On March 13, with a statewide shutdown looming, Jenn Airey worked her last shift at Cat’s Eye Pub. On March 16, she started a Facebook group.
“I was feeling a little lost,” said Airey, who’d served as a bartender at the Fells Point bar for nine years. The coronavirus pandemic had knocked the rhythm out of her life. She wanted it back — the comfort of friends, the security of a paycheck, the buzz of live music. So Airey turned to social media. It was the only way she knew to preserve the community she held dear.
“I started the page and just wanted to make sure that we were all staying together,” she said, “even though we were going to be apart.”
Airey, 43, knew the financial difficulties that lay ahead for the service industry. But Airey also helped manage and book bands. It was not just her coworkers who were out of a job but Baltimore’s gigging musicians, too.
She wanted to help them all. And she knew other people would, too. So Airey started inviting friends to join her “Fell’s Point Streaming” group, asked musicians to stream live performances, and encouraged viewers to consider helping out through services like PayPal, Venmo and Local Groove. The artists, the virtual bartenders, the local restaurants — they all needed support.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Facebook group had over 3,200 members and, according to Airey, had hosted approximately 290 livestreams and helped 355 hospitality workers. Airey knows how much a donation can mean because she’s needed assistance herself. She said she had to wait three months before receiving unemployment benefits.
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“It helped me to pay bills. It’s helped quite a few people,” Airey said. “This was just our little way to give back, and there are a lot of people that really struggle.”
Ken Gutberlet, a Canton-based songwriter and acoustic guitarist, was the first musician she booked for the group. The pandemic had brought his biggest sources of income “to a screeching halt,” said Gutberlet, 53. But even if he wasn’t getting regular gigs, he still wanted to play, if only for a break from “the nonsense that’s going on.”
Singing into an iPhone, Gutberlet’s learned, is no replacement for the electricity of a live crowd. But friends and family across the country can now watch him play for hours at a time, and group members “have been very, very kind and very generous toward me.”
A few weeks ago, after Baltimore relaxed restaurant restrictions, Gutberlet was playing a gig at Cat’s Eye Pub when a young woman came up to him and asked him whether he was “Ken G.” He said he was. She explained that she worked at Alexander’s Tavern, also in Fells Point, and that the group had solicited donations on her behalf during one of his livestreams.
" ‘I was in a really bad place, and it helped so much and it made me feel better about things,’ " he recalled her telling him. “Everybody’s going through something. But you don’t know how severe it is, and you don’t know how much just a little bit of kindness will pick them up.”
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