Times’ wildfire coverage, and was, understandably, somewhat distracted.]

If my brain was operating at its capacity (which hasn’t happened since oh maybe Feb. 28...) I would have said that I don’t necessarily feel an obligation, but as someone who has been at one newspaper for my career and a proud member of a union, I know that I have a lot of privilege. I’ve never been laid off (...yet) and I have friends who have been laid off multiple times. So I feel like the least I can do during this time is help others.

I used to say that I was blessed not to have been furloughed but then the Times did require each person take a few unpaid days off. So I spent my furlough days sending money to others who had been furloughed.


The bottom shelf

  • Fellow beer writer Austin L. Ray was really helpful and supportive of me back when Fingers was just a dumb idea without a name (I almost called it Blog Half Empty, lmao, gross.) Austin was all like “do it dude,” and I was all like “I dunno,” and then I did it and well here we are. Anyway, for his birthday week, Austin is raising money for Fair Fight, an Atlanta org that Stacey Abrams founded to promote voter education and participation nationwide. You can make your donation directly to Austin via Venmo at @austinlouisray. I know it’s a little weird to send a random stranger money online, so if you don’t want to do that you can just donate directly to Fair Fight. You do you, but I Venmo’d Austin $100 to help fuel his ongoing “FUCK BRIAN KEMP” donation-update tweets, and I trust that my money will end up in Fair Fight’s coffers. If that puts you at ease, Venmo Austin today by 12pm ET to keep telling Georgia governor/sleaze Brian Kemp to go fuck himself.

  • Like every other faux-intellectual with a Substack, I figured I’d create an affiliate page on Bookshop.com to catalog my personal reading list and give fellow book-lovers a place to shop the titles I’m reading. Disclosure: if you do buy something through my link, I may receive a small affiliate fee. So uh, please do that! Check out The Fingers Reading Room now.

  • I’ve tallied up the donations Friends of Fingers have made to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and/or BeerKulture in exchange for me mailing them one of these stickers. To date, Friends of Fingers have sent $143 to the two organizations. That’s not bad! Thanks so much to everyone who has made donations so far. To everyone else: what are you waiting for? Make a donation, and I’ll email you a great sticker (I may even through in a Fingers sticker, to.) Get yours today, here’s how.

Big thanks to Friend of Fingers, the very-talented Daniel Fishel, for this newsletter’s logo and banner art. Commission him to draw things for you at o-fishel.com.
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Hell is empty, all the #DewGaritas are here

On the liquified marketing gimmicks being hustled down our willing gullets by The Brands™

Welcome to Fingers, a newsletter by me, Dave Infante, about drinking culture, being online, and beyond. If you haven’t already, please sign up for future dispatches, OK?
Follow @dinfontay on Twitter & @its.fingers on Instagram. Send tips, praise, and pictures of barroom graffiti to dave@dinfontay.com, thank you very much.
Divine Comedy, more like Dew-vine Comedy, amirite?! Source

Both of my brothers used to be on Twitter but deleted their accounts (not in the meme way, but for real) on the platform because they were hoping to maybe make themselves a little less sad on a daily basis.

One of my brothers calls horrifying news stories that he used to see on the timeline as “eye-stabbers” because, you know, they’re the types of stories that make you want to stab your eyes out. He didn’t want to do that, so he got rid of Twitter. Of course you don’t need Twitter to be miserable, there are plenty of other ways bathe yourself in the grotesques du jour of late capitalism, but he is right that @Jack’s very-bad website is absolutely full of eye-stabbers.

Where was I going with this? Oh right:

Behold the DewGarita, something that exists on Twitter (and maybe even not on Twitter, who knows?) It is a nifty new collaboration between “new buds” Mountain Dew and Red Lobster, by which of course I mean it’s a precision-engineered marketing ploy-cum-branded beverage borne in the bowels of some “boutique” agency’s collaboration base on Airtable and laser-focused on getting commodity shellfish-seekers to glug away some bucks out in Stripmallia. Fun stuff, I think!

The DewGarita is the latest in a long line of liquified marketing gimmicks hustled down our willing gullets by The Brands™, and while I refuse to plumb this cursed and consumptive genre at depth, two recent entries come to mind:

So you see, it’s very much a thing, and like hiring for bullshit jobs, brands do it to get money and attention from “sad, sad end users who volunteer to be taken advantage of” (to lift a phrase from Willy Stalley’s 2011 blog about McRibs and hog arbitrage on The Awl, now-defunct.)

Beyond that, what is there to say about the DewGarita? Ah god, so much.

As I was scrolling through the eye-stabbers today, its electrifying hue stopped my thumb mid-swipe and I was reminded of the absolutely insane thing that a Mountain Dew executive told BuzzFeed News back in 2015. This was way back, before the “pivot to video” and the endless layoffs and of course the rise of full-blown mask-off American fascism, and stuff. Back when blogs were still a thing and occasionally even fun.


