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George Orwell > Down and Out in Paris and London > Chapter XI

Down and Out in Paris and London

Chapter XI

As it turned out, I did not break my contract, for it was six weeks
before the Auberge de Jehan Cottard even showed signs of opening. In the
meantime I worked at the Hotel X, four days a week in the cafeterie, one
day helping the waiter on the fourth floor, and one day replacing the woman
who washed up for the dining-room. My day off, luckily, was Sunday, but
sometimes another man was ill and I had to work that day as well. The hours
were from seven in the morning till two in the afternoon, and from five in
the evening till nine--eleven hours; but it was a fourteen-hour day when
I washed up for the dining-room. By the ordinary standards of a Paris
PLONGEUR, these are exceptionally short hours. The only hardship of life
was the fearful heat and stuffiness of these labyrinthine cellars. Apart
from this the hotel, which was large and well organized, was considered a
comfortable one.

Our cafeterie was a murky cellar measuring twenty feet by seven by
eight high, and so crowded with coffee-urns, breadcutters and the like that
one could hardly move without banging against something. It was lighted by
one dim electric bulb, and four or five gas-fires that sent out a fierce
red breath. There was a thermometer there, and the temperature never fell
below 110 degrees Fahrenheit--it neared 130 at some times of the day. At
one end were five service lifts, and at the other an ice cupboard where we
stored milk and butter. When you went into the ice cupboard you dropped a
hundred degrees of temperature at a single step; it used to remind me of
the hymn about Greenland's icy mountains and India's coral strand. Two men
worked in the cafeterie besides Boris and myself. One was Mario, a huge,
excitable Italian--he was like a city policeman with operatic gestures--
and the other, a hairy, uncouth animal whom we called the Magyar; I think
he was a Transylvanian, or something even more remote. Except the Magyar we
were all big men, and at the rush hours we collided incessantly.

The work in the cafeterie was spasmodic. We were never idle, but the
real work only came in bursts of two hours at a time--we called each
burst 'UN COUP DE FEU'. The first COUP DE FEU came at eight, when the
guests upstairs began to wake up and demand breakfast. At eight a sudden
banging and yelling would break out all through the basement; bells rang on
all sides, blue-aproned men rushed through the passages, our service lifts
came down with a simultaneous crash, and the waiters on all five floors
began shouting Italian oaths down the shafts. I don't remember all our
duties, but they included making tea, coffee and chocolate, fetching meals
from the kitchen, wines from the cellar and fruit and so forth from the
dining-room, slicing bread, making toast, rolling pats of butter, measuring
jam, opening milk-cans, counting lumps of sugar, boiling eggs, cooking
porridge, pounding ice, grinding coffee--all this for from a hundred to
two hundred customers. The kitchen was thirty yards away, and the
dining-room sixty or seventy yards. Everything we sent up in the service
lifts had to be covered by a voucher, and the vouchers had to be carefully
filed, and there was trouble if even a lump of sugar was lost. Besides
this, we had to supply the staff with bread and coffee, and fetch the meals
for the waiters upstairs. All in all, it was a complicated job.

I calculated that one had to walk and run about fifteen miles during
the day, and yet the strain of the work was more mental than physical.
Nothing could be easier, on the face of it, than this stupid scullion work,
but it is astonishingly hard when one is in a hurry. One has to leap to and
fro between a multitude of jobs--it is like sorting a pack of cards
against the clock. You are, for example, making toast, when bang! down
comes a service lift with an order for tea, rolls and three different kinds
of jam, and simultaneously bang! down comes another demanding scrambled
eggs, coffee and grapefruit; you run to the kitchen for the eggs and to the
dining-room for the fruit, going like lightning so as to be back before
your toast bums, and having to remember about the tea and coffee, besides
half a dozen other orders that are still pending; and at the same time some
waiter is following you and making trouble about a lost bottle of
soda-water, and you are arguing with him. It needs more brains than one
might think. Mario said, no doubt truly, that it took a year to make a
reliable cafetier.

