How I got my sh*t together and got out of catering
I love some of my most flawed friends best and treat the virtuous ones worst. Maybe how flawed our friends seem is a measure of how well we know them, or how authentic they are. Or maybe I just can’t admit a fault without hooking on a justification.
Y was a Czech guy I used to work with. We were 10 pound-an-hour waiters in London with a high-class company that catered gallery openings and parties for Russian oligarchs. He was the first one to hand me a stack of blank receipts and show me how to expense taxi rides you’d never taken. He was a selfish, lazy, bigoted, misogynist; a lover of Nietzsche and Bukowski and a real son-of-a-bitch. And he’s not in the picture.
He was so sleazy women could smell it. The good girls gave him a wide-wide birth. The rotten ones found him and did unspeakable things with him: the married ones, the perverted ones, maybe it was the blink-winks, this double wink he did with a slight nod of the head, maybe that was code. He’d tell me all about them, show me pictures he’d taken on his crap pay-as-you-go phone. Sometimes I was shocked, none of it bares repeating, but I loved hearing about it.
He once told me that he was the youngest kid in his group of friends growing up, this was back at about the time of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. He was always doing things a couple of years too early: drinking, smoking, losing his virginity. Under communism, he said, people would not only keep their plastic bags they would treasure them – these were good bags, useful bags, hard to come by. Everything was hard to come by.
He cut loose and he didn’t know when to stop. He’d learnt young that pushing the limits was how you grew and earned respect. He never unlearned that, not while I knew him.
One time he invited himself over to my house in the far outskirts of London – an hour and a half journey for him. We sat in the back garden and drunk cans of beer and talked until it got too cold, then we drank in the kitchen. It was good, it was always good. He respected intelligence, almost exclusively. I was trying to represent love, morality, self-respect – I always am with people who don’t acknowledge them, and they lock onto me like a magnet.
“All the dirty stuff you do is like your grandmother, Y, you can pretend she doesn’t exist but she’ll always be your grandmother.”
We were sat in the kitchen and he told me it was his birthday. Maybe it was his 30th. I felt bad and I told him “Happy birthday man” and he said “Sure”. I brushed over it. I didn’t get him anything, I had no idea. He’d even brought over his own beers. I just wanted him to know it was okay, it wasn’t a big deal, it didn’t change anything.
There are a lot of good people working catering in London: actors, writers, philosophers, phds from South America working part-time at Argos. Some of them are talented, some of them are deluded. All of them are hooked on 10 pounds an hour, no responsibility, no schedule, no future. And out of all of them, out of maybe a hundred thousand souls swept past in parties; out of a hundred colleague-aquaintences; out of twenty work friends, this guy Y was my favorite.
He gave me those blink-winks. Standing across the way holding a tray of Champagne flutes: pink and brut and brut-de-brut, with a soft-option of Virgin Pimms; he’d signal our allegiance, our brotherhood. Yeah we were here now, breaking our backs, but we weren’t really. And if we really were here, we wouldn’t be here for long.
Once he asked if I had any savings, then he pitched me a real-estate investment project in Prague. Some scam that would have killed our friendship, or maybe it was for real. That was in the early days. Later I went to Prague with him, drove the 14 hours in one go and stayed in one of his friend’s flats, one of half a dozen monster towers built under Communism – warts on the chin of an otherwise beautiful medieval city.
He drank non-stop. It was booze and it was bleak, like peering into a cavern, and I told him so.
He gave me those blink-winks when he wanted to steal canopies from my tray. Every other night he was caught by the boss with a drink in his hand. He was always this close to getting fired, and you could tell he sort of wanted it. It seemed crazy, but now I realize it was probably the sane attitude. They never did fire him. What satisfaction would there have been for them in it? They did fire me though.
First they started talking about supervising, about responsibilities and opportunity, and I could hear Y laughing. It was a joke to him, but also a threat. He didn’t want me to supervise if it meant no more goofing-off together. But really I think he didn’t want me getting stuck. We’d both seen it happen. All the other supervisors were struggling actors in their late twenties, only the manager and the owner had careers. You got 12 pounds an hour as a supervisor, it was a worse trap than 10 since you had to care. The job I had was a straight trade: my time for their money and it was a better deal. I was flattered, I tried it out a few times, but I didn’t want it. Respectfully, I declined. And they never forgave me.
They fired me when I fell asleep behind the bar at Christie’s Auction House, it was the third time in as many months. I was waiting parties every other night and sometimes for as much as 18 hours straight on the weekends, meanwhile I was working full-time as an intern at the Financial Times. If it’s any consolation, I told them, I fall asleep at that job too. It wasn’t.
I was trying to get enough experience to get into journalism school and I could tell some of the managers didn’t like it. they thought that I thought I was too good to serve drinks. But that wasn’t it. Life had started happening to me. I’d met Stacy and I was trying to find some stability. I could tell the good friends from the rest because they were genuinely happy for me. Y was genuinely happy for me. He had this huge grin that filled his substantial face – it was the real deal.
A few months before I got fired we’d been working tables in a marquee on a billionaire’s lawn. Y stole one of the 500 pound bottles of table wine and we shared it in this dead-space between tents where nobody could find us, gravy on our aprons, looking up at the stars, hearing the chatter and clink of glasses, of people enjoying themselves, of work, a way off.
A really expensive bottle of wine is different, it hits a part of your mouth that otherwise doesn’t exist and warms your chest like the sun. That wine was the best I’ve ever drunk. We would have had to work for fifty hours to have been able to afford to buy it, and we drank it slowly, savoring it, our posts abandoned. We did it justice.