>>>RELATED: Bud Light Seltzer’s no good, very bad job


Here is what the Mountain Dew executive told BuzzFeed News back then when reporter Venessa Wong asked him to answer the simple question of what color is this terrific fructose runoff you suits foist upon the masses in a grotesque exchange, dammit tell me?! (She said it much more professionally than that, which is probably why she is now a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News and I am writing this newsletter.)

Anyway sorry for the build-up but I didn’t want to drop this on you all at once—“this” being the executive’s answer to Venessa Wong’s question use an adjective to describe the color of Mountain Dew?—because I’m worried you might develop some brain bleeding when you read the quote. For all I know my brain has been bleeding ever since five years ago when I read the quote. Anyway are you ready for it (no you are not), here it comes, from 2015 (emphasis mine):

"We don't try to say what color the product is internally," Greg Lyons, vice president of marketing at Mountain Dew, told BuzzFeed News. He called it "Mountain Dew color," which really didn't push things forward much. We pressed further.

"Neon," he eventually said, reluctantly.

"That's if you're forcing me to describe it. 'Mountain Dew color' is in my words. If you force me to use an adjective, that's what I'd use. But I'd prefer, if you write about it, it to be Mountain Dew color. Because there's not really a color we call it."

There’s probably some smart joke I could make about how George Orwell was wary of a future of government doublespeak, but actually corporations are the doublespeakers now, but actually times-two the corporations *are* the government in this failing empire, and they don’t really see color an—oh man there’s probably another joke I can make about massive corporations like PepsiCo “not seeing color,” too. But to play it straight like a Good Boi of Journalism, I will simply say that that was a really weird thing for Mister Soda Man to have told Venessa Wong.


>>> RELATED: Hire me, White Claw


Smash-cut to 2020 and we all know what color the DewGarita is. It’s Mountain Dew-colored, because it’s made with Mountain Dew and that’s what color Mountain Dew is. Do you see? Of course you do. The Dew: do it.

Let’s talk about what’s in this hashtag DewGarita, shall we? I would call it an “unholy mess” or a “unctuous discharge” or something, but as a PR pro recently told me about shitting on beverage brands’ craven marketing gags:

“Unless [a critic] is like ‘they're killing babies!,’ they’ll flag [the negative headline] as neutral, or even positive, because it's still getting the word out.”

I can’t say for sure the DewGarita is killing babies in an alley behind your local Red Lobster, so I am just going to call it a “thing” and sally forth.

In this thing Mountain Dew, of course. It’d better have tequila, too, because if not someone is going to class-action Red Lobster just like they class-actioned Bud Light Lime-a-rita for not actually being liquor-based, which, they have a point. Anyway I’m guessing there are some other margarita-oriented ingredients in there too, but I can’t confirm because unfortunately:

Let me tell you, folks: I did not want to sign up for a free account on Adweek dot com just to get owned by a warmed-over press release spawned from another agency’s Slack workspace but I did it for you people, because Friends of Fingers are the only audience I have these days besides my fiancée and she has been tired of my shit for literal years at this point. I simply can’t afford to lose the interest of you guys/gals/nonbinary pals. I’ll do anything up to and including signing up for a free account on Adweek dot com, where I learned this about the contents of the DewGarita from editor David Griner (emphasis again mine):

So what’s actually in this drink? We don’t specifically know.

The brands told Adweek only that it’s a top-secret recipe made from Mountain Dew, tequila and “a few other special ingredients.”

As for the rim dusting? While at first glance it might appear to be Doritos dust, which would be absolute perfection, we’re told it’s simply a colorful salt.

The Dew Garita is reported to be the first in a series of menu collaborations between the restaurant chain and PepsiCo’s brands, including Frito-Lay and Quaker.

Ahahaha it’s the same routine all over again, there is nothing new under the sun, except for the DewGarita. You think this shit is a game?! It is most certainly not. What color is the that salt on the rim? It’s salt-colored binch, no more questions!

Red Lobster executive Nelson Griffin helpfully added “The Dew Garita is the first delicious taste of the types of inspired menu items to come,” which made me wonder if those words ever actually crossed Nelson Griffin’s lips or they were drafted for him by a PR person or if there even is a Nelson Griffin at Red Lobster or he’s more of a Pepe Silvia type of fellow, which is to say no fellow at all.

The people you hear on the laugh tracks are all dead, or maybe not. The DewGarita is available at your local Red Lobster, or maybe not. And on, and on.

