ONLY TAKING ORDURE
A long time ago and far away (well, it was the 1970s, but with the country having voted to leave the EU in last year’s referendum, I now realise it’s not as far away as I first thought) I was a waitress in a burger bar (won’t disclose which chain here, but suffice to say I wasn’t at all wimpy*). I’d present myself every Friday and Saturday night for a shift which began at 5pm and ended at 1am, at which point I had to mop the floors, before stashing my lavish wages of 50p an hour into my postage stamp holder and crawling home to bed; the job supplemented the student grant I received while at music college, learning how to play the violin badly. (You think it’s a natural talent?! I put hours of practice into it!)
It was at this mystery fast food establishment that I learned to engage in what is now known as ‘banter’. Groups of young people would come in for a good time** baiting me with things like: “Give me a crocodile sandwich, and make it snappy,” and I would respond with an apposite quip. On one occasion, a table of around ten had a whip round and left a tip of seven quid; that was a lot of money in those days.***
I didn’t get to keep this money for myself, mind. There were two waitresses on shift at a time, and I had the misfortune to work with a very lazy girl, who always let me get to new customers first, safe in the knowledge we shared the gratuities between us. Nevertheless, I was highly conscientious, and worked hard all night. A big plus of working there was the free meal they gave us each evening: as much savoury stuff as we wanted (not sure how I put away the double burger, double chips, double beans and two eggs in one go, especially as I was as thin as the meat patties, but since this was practically the only food I was eating all week, put it away twice a weekend I did).
NB: We weren’t allowed the (in)famous Rum Baba dessert, but this, I can assure you, was a blessing.
I relate this to you here because I’m not entirely sure what’s happened to the hospitality sector in the intervening decades; lazy waitress partner aside, standards appear to have fallen somewhat. (The violin playing hasn’t got much better either, to be honest, but for now we’ll just file that under How I Got Into Comedy). I’ve had three experiences recently which lead me to scratch my head in wonderment at how the UK became the progressive, forward-thinking land of opportunity it now is. [SNIGGERS]
Last month I was invited to a networking event in a hired space with a bar. The organiser was told he could staff the bar with his own er, staff, and so chose a very sweet young man who – and this might not have been the best idea, in retrospect – had never been to a bar in his life, let alone worked behind one. Espying a few puzzled faces walking around with the head of their beer taller than they were, I ask him for a glass of red wine.
“Have we got any wine?” he ponders out loud.
“Yes,” I reply, “you can track it down to that wine bottle behind you.”
He turns around and expresses surprise, before moving the bottle in front of me, as if this is the extent of the service he is offering.
“You’re going to have to open it,” I proffer, in what I imagine is a helpful way, though that turns out not to be the case.
After a bit of a Mexican standoff (Donald Trump has the same problem), my eyes gesture to a corkscrew, one of the type with arms.
“Aha!” he aha-s. And with a confident lunge, clasping the arms tight to the screw part with his left hand, he pierces the cork with the pointy end, before turning the corkscrew clockwise with his right hand. Naturally, not much happens. I watch him for a while, thinking he’ll catch on to what was not happening, but no, on and on he goes, manfully stopping the arms from rising upwards as is their job, pointlessly spinning the corkscrew around in what’s left of the cork.
“It’s got arms,” I tell him. “You have to take your hand away”.
And with that, he takes his right hand away, the hand that was doing the rotating.
“No!” I cry, almost with laughter, but now aware the prospect of a glass of wine is receding to a distance further off than the 70s. “The other hand!”
Eventually, dear reader, he cottons on, and lets the arms of the corkscrew spring free, bringing half the cork with it.
He looks at me. I look at him. Is there another bottle? I ask. No, there isn’t. Of course not.
It being impossible to remove the remainder of what’s left of the cork from the bottle – namely, thousands of tiny cork granules – with any kind of upwards extrication operation, it is then down to me to push it into the bottle with a knife he manages to locate when I ask him to find one. He pours the wine.
How is it? he enquires politely. Chewier than I normally go for, I say.
