A Trade to Fall Back On
LONDON, ONTARIO – Our eldest grandchild who turns fifteen next week sent me on an unexpected tumble down a time tunnel this summer by landing his first real job as a dishwasher at a Salt Spring Island cidery which also operates a rather swish dining room. Yes, indeed; been there and done that; and at just about the same age. It can sometimes be challenging to look at young kids growing up in this digitally atomized culture of ours – where everybody spends at least half their waking hours staring into glowing screens – and find contact points that make you sigh with remembrance of a bygone, pre-pixilated age. But making one’s introduction to the working life by lugging around tubs of dirty plates and feeding them into the steam-belching maw of a Hobart dishwashing machine . . . that seems to be a touchstone that abides from one generation to another and another.
In terms of its ambience and tone, I expect Basil’s workplace is not unlike my own first gig in the restauranting trade, though I ostensibly started out one tiny notch above him in the occupational hierarchy; working as a fourteen year-old busboy in the palatial dining room of the Highland Country Club. The work was still menial and the wage was still minimum and wasn’t topped up with tips. But the job came with the added aggravation that you had to be presentable; something I’ve never been very good at. I’m not sure I would have been happier to work as a dishwasher but I probably would’ve been a little less miserable. I was so out of place in this world of heavily starched linen and gleaming silverware, clearing and setting tables in an exquisitely appointed dining room with picture windows and a balcony that looked out over the first-hole fairway.
My far more presentable and natty friend, George Mahas, got me the job when his services were suddenly required at his own family’s restaurant, The Casino, on Dundas Street. George knew a thing or two about presentation and demeanor and probably realized that the cut of my jib didn’t comport very harmoniously with this palatial environment. But the Highland was really stuck for a replacement and kept pestering him – “You must know someone” – and I think George just put me forward to get them off his back and be done with the place.
But the clubhouse restaurant’s manager/hostess – a crisply efficient woman named Bertha – wasn’t fooled for a minute. She quickly deduced that you could deck me out in black trousers and a vest over top of a freshly ironed white shirt but it all was to no avail. She was admirably frank about letting me know that I was not fit to tie, let alone fill, George’s beautifully polished shoes and came up with my own replacement within a couple of weeks.
Man, was I relieved to be out of there. My four or five-hour shifts felt like an eternity. Slippng in through the kitchen to begin my second shift, the smell of the place – a perfectly agreeable and even enticing smell to anyone who hadn’t already built up olfactory associations of tedium and dread and itchy confinement – made me want to vomit. I remember my incredulous sense of injustice when I saw how much the government was scraping away from my pitiful pay-cheques. They didn’t earn that money, damn it. I did; like I'd never had to earn anything ever before.
And I remember the smug coterie of well-heeled jocks whose parents had memberships at the club; four boys that I vaguely knew from school who were two or three years older than me. These louts sensed my acute discomfort on the job and decided to rub some salt in it; snapping their fingers and calling out, “Garcon”; getting me to fill up their glasses with fresh ice water and chugging it down so I’d be circling their table and refilling and refilling; dropping linen napkins to the floor and asking if I would be so good as to pick them up.
Bertha eventually twigged to their game and – bless her heart – took mercy on me. “Don’t bother with table ten,” she told me. “I’ll take care of them.” One of those louts had the misfortune of dying in his early forties from cancer and I blush to admit that when I came upon his obituary in the paper, the first word to pass my lips was, “Yessss.”
Two years later, sixteen years old and newly dropped out of high school so that I could hide out in the basement and keep weird hours as I tried to develop my skills as a writer, my parents chafed at the free ride they were giving me and decided it was time to start charging me board. So in late March of 1969, I landed my second job in the restaurant biz - this time as a dishwasher - answering a 'help wanted' ad placed in the paper by the recently opened Swiss Chalet downtown. They'd only been open for a couple of months and had already burned their way through three or four dishwashers.