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But let’s assume this thing real and not simply a brand asset optimized for “omni-channel social,” or whatever. My fellow newsletter editor Ryan Broderick made another very good point about the DewGarita that’s been bugging me. Here’s what he wrote in Garbage Day, a very-great newsletter about “having fun online”:

We talk a lot about how America in 2020 is a lot like the movie Idiocracy, but I’m not sure even Idiocracy would have included a “going to Red Lobster amid the deadly pandemic to drink the Mountain Dew booze” plot point.

See, unlike Taco Bell’s Jalapeño Noir or French’s Mustard Beer, a Red Lobster bar staffer, presumably making a tipped minimum wage is probably going to have to crank out DewGaritas under threat of contracting the literal plague from the aforementioned endless-shrimp wanters. Maybe they’re premixed, but still: pouring alien-green marketing drank for customers who showed up because they saw a tweet from one of their favorite sugar-water brands is some next-level alienation from the product of one’s labor.

And yes, I know it’s no fun to make it about LABOR when we’re all just trying to have some lighthearted diabetic fun in the electric Kool-Aid cocktail glow of cirrhotic corporate synergy. But it is very bleak and worth taking note of, your Fingers editor thinks, that the DewGarita is designed to get people in the door and into close quarters with staff who—and I’m just speculating here—are going to get neither credit nor compensation for selling this new corn-syrup slurry to the masses, and are just going to have to shut up and do (Dew) it.


>>>RELATED: Arise, Surly workers


A ~*viral moment~* is all well and good for the folks at corporate but the rank-and-file staffers have to actually accommodate the resultant demand, and that is not fun even absent an airborne plague. For example, dealing with the teeming hordes of chicken-sandwich demanders that descended on Popeye’s back in 2019 sounded absolutely harrowing. One worker told Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell (emphasis mine):

It just doesn’t make sense. We are busting our butts and breaking our backs and someone threatens to shoot us because we ran out of something. That doesn’t scare me, but imagine what that’s like for an 18-year-old kid who works here? It scares the life out of them. It’s a hard pill to swallow. And all over some sandwich.

That was over a year ago, before we ever even thought about a pandemic like this, back when the worst thing fast-food workers had to worry about was… actually a lot of other bad shit but you get the point. Maybe—and I’m just spitballing here—but maybe before concocting new and more deranged items to monetize social-media novelties companies should consider what “success” means when you’re the one actually making the donuts. Or in this case, the DewGaritas.


The bottom shelf

  • I tried to do an open comment thread in last week’s newsletter but I forgot to enable comments for the first few hours after sending it. God I am dumb. If you tried to comment and couldn’t figure it out, that was probably why. Sorry! We’ll do another one soon, promise.

  • Your fearless Fingers editor was on a recent episode of The Sota Pod to talk about my reporting on the union drive going down at Surly Brewing Company. The podcast is about beer and hockey, and though we only really talked about beer, right at the end I pointed out that Youngblood featuring Rob Lowe (1986) is basically softcore ice erotica (ice-rotica?) and that Shock Top : craft beer gateways :: Mighty Ducks trilogy : hockey cinema gateways. Both observations seemed to amuse them, so maybe I’ll be invited back!

  • I’ve already sent out a bunch of anti-racist beer stickers to Friends of Fingers across the country, and will be tallying up the donation totals soon. I was stoked to see that Virginia Thomas (the Chicago bar-owner I purchased them from in the first place) was able to raise around $1,200 for BeerKulture on her own. We’re not quite at that level yet, but you can help us get there: if you want me to mail you one of these beauties, get yours today, here’s how.

MAJOR SHOUT OUT to @virginiarthomas and everyone who supported her efforts to support the Kulture; for her generous contribution! She raised a total of $1,195 to benefit Beer Kulture Inc. Thank you for leading the way with BIG ACTION and supporting Beer Kulture as Beer Kulture supports the Kommunity!
September 16, 2020
Big thanks to Friend of Fingers, the very-talented Daniel Fishel, for this newsletter’s logo and banner art. Commission him to draw things for you at o-fishel.com.
If you have a friend you think would enjoy this piece, please forward it to them and encourage them to sign up for future editions:

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It's like bartender's choice but all the drinks make you sad

I hereby convene the first-ever Friends of Fingers Commentariat Congress

Welcome to Fingers, a newsletter by me, Dave Infante, about drinking culture, being online, and beyond. If you haven’t already, please sign up for future dispatches, OK?
Follow @dinfontay on Twitter & @its.fingers on Instagram. Send tips, praise, and pictures of barroom graffiti to dave@dinfontay.com, thank you very much.

A big warm Fingers welcome to all the new subscribers who have joined up since my piece on the plight of the workers at Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing Co. ran on Welcome to Hell World last week. I hope I don’t immediately let you down, but in case I do, please feel free to tell me about it… in our very-first Fingers open comment thread!!!