Lovely friend sends me a message one afternoon – he’s in my neck of the woods, would I like to meet for a drink at the place on the corner close to where I live? Love to, I reply. Just got to finish a couple of emails. I’ll get them in, he says. What would you like?
I give him my coffee order, and ten minutes later I arrive to find it waiting for me at the table, along with him. We talk, we laugh, we cry (we’re both Jewish, what do you want, FGS) we fancy a refill. So I go up to the bar.
“An orange juice with ice,” I say, “and I’ll have another single-shot, skinny latte, please”.
If you thought Manuel was dead, I’ve got news for you.
“Que?” the barman almost says, in some kind of Manuelish accent. “Espresso?”
“No,” I reply. “A latte, with one shot, and skinny milk”.
“Que?” he almost says again. “A cup of sausage? A platter of goat particles? A glass of strong aftershave with the pigment of a tanned Italian playboy?”
I call my friend’s name and he looks round from the table. “I may be some time,” I explain, “I think I’m taking part in a sketch”.
Finally, once the bar manager appears, he starts to understand and finally, I get my coffee.
“You wan’ sugar?” he asks.
“No thanks,” I say, “just another server”. He nods, as if he understands. Which, of course, he doesn’t. In any sense.
Tuesday August 8th. Fancy film industry lunch which takes place every summer at a fancy hotel in Brighton Marina. We convene in the bar before sitting down in a function room for a three-course lunch. Only wine isn’t included, and since my table neighbour bought me a drink earlier, I grab my purse and leave the room to buy wine in the bar.
“Two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, please,” I say.
“Large?” she responds.
“Yes please,” I answer, uncertain as to what kind of a girl she thinks I am.
She fills two glasses almost to the level of the almost halfway mark painted onto the vessel.
“That’s eighteen pounds, please”.
She spots the aghast look on my face. “Oh, sorry,” she says quickly, grabbing the wine list, “that should be twenty-six pounds, please”. *****
“Thirteen pounds for a glass of wine?!” I splutter.
“Well,” she says, “much cheaper to buy it by the bottle”.
“How much is a bottle?” I ask.
“Thirty six pounds,” she says.
“How much is a bottle of the house dry white?” I manage to get out, at the same time daydreaming about strangling her.
“Twenty pounds,” she sniffs.
“Well, I’ll take one of those instead”, I tell her.
“So you don’t want the Sauvignon Blanc at all?” she asks, unnecessarily.
“Not even a tiny bit,” I say, necessarily.
She looks a tad disgusted, and – even though others are now waiting for her services around the bar – grabs the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc the two half glasses of plonk came from, and endeavours to pour the wine I have rejected back into it. This naturally takes some time. She then washes the now empty glasses in the bar sink, before trying to dry them with a completely ineffectual white tea-towel – the professional type that doesn’t dry anything.
“Haven’t you got some other glasses?” I ask, with what I hope isn’t my last breath.
“No,” she says flatly. “There’s your party, and a wake in the adjoining room.”
If you don’t hurry up, I think, there’ll be another wake before long.
Then, without a word, she walks out from behind the bar and leaves the room. I look at the others waiting to be served. Nobody has a bloody clue as to what’s going on.
We wait for a full five minutes before she reappears with a black, plastic ice bucket. She sticks the bottle of house white into it, tries to rest both glasses on top, before taking one away and handing it to me along with the ice bucket (it’s a good job I’ve got three hands, I can tell you).
“Thank you,” I might have said. But then again, I might not.
The people on my table look quite surprised when I re-enter the room and sit down; were they trying to remember who I was? Or was it that I nearly missed the Christmas pudding?
*Other burger chains were available. If indeed I’m talking about the burger chain I’m not talking about.
**Even so, some of them ate the food
***It’s a lot of money now: you could spend a penny 14 times for that at Victoria Station before they abolished the fee earlier this year
****That’s the end of the asterisk thing. It’s even getting on my nerves now.
*****OK, so I lied, what you gonna do? Anyway, before I was so rudely interrupted, prices have not been inflated for comedic effect, she really did try to charge me £26 for two half glasses of wine. You really have to stop being quite so cynical, you know.