The time between eight and half past ten was a sort of delirium.
Sometimes we were going as though we had only five minutes to live;
sometimes there were sudden lulls when the orders stopped and everything
seemed quiet for a moment. Then we swept up the litter from the floor,
threw down fresh sawdust, and swallowed gallipots of wine or coffee or
water--anything, so long as it was wet. Very often we used to break off
chunks of ice and suck them while we worked. The heat among the gas-fires
was nauseating; we swallowed quarts of drink during the day, and after a
few hours even our aprons were drenched with sweat. At times we were
hopelessly behind with the work, and some of the customers would have gone
without their breakfast, but Mario always pulled us through. He had worked
fourteen years in the cafeterie, and he had the skill that never wastes a
second between jobs. The Magyar was very stupid and I was inexperienced,
and Boris was inclined to shirk, partly because of his lame leg, partly
because he was ashamed of working in the cafeterie after being a waiter;
but Mario was wonderful. The way he would stretch his great arms right
across the cafeterie to fill a coffee-pot with one hand and boil an egg
with the other, at the same time watching toast and shouting directions to
the Magyar, and between whiles singing snatches from RIGOLETTO, was beyond
all praise. The PATRON knew his value, and he was paid a thousand francs a
month, instead of five hundred like the rest of us.

The breakfast pandemonium stopped at half past ten. Then we scrubbed
the cafeterie tables, swept the floor and polished the brasswork, and, on
good mornings, went one at a time to the lavatory for a smoke. This was our
slack time--only relatively slack, however, for we had only ten minutes
for lunch, and we never got through it uninterrupted. The customers'
luncheon hour, between twelve and two, was another period of turmoil like
the breakfast hour. Most of our work was fetching meals from the kitchen,
which meant constant ENGUEULADES from the cooks. By this time the cooks had
sweated in front of their furnaces for four or five hours, and their
tempers were all warmed up.

At two we were suddenly free men. We threw off our aprons and put on
our coats, hurried out of doors, and, when we had money, dived into the
nearest BISTRO. It was strange, coming up into the street from those
firelit cellars. The air seemed blindingly clear and cold, like arctic
summer; and how sweet the petrol did smell, after the stenches of sweat and
food! Sometimes we met some of our cooks and waiters in the BISTROS, and
they were friendly and stood us drinks. Indoors we were their slaves, but
it is an etiquette in hotel life that between hours everyone is equal, and
the ENGUEULADES do not count.

At a quarter to five we went back to the hotel. Till half-past six
there were no orders, and we used this time to polish silver, clean out the
coffee-urns, and do other odd jobs. Then the grand turmoil of the day
started--the dinner hour. I wish I could be Zola for a little while, just
to describe that dinner hour. The essence of the situation was that a
hundred or two hundred people were demanding individually different meals
of five or six courses, and that fifty or sixty people had to cook and
serve them and clean up the mess afterwards; anyone with experience of
catering will know what that means. And at this time when the work was
doubled, the whole staff was tired out, and a number of them were drunk. I
could write pages about the scene without giving a true idea of it. The
chargings to and fro in the narrow passages, the collisions, the yells, the
struggling with crates and trays and blocks of ice, the heat, the darkness,
the furious festering quarrels which there was no time to fight out--they
pass description. Anyone coming into the basement for the first time would
have thought himself in a den of maniacs. It was only later, when I
understood the working of a hotel, that I saw order in all this chaos.

At half past eight the work stopped very suddenly. We were not free
till nine, but we used to throw ourselves full length on the floor, and lie
there resting our legs, too lazy even to go to the ice cupboard for a
drink. Sometimes the CHEF DU PERSONNEL would come in with bottles of beer,
for the hotel stood us an extra beer when we had had a hard day. The food
we were given was no more than eatable, but the PATRON was not mean about
drink; he allowed us two litres of wine a day each, knowing that if a
PLONGEUR is not given two litres he will steal three. We had the heeltaps
of bottles as well, so that we often drank too much--a good thing, for
one seemed to work faster when partially drunk.

Four days of the week passed like this; of the other two working days,
one was better and one worse. After a week of this life I felt in need of a
holiday. It was Saturday night, so the people in our BISTRO were busy
getting drunk, and with a free day ahead of me I was ready to join them. We
all went to bed, drunk, at two in the morning, meaning to sleep till noon.
At half past five I was suddenly awakened. A night-watchman, sent from the
hotel, was standing at my bedside. He stripped the clothes back and shook
me roughly.

'Get up!' he said. 'TU T'ES BIEN SAOULE LA GNEULE, EH? Well, never
mind that, the hotel's a man short. You've got to work today.'

'Why should I work?' I protested. 'This is my day off.'

'Day off, nothing! The work's got to be done. Get up!'

I got up and went out, feeling as though my back were broken and my
skull filled with hot cinders. I did not think that I could possibly do a
day's work. And yet, after only an hour in the basement, I found that I was
perfectly well. It seemed that in the heat of those cellars, as in a
turkish bath, one could sweat out almost any quantity of drink. PLONGEURS
know this, and count on it. The power of swallowing quarts of wine, and
then sweating it out before it can do much damage, is one of the
compensations of their life.

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