Or you could always email your criticism to dave@dinfontay.com, I suppose. But about that comment section!


Friends of Fingers Commentariat Congress

I recently wrote about how Bud Light Seltzer’s Chief Meme Officer gimmick devalues creative labor, and people seemed to like that. Then I wrote about a union-busting campaign at Surly, a craft brewery in Minneapolis, in collaboration with Welcome To Hell World, a fantastic and depressing newsletter that has been a big influence on both me and on Fingers. People seemed to like that too, which is tight.

I’d like to know more about what you’d like to read as this little project barrels (booze joke!) forward. So I hereby convene the first-ever Friends of Fingers Commentariat Congress. Please share with me your hopes, dreams, and fears (also, requests/suggestions for coverage) and I will respond with joy and vigor, or disgust if you say something weird:

Leave a comment

Would you enjoy:

  • Reporting on the hypocrisy of craft beverage brands that claim to care about their communities but won’t give their own workers healthcare benefits?

  • Long-form interviews with the people who are changing The Way We Drink (not in a gross buzzword-y way but like actually)?

  • Shitposts about White Claw and snippets from my failed book proposals?

  • All of this? None of it? Something else entirely?

It’s like bartender’s choice but all the drinks just make you sad and also they’re not drinks at all, they’re stories. I don’t know, just tell me what you want (what you really really want):

Leave a comment

I’ll be somewhat-actively monitoring this comment section this morning (Thursday 9/10). Hope to see some of you there.


Nostalgia interlude

What was your favorite shot and a beer? I think mine was Jim Beam and a Coors Banquet back, but honestly who can even remember what happened more than five minutes ago.

Speaking of reflecting on the past with rose-colored glasses, here is a bit I wrote about the late Senator John McCain in a book proposal I wrote that no one seems to want:

You know those nostalgia-trap special-editions that formerly proud magazine franchises sell to old people in supermarket checkout aisles? You’ll find Time’s recently published, impossibly glossy special report on the world of craft beer right next to such riveting and forward-looking reads as “John McCain: The Life of A Patriot” and “Iconic Photojournalism of The Love Generation.” 

(No offense to Arizonans or people pining for the bygone era of congressional bipartisanship, but it actually makes a grim bit of sense that Time did a retrospective on both beer and the late senator. One is dead, the other will be soon.)

I even made this professional split-screen image for the proposal, just in case anyone didn’t know what I was talking about. Wow damn, Photoshop whomst?

Anyway I’ve been trying to find an agent who wants to help me sell this book about how capitalism (et al, lol) strangled the ever-loving shit out of the once-maybe-extraordinary American craft beer revolution. If you are a high-powered and visionary book agent who enjoys run-on sentences, please email me at dave@dinfontay.com, thanks so much.


State of the boozeletter

Thanks to you and you alone, Fingers is growing at a healthy clip:

A sincere thank you to all 854 of you sickos who just can’t quit me. I love you each individually and unconditionally (until you unsubscribe, at which point I will never forgive you, ever.)

Please continue to encourage people to sign up for Fingers. I stupidly set a goal for myself to reach 1,000 subscribers by the end of the year and the only way I will reach it is if you continue to lie to your friends and say Fingers is a “must-read.” Shout it from the digital rooftops:

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1,000 by 2021 is the number, anything short is failure. Sorry, I don’t make the rules (well I did in this case, but it’s a turn of phrase, please just go with it.)


The bottom shelf

  • Disclosure: If you subscribe to Popular Information (Judd Legum’s newsletter) via the link above, I might get some promo merch from him. I think I get a free tote if 20 of you sign up, so uh…. now you know. For what it’s worth I’ve been a paying subscriber since before he launched, and I highly recommend it. Get to it!

  • Speaking of promo merch, I’m working on some for Fingers, to sweeten the deal for if/when I turn on paid subscriptions. Been getting some samples in here at Fingers HQ, and they’re really cool. Get a sneak peak on Instagram now—follow @its.fingers.

  • Big congratulations to the workers of Fair State Co-op, who went public with their union drive and quickly won voluntary recognition from the company. Wow, imagine that! Statement, right this way.

  • I put together a little web-only piece highlighting some recent news items that make me want to drink lately, including a local South Carolina tale called “Our Man, The Cheese Mayor.” Intriguing! You can read it here if you want.

  • I’ve already sent out a bunch of anti-racist beer stickers to Friends of Fingers across the country, and will be tallying up the donation totals soon. If you want me to mail you one of these beauties, get yours today, here’s how.

