Covid has put a cruel kaibosh on hospitality businesses. Life looks bleaker without it and, in the past, it gave me some formative experiences of life and work on both sides of the Atlantic.
I grew up 30 yards from a pub in suburban south Manchester. This was no cosy affair in which to take a newspaper. It was a chain pub offering a young crowd a ready supply of carousing and pulling without the hassle of going into the city centre.
As a youngster I was often woken up at kicking-out time. I would watch the wavering procession of people make its way past in the orange of the street lights, laughing, shouting, chasing, fighting, kissing, screaming and being sick. Sometimes I would be spotted and someone would shout, “Oy, you, kid!” making me duck behind the curtain.
All this was quite interesting to me. And, to my mind, a few minutes of lost sleep seemed a small price to pay for limitless supplies of drinking glasses. We had hundreds, all thrown into the back garden by this nighttime parade and, occasionally, thoughtfully inserted, into the hedge, hanging like transparent birds’ nests.
By the time I was in my teens the pub had lost its cool. A kitchen was added where I got a weekend shift washing up. I spent Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Radio One blaring, chiseling microwaved steak and kidney gravy from beige microwavable basins. I had, I thought, finally learned the meaning of hard work.
But, it turned out, this was the pot-washing small time. During the summer holidays, in search of richer pickings I took my scouring skills to a short-order restaurant closer to town. The shift began around 6pm when I reluctantly entered amid the chorus of shouting, banging and crashing commercial cookery requires. Next to my sinks would be great, tottering towers of fat-encrusted pans within inches of the ceiling. No matter how fast I worked they never got smaller. The tsunami of soiled kitchenalia would not stop until past 3am, at which point I would be weak with exhaustion and thoroughly drenched in an ungodly soup of grease and water up to my armpits, my sodden trainers oozing this slippery, foaming brine with each step.
I got little respect for my efforts. In fact my Baldrick-like appearance seemed to revolt all who saw me, including the front-of-house staff, who flung things into my sink without so much as a hello. One day, however, a waitress spoke to me directly.
“You want this?” she said, putting a full meal down on the counter next to me before walking off. It was food and almost warm, of course I did. I dug in.
“Why is it here?” I asked the waitress on her return.
“The customer had a heart attack.”
“What? He’s alive though?”
She shrugged and kicked open the door into civilisation and I resumed eating.
Now surely I really had learned the meaning of hard work. And one thing was certain, I didn’t like it very much. But in response to this I had learned to detach my brain from my physical surroundings and enter a kind of disembodied washing up trance. By chance, I had picked up Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London in which he begins by described his time as a fellow washer upper in late 20s Paris. Everything, no matter what it is, can become a story.
I went off to university, but there was still more hospitality to come. After my second year I got a work visa to work in the US during my summer break. I took an overnight bus from Manchester to Heathrow and then flew sitting next to a Korean vintage record collector on a flight to JFK. He toured the US picking up old vinyl which sold like hotcakes in Korea at the time. Smoking on the plane was still allowed although some people seemed to object to it.
I had an immigration debriefing the next morning in New York with the rest of the people on the visa exchange scheme. To my alarm others had actually organised jobs before they came. It had never occurred to me. They were going to be summer camp leaders and turn cartwheels in fancy dress at Disneyland. I, meanwhile, had no work plans beyond getting on a Greyhound to a city in the Midwest to stay with a friend.
There was no time to lose when I arrived in the oven-like heat. After a steak as big as a traditional Sunday roast I went knocking on doors. I was apparently the only one in the state who considered walking a mode of urban transport. Nevertheless, despite my lack of wheels, I managed to offer my services to half-a-dozen of places within walking distance. Cars honking as I did elementary parkour to get between one place and the next. And, lo and behold, hours later, I was back at the place I shared with my friend and the phone rang. I had got a gig in a restaurant. It was the first one I’d called at, an Italian place. Quite fancy. Phase one of my American Dream was over.
I was apparently going to be “busboy”. I had never heard of it. To my surprise it turned out not to involve cleaning pots or pans. That side of the operation was already being handled by a pair of Puerto Rican brothers who looked like they were doing a great job, although I felt a pang of envy at their newfangled machinery. It was hardly the same job as the one I had. What was more impressive was their ability to enjoy their work in a way I never managed. They always had a smile at the ready. I realised, not for the last time, my attitude was badly amiss.
I think my British accent helped me swing a non-amphibious role for a change. But, on the downside my accent also meant I had to say everything twice or three times to be understood. Sometimes we just gave up. In the end my own take on the American accent improve things. I still sometimes like to say “take a shower” rather than “have a shower”. It is so much more dynamic. I also learned that, “How are you doing?” is not a question. It is, instead, your cue to smile and say, “Great!”
I discovered the job of busboy involves wearing a white shirt, bow tie and black trousers and running around filling guests’ glasses with ice water. None of the hundred or so people in the restaurant should ever be anywhere near to finishing a glass of water before I swoop in to save the day. Achieving this goal involves having a large supply of iced water to hand, with caches of jugs left about the place in case of a surge in demand. This has then to be backed up by constant monitoring of water levels across restaurant to identify a potential emergency. One needed to then hover discreetly then pick one’s moment. Heaven forbid anyone suggest putting a jug on the table. And, once a party got up to leave, I had to clear and reset the table, while keeping a keen eye open for water shortage. In return for this I got paid a pittance as a basic wage, but a good share of the tips collected by the waiting staff. It sounded fine to me and, having no cartwheeling skills, I was in no position to haggle.