That was the first of the half dozen Swiss Chalets that would eventually operate in London. They closed that central branch in 2003 and now all of them are located in the suburbs . . . which, as uninspiring franchise operations offering up identical, limited menus of zero imagination, is exactly where they belong. As much as I'd resented my experience of working at the Highland, I did at least recognize that it was an actual restaurant, whereas this joint was nothing more than a glorified food stand.
At most, I think I put in a dozen 11 a.m. to seven p.m. shifts, working six days a week for a wage that came out to little more than 40 bucks after taxes. In my memory bank, that raw and alienating experience occupies an area so immense and carefully quarantined (lest it seep out and infect my otherwise cheerful state of mind) that you’d think I’d served ten years' hard time in a particularly humid cell at the Kingston Pen.
Of all the rude awakenings with which adolescence is packed, few compare with the shock of one’s first comprehension of just how mind-rottingly mean the working world can be. Whose brilliant idea was it that the least challenging, most physically demanding and most socially demeaning jobs should also be the worst paid?
If anyone in this world deserves danger pay for daily confronting the howling futility of human existence, it’s dishwashers. Hey, Sisyphus! You remember that heart-breaking mountain of dirty dinnerware and greasy pots and scuz-encrusted utensils that we made you clean for eight hours straight yesterday? Well, apparently it was all for nothing because here it is all over again.
One person who had it worse than me in that disheartening factory of food was a new Indian immigrant, perhaps 30 years old, who worked in the food prep department. An intelligent man obliged to work far below his capabilities, his halting grasp of spoken English gave some of our more apelike superiors the leeway to treat him abysmally. One of his tasks was cleaning, peeling and preparing huge bins of french fries from fresh potatoes. Nervous as a kitten in traffic, he would occasionally lose track of what he was doing and catch his knuckles in the potato-slicing machine, spilling blood on a batch which would then have to be thrown out at a cost to the restaurant of . . . what? Twenty cents?
The last time it happened, he was literally shivering in fear at the prospect of what the boss would do if he found out; which, of course, he did. The poor man needed his job a lot more than I (still living at home with Mom and Dad) needed mine but still he was sacked on the spot, before the wound on his hand had even been dressed.
One of the bus boys who worked the late afternoon shift, told me on April 14th - my mother’s forty-ninth birthday - that he’d caught wind that one of my dish-washing predecessors had agreed to come back and they were going to sack me at the end of the week. I'd heard depressing tales about this guy called 'Tiny' and what a card and all-round swell guy he was when he wasn't on one of his drinking jags. (Gosh, I wonder what drove him to that?) The implication seemed to be that I wasn't as much fun to be around . . . and this wasn't hard to believe. I was not a happy worker and never cracked a smile. Even I didn't like being around me.
But I had my pride, damn it. And pissed off at the underhanded way in which they were dumping me, I decided to head them off at the pass instead, abruptly resigning that afternoon just as the dinner shift started to get underway. It was probably too subtle for my boss to perceive but once I'd changed, cleared out my locker downstairs and headed back through the kitchen for the last time, I had a decidedly sadistic grin on my face as I caught sight of my overbearing overlord, engulfed in a cloud of steam, as he hauled a tray of piping hot plates out of the dishwasher. Dancing out of that dump for the very last time, I remembered to nip into Bluebird Records across the road and pick up a present for Mom on the way home (the new Buddy Rich album; Big Swing Face) to assuage any parental irritation at this sudden collapse of my brilliant career. Maybe I’d start paying board next month, when I got another job.
It was five years later in the summer of 1974 when I took up my post as dishwasher once again - and third time was the charm - at the Auberge du Petit Prince, a tiny jewel of a French-Canadian restaurant in a converted house on King Street at Maitland which chef, Ginette Bisaillon, and wine steward, Robin Askew, had first opened up in June of 1972. Its intimate dining room only contained seven tables and, hosting only two two-hour sittings per evening, it was a very rare night indeed when the 'plounger' (as I was known) felt run off his feet. I always brought books in with me and spent most of my not-so-arduous shifts sitting cross-legged on the counter next to my trusty Hobart machine engrossed in my reading. Indeed, I made it through the better part of Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume History of Civilization sitting on that counter.