Big thanks to Friend of Fingers, the very-talented Daniel Fishel, for this newsletter’s logo and banner art. Commission him to draw things for you at o-fishel.com.
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Our Man, The Cheese Mayor

Things making the Fingers editor want to drink heavily & with abandon right now

Welcome to Fingers, a newsletter by me, Dave Infante, about drinking culture, being online, and beyond. If you haven’t already, please sign up for future dispatches, OK?
Follow @dinfontay on Twitter & @its.fingers on Instagram. Send tips, praise, and pictures of barroom graffiti to dave@dinfontay.com, thank you very much.

Hello and welcome to Fingers, I’m your friendly editor/best friend Dave Infante. I didn’t feel like sending this out in an email because it’s basically just stream-of-thought despair flowing from my brain through Fingers’ fingers, so if you found this, thank you for being a superfan/absolute sicko, I guess.

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Anyway, here are some things that make me want to drink heavily and with abandon right now:

  1. People are all pissed off about that gender-reveal party that sparked one of the many devastating wildfires currently a-burnin’ in California, which fine me too, but also I find depressing we’re all dunking on the narcissistic ghouls who insisted on firing up a pyrotechnic device to reinforce toxic gender norms but have a whole lot less to say about narcissistic fossil-fuelghouls that have profiteered on our shared natural resources for the past century to the point where deadly wildfires are just an ordinary, expected occurrence. Like which is more symptomatic of bottomless irrecoverable sociopathy: a) filling an exploding box with blue- or pink-tinted cornstarch powder in the middle of a forest during a drought (or whatever *this* is, etc.) to celebrate a social construct about weiners and boobs? Or b) systematically destroying the earth and propping up monstrous regimes and hoarding absolutely obscene amounts of capital that you then use to build luxury bomb shelters to secure yourself from the fallout of your cartoonish carbonic greed? Hmm I simply can’t decide, moving on.

  2. President Respect The Troops was out there calling dead soldiers little bitches for *checks notes* fighting fascists in the trenches of WWI Europe and further being rude to John McCain, who is also dead. This is both funny and sad and I don’t really have much more to say about it, but Judd Legum of Popular Information certainly did!

  3. Paramilitary militias radicalized by right-wing YouTube videos are roving through American cities slaughtering citizens protesting the killing of citizens by paramilitary state agents that rove American cities, who themselves have been radicalized by a century of institutionalized racism as well as more recently the mainstream rise of “warm and fuzzy” American fascism and oh I dunno probably some of those very same YouTube videos, too.

  4. Also Chadwick Boseman, of Black Panther fame, died of cancer at 43 a few weeks ago, which is very sad in an entirely different but no less real way than the fact that 180,000 people in this country have now died due to the coronavirus pandemic, which used to be global but is now a uniquely severe crisis in America thanks to the insatiable power hunger and incompetence and ethical bankruptcy of those lizard-brained sacs o’ flesh whose veiny hands clutch the levers of power in these United Failed States.

Those are just some of the recent headlines that I remember surfacing from the ether and making me feel bad in recent weeks. There were of course so many more but we simply haven’t the time.

Also I should note that just because things make me want to drink doesn’t mean I always do. Remember folks, alcohol in isolation is Not Good For You!


Our Man, The Cheese Mayor

Alright I have to include one more story that I can’t get enough of because it’s just absolutely incredible. This one from my local news market (coastal South Carolina.) There’s a part-time resident on a barrier island north of Charleston called Pawley’s Island who finagled his way into a mayorship and owns a pimento cheese brand that markets itself with the image of an old, now deceased Black woman on the label. This part-time resident, it may shock you to learn, is Not Black.

Seems like Our Man, The Cheese Mayor, may have improperly cut the woman’s family out of proceeds from the cheese sales, which would be very bad if it turns out to be true, even though he claims his wife, Sassy (that is her name, not a description of her demeanor) is the true originator of the recipe. If this is true, I hope the woman’s family gets what they’re due in the near future, but I haven’t investigated further because I try to limit my exposure to the Southeastern spreadable-snacks beat. (Please understand.)

Anyway, this all came to light only because Mayor Pimento recently Logged-On to call Black Lives Matter (and antifa, lol) a “terror organization,” then refused to resign, then tried to guilt people into not boycotting his cheese because… #jobs, I guess?

Normally I would try to end with some sort of witty zinger but I think the facts sort of speak for themselves here, and I wouldn’t want to… spread it on too thick ahaha I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.


From the archives

Here are some recent Fingers stories you might like to read:

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Big thanks to Friend of Fingers, the very-talented Daniel Fishel, for this newsletter’s logo and banner art. Check out more of his work and commission him to draw things for you at o-fishel.com.