In reality it was almost as relentless a pot washing, though dryer. I would start at around ten in the morning and finish at 2am, with a break for a couple of hours between the end of lunch service and the start of dinner. In this time I would head home for a delirious nap in the 100 percent humidity, honked at by drivers as I crossed a bridge by walking along the top of the concrete blocks at the edge of the road, with my commute keenly observed by fellow neighbourhood residents.
I was living in what was euphemistically called a “transitional area”, something others less-euphemistically called the fringes of gangland. Some of our more nervous visitors would run between the cars and the house. There was, it is true, the occasional crackle of gunfire. But I would not accept their narrow-minded worries and, ultimately, I was vindicated. Nobody came to any harm. Occasionally, admittedly, when I came home late at night some youths would ask me where I was going. “Home!” I would say, pointing vaguely down the street.
It could be out of neighbourliness or it could be because I was so clearly nowhere near home in any broader sense, but either way they kindly let me pass. Maybe it just seemed unsporting pick on a dumb English guy wandering helpless in the dark? Whatever the reason was I managed to wander through a deprived neighbourhood dozens of times in the small hours with a few hundred dollars in my back pocket. That, as I told my concerned colleagues, was proof enough that I did not need to get a cab.
Every second at the restaurant was filled with work. There was no lunch break, although I was given a free and absolutely delicious Italian meal. I could have anything on the menu. But the second my plate was empty it was back to work. If there was nothing else to do I had to fold burgundy napkins into a kind of crown which would be the centrepiece of each place setting. Customers would pick them up, shake them out and stuff them into their shirts in that practical way etiquette disallows in the UK. There was a pile of napkin crowns already made maybe six feet high. But, no matter, more spare napkin crowns were always needed.
It was while replenishing my stock of napkin crowns that I chatted with the waiting staff. They would talk about people and places I had never heard of and I would nod as if I had. And they would occasionally walk over to the blinds and curse the panhandlers on the street outside for living welfare. I think I was meant to agree. When I instead suggested that we might all need to claim welfare one day they looked at me offended. As someone brought up in north England in the 80s it seemed delusional to think it might never happen, but I did not press the point.
It was during one of these conversations, probably distracted enough to neglect my napkin duties that the host, a man in his 50s made husky by cigars—let’s call him Larry—beckoned to me. Was I going to be reprimanded for slacking off? Not directly. He took me into the main restaurant area and pointed to a wall pointing to some imperfections in the plaster. Here, he said, was where his predecessor as host had been shot dead a few months ago.
“Really,” Larry said, and I went back to my napkin crowns.
It was the first of several times I heard this story. It was apparently over an unpaid cocaine debt. A full Sicilian brass band played in the street for his funeral procession. I notice the owner never smiled. Never. And a few of the customers were not the smiling type either. I would never ask any of them how they were doing.
Despite the owner’s gravity another part of my job was to go to the kitchen and pass on requests from guests asking if he would “sit with them” at their table. He never replied. He would throw down his towel and come out from the kitchen and sit with them for a few minutes, never the hint of a smile. It was not about having fun, but showing respect.
I dispensed ice water to senators, businessmen and occasionally stars big enough to fill the local baseball stadium, and also to unsmiling heavy-set men with nice suits, chunky watches and gold bracelets. There was no snobbery, so long as you settled the bill and tipped well. Clearing a table after a pair of customers left I found a wad of thousand dollar bills in a gold clip. I thought it best to assume it was a mistake rather than a tip and passed the packet to Larry, who then walked into the car park and returned the money. One of the notes was peeled off and stuffed into his pocket. I saw none of it. Larry did not subscribe to the trickle-down theory of economics.
“Were they really likely to do anything to busboys for skiving off?” I thought as I threw another napkin crown onto the heap. I had no cocaine debt, so no. As far as I was concerned the whole gun thing simply did not apply to me as a Brit, just like unemployment did not apply to the waitresses. I took a pass. I refused a gun offered for my own protection by my housemate when he was away for the weekend. I had no intention of shooting anyone on my summer break. I was given a two-handed axe as an alternative, which I put back on the porch. If I was going to take a moral stand against shooting intruders I was not going to try to axe one either. They could have the VCR as far as I was concerned.
The general air of jumpiness and suspicion sapped my energy. So, although I had fun between the 15 hour days, I was also relieved to head home to where violence generally meant punches rather than gunshots.
On later breaks back in Manchester I went back to the pub across the street to work. My transatlantic busboying experience carried little weight. I was instead moved to what I was told was a “special project”, which involved scraping up a sizeable backlog of dog shit and hypodermic needles from the car park.
Things had gone south since the long off days of pint pots thrown in the front garden. There was later talk of the police being called one day and a gun being found. Someone in my class back in primary school was apparently involved. When the pub closed and turned into a Tesco I was neither surprised or upset. ■