The menu at the Auberge changed every day and the leftovers were fabulous. Because all the dishes were made fresh each day, staff could take home buckets of great food to store in their freezers for non-working days . Most nights after the second sitting, we were invited to load up a plate with a bit of this and some of that and take it through to the dining room where artist friends of Ginette and Robin would also frequently drop by, eating and chatting into the wee hours.
During her university years, Robin had helped to publish the prototype of what became Twenty Cents magazine and Ginette was then going out with Bob McKenzie who became its longest-serving editor. Bob (who some of this blog's readers will remember from his 1,000 Words or Less column in The London Yodeller) also used to screen classic and foreign films at the Central Library in what he called the Kinotek series and would sometimes bring along that night's feature to the Auberge after-hours party where he'd project it one more time on a white sheet pinned up on the dining room wall. I first got to meet all of the members of the Nihilist Spasm Band at those gatherings and fondly remember their front man (I am loath to call him a lead singer) Bill Exley reciting large swaths of Wordsworth in his stentorian voice for the edification of all.
When I went to jail for three days for running a red light on my bicycle, Robin and Ginette had a ‘Herman Gets Sprung’ party the Monday after my release. I was a wine barbarian at the time (my tastes are scarcely more sophisticated today) and my preferred plonk just then was a nasty carbonated red put out by one of the Ontario wineries called Baby Bear. At my request, Robin decanted a bottle of the stuff for our celebration and somebody took a Polaroid snap of her, looking away in distaste as she presented the bottle to me so that I could sniff the plastic cork. I desperately wanted that photo for my album (and possibly as bait for a future blackmail scheme) but Robin got her mitts on it before I could squirrel it away and tore it into a million pieces.
Unlike those other hellholes where I plied my sudsy trade, the Auberge was a real restaurant in the richest sense of that term; a sanctuary of cuisine, culture and friendship. It was the kind of place you'd introduce your friends to. No, none of us back then could afford to come in through the front door and dine but you could bring them in the back door as co-workers and they'd get to enjoy all of its enchantments that way. I showed my wife the dish-washing ropes and she went on to become a sous chef there. I taught my friend Chris Squire how to wash dishes and he went on to become a sous chef as well and then (with the windfall accruing from an accident settlement) bought the place from Ginette in December of 1979 and greatly expanded the operation.
During Chris’ regime, hoping to pump up my income by a little, I worked one lunchtime shift as a waiter just to see what it was like. Nobody called me 'Garcon' or deliberately dropped their napkin to the floor but I hated it all the same. It wasn’t particularly hot that day but I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in my life. I was so far out of my comfort zone, I practically needed a passport to get back into it; returning to my station by my trusty Hobart with tears of gratitude in my eyes.
In addition to being a lot of teenagers' first job, dish-washing is a classic sideline for aspiring writers; a post you can hold and earn a few shekels and which, by virtue of its unadorned drudgery, makes no other demands on the mind of its practitioners. Particularly if you can find a restaurant with seven tables where the people you work with are prepared to treat you like a human being, it is the perfect occupation for those who want to give all of their attention to something else.
30/8/2020 06:15:53 am
Like you, been there done that, though the only dishwasher I emptied was in the hell hole that was Lyons Corner House on Oxford Street during a 50s. summer hols. The other dishes I washed during my student days were in steaming sinks. Burns and scalds were part of the territory. Danger money, Herman! Grin and bear it more likely. Or the reassurance of a couple of my favourite poetic lines. "Be thankful you're livin' and trust to your luck."
1/9/2020 07:19:19 am
14/7/2021 02:10:43 pm
Hi Herman! I don’t know how I landed here but I thought I’d let you know I’m still alive at nearly 80 and still cooking even though it’s just for myself and I also still appreciate the way you so kindly refer to your experiences at the Auberge. Best wishes.
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