Arise, Surly workers

Inside the mid-pandemic union-busting campaign at Minneapolis' popular brewery restaurant

Editor’s note: A version of the piece below originally appeared in the newsletter Welcome To Hell World. Big thanks to Hell World editor Luke O’Neil for helping me amplify the voices of Surly’s workers. I pay for an annual subscription and you should too, so subscribe to Welcome To Hell World now if you haven’t already.
If you’ve already read this story on Hell World, here are some other Fingers pieces you might be interested in:
Bud Light Seltzer’s no good, very bad job
Who’s got the bar tab Venmo?
Hire me, White Claw
Gentrivitalization by brewery
Alright, that’s quite enough of that, let’s get to it.
Some weirdly prescient wall art in Surly’s Beer Hall, imho!!! Photo: Isabelle Rolfes

There’s never a good time to find out you’re getting fired but being in a video-chat therapy session, like Lou Olson was, is a particularly shitty one if you ask me. 

“My phone was next to me, and one of one of my friends texted me, and was like ‘Surly just fired everybody.’”

On Monday, Olson and their fellow co-workers from both the front- and the back-of-house at Surly Brewing Company’s beloved Minneapolis Beer Hall waited in the parking lot of their workplace for over an hour to tell the brewery’s owner that they’d decided to unionize. On Wednesday, they got an email saying they’d all be out of a job come November, when the company would be “indefinitely” closing the facility due to what it claimed in a statement were losses resulting from the coronavirus pandemic—but definitely not the just-announced union drive, no siree. 

“My therapist was like, ‘Oh, what's wrong, like something's on your face,” Olson told me in a recent phone interview. “I was trying to text with [my friend] while also telling her what was happening.” It took them a phone call to Surly’s HR department, a voicemail, a follow-up call, and a correction to the company’s employee database before Olson finally saw the email that had their newly organized colleagues reaching out to one another so frantically.

Artisanally anti-labor

If you don’t know much about craft beer, the brazenly anti-labor move might shock you. It’s more or less true that craft beer emerged as a community-oriented counterpoint to the bland lagers and zero-sum business models of Big Beer (though for whatever it’s worth, the macros, like Budweiser and Miller and so forth, are mostly union shops at this point anyway.) 

But these days craft brewing is a massive industry in its own right, with billions in annual revenue and trade-group lobbyists attuned more to the pro-business acolytes who celebrate craft breweries’ ability to gentrify “dying” neighborhoods than a customer base increasingly disenfranchised and disenchanted with the misogyny, racism, and general fuckery amongst some of the 8,000-ish American breweries that they represent.

And here’s the thing: no matter how “cool” it seems to work in a brewery (or outgrowth businesses like Surly’s Beer Hall, which we’ll return to in a moment), those jobs, generally speaking, aren’t exempt from all the bad stuff that can make jobs shitty in other fields. Low wages, no benefits, grueling hours, and sex-pest managers aren’t uncommon. Craft beer has basically the same warts you’ll find on the underbelly of any major American industry. 

“There are all sorts of great reasons why we should feel good about craft beer production… but to celebrate it while neglecting labor conditions is highly problematic,” Margaret Gray, an associate professor of political science at Adelphi University, told me back in 2018 for a story for Splinter (RIP) about why craft brewing is able to paper over this disconnect.

In the few instances where workers in the craft brewing industry have seen through the charade and decided “lol this sucks, let’s organize,” owners have dropped the #oneteamonedream pretense with the quickness. It happened at Rogue Ales in Newport, OR in 2011; and again at Pyramid’s Berkeley, CA brewpub in 2013; and in 2019 in San Francisco, where workers at Anchor Brewing, the country’s oldest craft brewery faced a decidedly corporate union-busting campaign that featured high-powered anti-labor law firms and managers shouting “fake news” at workers exercising their federally protected right to unionize. Very cool shit, nice work all around.

“Don’t be a dick”

But back to 2020, and the former industrial park-turned-destination in east Minneapolis that Surly has called home since about five years ago. In the Beer Hall, a bold mural depicting stein-hoisting, Soviet-style proletarian types greets visitors with a call to arms: “Arise, Surly Nation” (This bears more than passing similarity to the marketing materials at Rogue Ales; blue-collar veneration apparently plays well with the rank-and-file drinking public. It’s almost like.... supporting workers is a cool idea that a lot of people agree with and maybe you should just do that… but hey, what do I know.) 

It’s all part of Surly’s larger brand: “Give a damn about your community. Be independent. Don't be a dick.” On its website, the 14-year old brewery celebrates itself as “Leading Minnesota Forward,” and to be fair, in some respects, it has, helping to change Minnesota’s laws to allow for own-premise sales, and organizing funding drives and employee volunteerism through a popular in-house program

In other respects, it has not, like the time it opted to pay $2.5 million to settle a tip-pooling class-action suit brought by 140 of its servers and bartenders, who alleged the company was using mandatory pooling to keep its own payroll costs lower. (Surly claimed “no malice was intended” on that one.) Workers say following that payout, the company revoked benefits for many of them and began scheduling more workers below the 30-hour per week federal threshold that would make them eligible for those benefits. Don’t be a dick, indeed!

“Don’t settle. Get Surly.” is basically a ready-made union slogan lololol. Source

Despite all that, Surly is an undeniable leader in Minnesota hospitality, and a relatively high-profile brewery in the national craft beer scene, and that was a big deal to some workers. “It’s a very noteworthy place to be hired at,” said Natalie Newcomer, a front-of-house employee at Surly’s Beer Hall for two and a half years. “When I first got hired here, I couldn’t even believe that I got to work there.”

Surly’s Bar & Grill

But Newcomer, like other new hires, grew skeptical of Surly ownership’s commitment to the brand’s lofty ideals, movement rhetoric, and benevolent posture after spending some time on the job. 

Nick Mjones, who has worked in the front-of-house at the Beer Hall for four years, watched with despair as benefits were taken away from his coworkers following the tip-pooling settlement. A manager told Olson to be less difficult after a customer called them a bitch. Andy Magill, a pizza maker in the Beer Hall’s upstairs restaurant who has worked there for a little over a year, became frustrated that his Spanish-speaking colleagues in the back-of-house had no real way to communicate with managers after the one semi-fluent chef willing to relay their concerns left. 

Exasperated workers took to calling the place “Surly’s Bar & Grill” as they watched this supposed celebration of craft labor and pioneering spirit reshaped into a commodity experience where turning tables is the only goal and human-resources professionals walked around saying “cool beans.” 

“I think as the brand grew and Omar [Ansari, Surly’s owner] made more money, I think he kind of lost sight of what really made his brand, which was the employees,” said Magill. Ansari did not answer my request for an interview. 

The pandemic only made things worse at Surly, exacerbating the underlying conditions while also layering in more tense customers, new service models, and more pressure to pack in crowds. “When I came back to work, sometime in June, I was like ‘this is insanely horrible,’” said Isabelle Rolfes, a service captain at the Beer Hall. “It was just like they were using the excuse of COVID-19 to push through this service model that would create a lot more money, [use] a lot less labor, and put a lot more of us in danger.” 

The relationship between managers and workers deteriorated apace. After receiving a $2-5 million PPP loan in April, Mjones told me some managers at the Beer Hall took to telling workers not to complain because “you’re just getting paid by the government right now anyway.” Without warning, the bosses got rid of tips and implemented a 15% service charge, which front-of-house workers say took money out of their pockets. The brewery’s website claims this money goes to “paying our hospitality staff a more equitable wage and offering benefits for full-time employees,” but given the way they manipulate the schedule to keep workers from being full-time, this amounts to “lying to the public,” scoffed Newcomer.

The back of house, irate after learning about the service charge through the grapevine, was offered tiny raises (like $0.25-$1.00, lol) to make good, said Rofles.]In a less organized shop, it might have been a wedge issue that would pit front-of-house against back-, but “we knew that’s what they were going to try to do,” she said. Because Beer Hall workers had been organizing wall-to-wall the paltry increase only pissed everyone off more. “They expected us to just kind of shut up and be happy about it.,” said Rolfes. 

“Once this all started happening for us to reopen, people were dropping like flies because they either couldn't afford their lives anymore with this pay structure, or they realized that they were going to be a busser all of a sudden when they were a career bartender for five years,” said Newcomer. “So now they’re just hiring more people so that they can have more people work fewer hours,” driving down the quality of service while keeping more workers ineligible for health benefits. 

Workers who stayed saw team meetings get contentious, then stop entirely. Workers say director of hospitality Dan DiNovis grilled them about their activities outside of work, monitoring their social media accounts for evidence that they were not social distancing. Meanwhile, Rolfes said, Ansari “walks around the Beer Hall without a mask.”

Arise, Surly workers

Bad conditions for workers, though, are good conditions for organizing. “I think it kind of boiled up to this point, and I think the pandemic just kind of accelerated” the union drive, said Magill.  Then, in August, after receiving a promotion to service captain and being brought back in the first wave of workers to reengineer the Beer Hall’s service model for reopening, DiNovis abruptly fired Natalie Newcomer. He did not respond to my request for an interview. 

Whether it was for organizing (“I was pretty involved in it, at that point”), or being spotted by DiNovis at a pro-restaurant worker rally in a local park (“he was definitely there to spy, to see if any of his staff attended”), or simply for speaking out as a senior staffer against what she viewed as was an unsafe effort from DiNovis and Ansari to “get as many people as possible” into the Beer Hall to goose sales, or all of the above, is hard to say. 

Much easier to say is how it made her fellow workers feel: targeted for organizing. “To see Natalie get fired under the guise of her job performance going down, that’s just bullshit,” said Rolfes. “Imagine giving your blood, sweat, and tears… and then they fire you because they’re afraid of you.” 

“We had to take action after that, very soon, so we could [make sure] they wouldn’t get away with that,” she added. 

So on Monday, after marshaling what Rolfes and other organizers claim is an “unquestionable” and “vast” majority of signed union cards from the bargaining unit of 100-ish, pro-union employees gathered outside Surly, asking the bosses to come outside, hear their reasons for organizing, and recognize their right to bargain collectively on the spot. 

It went… uh, not great. “That was one of the most disgusting [instances of] lack of care I’ve ever seen,” said Mjones. I interviewed five workers present that day, and all tell more or less the same story: Ansari and DiNovis stayed inside the building for an hour or more, apparently trying to either pretend they weren’t there, or wait out their employees. When the two did eventually come out, Mjones said, “they scoffed and laughed at us” and declined to accept literature from the Unite Here! Local 17 rep about how companies can voluntarily recognize unions.

“For them to try to silence us like that, it was pretty disgusting,” agreed Magill. “It showed [their] true colors.” 

That evening, the brewery’s official Instagram account posted a notice acknowledging the drive. “We’re working to determine next steps in the process,” it read, which is weird because there are really only two options, and one of them is union-busting—something that simply doesn’t seem very compatible with Surly’s marketing, community focus, and don’t-be-a-dick mission!

“The timing of this announcement is not ideal”

And yet, by Wednesday morning, the bosses had made their decision, and union-busting was apparently it. They were shutting down the Beer Hall, and the hundred-plus newly organized jobs it represented, “indefinitely” starting November 2. Here’s how they put it in the release, which also claimed an 82% decrease in Beer Hall revenues compared to last year, and a potential $750,000 loss if the facility stayed open through the winter:

We ran all the numbers. We looked at all the possibilities. But try as we might to find a way to keep the doors open and our team employed, the writing was on the wall: There was no longer a way forward for the Beer Hall. 

[...]

The timing of this announcement is not ideal. On Monday, some hospitality employees notified us of their intent to unionize. We respect their decision to turn to an outside organization for representation and will continue the dialogue. That does not change the fact that our plans to close the Beer Hall were put in place weeks ago with the announcement planned for this week.

Look, I’m not the CFO over there, but the company’s claim that this was all because of the pandemic and was TOTALLY COINCIDENTAL to the union drive announcement 36 hour prior stinks for three reasons: 

  1. Of course revenues are down compared to last year, because we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic! Using a year-over-year comparison for restaurant sales between 2019 and 2020 as a way to demonstrate a business’ lack of viability isn’t massaging the data to tell the story you want so much as repeatedly clobbering it with a blunt object until it surrenders. 

  2. On the other hand, while the Beer hall might be losing money, the actual brewery is not. “They excitedly told us throughout the pandemic that [beer] sales have never been higher,” Newcomer told me. My pal Kate Bernot at Good Beer Hunting reported that by August 2020, the brewery had already matched its grocery store sales for all of 2019. In the last 12 weeks, it’s up 47%, or $600,000, compared to the same period last year.

  3. Workers say that as recently as Monday, Beer Hall managers were interviewing people for new roles, and that the company has hired as many as 10 new employees in the past month or so. (Again, this may be to guard against giving any worker enough hours to make them eligible for health benefits, a move Wal-Mart and other rapacious multinationals are quite fond of!) 

“They truly think their employees are stupid, and that we don’t know anything and we’ll never fact-check,” said Mjones. “But we know when we're being bullshitted.”

Bullshit or not, though, Surly’s workers are on borrowed time for now. The ones I spoke to seem intent on using the intervening months between now and the November 2 shutdown to push through the union and secure recognition, regardless of the bosses’ efforts to pull the plug. 

“At this point I just, I want to win the election, and I want to fight for what's right,” added Magill. “It's about just showing that he [Ansari] can't stomp all over us.” 

Working at Surly has given Olson anxiety about saying the wrong thing, but they've nevertheless found their voice in this process. They drafted a form letter, and through its social media feeds the union has been promoting it as a way for supporters to write to DiNovis and Ansari telling them to cut the shit and recognize the union. 

“I’m definitely going to ride it out and stand in solidarity with my friends,” Olson told me. As for getting a new job in a historically awful recession: “I’m not really letting myself think about that until like, October.”

But Surly management appears to be focused on the more immediate future. By week’s end, a note had gone up on its website announcing the Beer Hall would be closed September 7—Labor Day. 

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Big thanks to Friend of Fingers, the very-talented Daniel Fishel, for this newsletter’s logo and banner art. Check out more of his work and commission him to draw things for you at o-fishel.com.

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