DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON
In a few days I had grasped the main principles on which the hotel was run. The thing that would astonish anyone coming for the first time into the service quarters of a hotel would be the fearful noise and disorder during the rush hours. It is something so different from the steady work in a shop or a factory that it looks at first sight like mere bad management. But it is really quite unavoidable, and for this reason. Hotel work is not particularly hard, but by its nature it comes in rushes and cannot be economized. You cannot, for instance, grill a steak two hours before it is wanted; you have to wait till the last moment, by which time a mass of other work has accumulated, and then do it all together, in frantic haste. The result is that at mealtimes everyone is doing two men’s work, which is impossible without noise and quarrelling. Indeed the quarrels are a necessary part of the process, for the pace would never be kept up if everyone did not accuse everyone else of idling. It was for this reason that during the rush hours the whole staff raged and cursed like demons. At those times there was scarcely a verb in the hotel except foutre. A girl in the bakery, aged sixteen, used oaths that would have defeated a cabman. (Did not Hamlet say ‘cursing like a scullion’? No doubt Shakespeare had watched scullions at work.) But we are not losing our heads and wasting time; we were just stimulating one another for the effort of packing four hours’ work into two hours.
What keeps a hotel going is the fact that the employees take a genuine pride in their work, beastly and silly though it is. If a man idles, the others soon find him out, and conspire against him to get him sacked. Cooks, waiters and plongeurs differ greatly in outlook, but they are all alike in being proud of their efficiency.
Undoubtedly the most workmanlike class, and the least servile, are the cooks. They do not earn quite so much as waiters, but their prestige is higher and their employment steadier. The cook does not look upon himself as a servant, but as a skilled workman; he is generally called ‘un ouvrier’ which a waiter never is. He knows his power — knows that he alone makes or mars a restaurant, and that if he is five minutes late everything is out of gear. He despises the whole non-cooking staff, and makes it a point of honour to insult everyone below the head waiter. And he takes a genuine artistic pride in his work, which demands very great skill. It is not the cooking that is so difficult, but the doing everything to time. Between breakfast and luncheon the head cook at the Hôtel X would receive orders for several hundred dishes, all to be served at different times; he cooked few of them himself, but he gave instructions about all of them and inspected them before they were sent up. His memory was wonderful. The vouchers were pinned on a board, but the head cook seldom looked at them; everything was stored in his mind, and exactly to the minute, as each dish fell due, he would call out, ‘Faites marcher une côtelette de veau’ (or whatever it was) unfailingly. He was an insufferable bully, but he was also an artist. It is for their punctuality, and not for any superiority in technique, that men cooks arc preferred to women.
The waiter’s outlook is quite different. He too is proud in a way of his skill, but his skill is chiefly in being servile. His work gives him the mentality, not of a workman, but of a snob. He lives perpetually in sight of rich people, stands at their tables, listens to their conversation, sucks up to them with smiles and discreet little jokes. He has the pleasure of spending money by proxy. Moreover, there is always the chance that he may become rich himself, for, though most waiters die poor, they have long runs of luck occasionally. At some cafes on the Grand Boulevard there is so much money to be made that the waiters actually pay the patron for their employment. The result is that between constantly seeing money, and hoping to get it, the waiter comes to identify himself to some extent with his employers. He will take pains to serve a meal in style, because he feels that he is participating in the meal himself.
I remember Valenti telling me of some banquet at Nice at which he had once served, and of how it cost two hundred thousand francs and was talked of for months afterwards. ‘It was splendid, mon p’tit, mais magnifique! Jesus Christ! The champagne, the silver, the orchids — I have never seen anything like them, and I have seen some things. Ah, it was glorious!’
‘But,’ I said, ‘you were only there to wait?’
‘Oh, of course. But still, it was splendid.’
The moral is, never be sorry for a waiter. Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not. He is not thinking as he looks at you, ‘What an overfed lout’; he is thinking, ‘One day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man.’ He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day — they work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.
The plongeurs, again, have a different outlook. Theirs is a job which offers no prospects, is intensely exhausting, and at the same time has not a trace of skill or interest; the sort of job that would always be done by women if women were strong enough. All that is required of them is to be constantly on the run, and to put up with long hours and a stuffy atmosphere. They have no way of escaping from this life, for they cannot save a penny from their wages, and working from sixty to a hundred hours a week leaves them no time to train for anything else. The best they can hope for is to find a slightly softer job as night-watchman or lavatory attendant.
And yet the plongeurs, low as they are, also have a kind of pride. It is the pride of the drudge — the man who is equal to no matter what quantity of work. At that level, the mere power to go on working like an ox is about the only virtue attainable. Débrouillard is what every plongeur wants to be called. A débrouillard is a man who, even when he is told to do the impossible, will se débrouiller — get it done somehow. One of the kitchen plongeurs at the Hôtel X, a German, was well known as a débrouillard. One night an English lord came to the hotel, and the waiters were in despair, for the lord had asked for peaches, and there were none in stock; it was late at night, and the shops would be shut. ‘Leave it to me,’ said the German. He went out, and in ten minutes he was back with four peaches. He had gone into a neighbouring restaurant and stolen them. That is what is meant by a débrouillard. The English lord paid for the peaches at twenty francs each.
Mario, who was in charge of the cafeterie, had the typical drudge mentality. All he thought of was getting through the ‘boulot’, and he defied you to give him too much of it. Fourteen years underground had left him with about as much natural laziness as a piston rod. ‘Faut être dur,’ he used to say when anyone complained. You will often hear plongeurs boast, ‘Je suis dur’ — as though they were soldiers, not male charwomen.
Thus everyone in the hotel had his sense of honour, and when the press of work came we were all ready for a grand concerted effort to get through it. The constant war between the different departments also made for efficiency, for everyone clung to his own privileges and tried to stop the others idling and pilfering.
This is the good side of hotel work. In a hotel a huge and complicated machine is kept running by an inadequate staff, because every man has a well-defined job and does it scrupulously. But there is a weak point, and it is this — that the job the staff are doing is not necessarily what the customer pays for. The customer pays, as he sees it, for good service; the employee is paid, as he sees it, for the boulot — meaning, as a rule, an imitation of good service. The result is that, though hotels are miracles of punctuality, they are worse than the worst private houses in the things that matter.
Take cleanliness, for example. The dirt in the Hôtel X, as soon as one penetrated into the service quarters, was revolting. Our cafeterie had year-old filth in all the dark corners, and the bread-bin was infested with cockroaches. Once I suggested killing these beasts to Mario. ‘Why kill the poor animals?’ he said reproachfully. The others laughed when I wanted to wash my hands before touching the butter. Yet we were clean where we recognized cleanliness as part of the boulot. We scrubbed the tables and polished the brasswork regularly, because we had orders to do that; but we had no orders to be genuinely clean, and in any case we had no time for it. We were simply carrying out our duties; and as our first duty was punctuality, we saved time by being dirty.
In the kitchen the dirt was worse. It is not a figure of speech, it is a mere statement of fact to say that a French cook will spit in the soup — that is, if he is not going to drink it himself. He is an artist, but his art is not cleanliness. To a certain extent he is even dirty because he is an artist, for food, to look smart, needs dirty treatment. When a steak, for instance, is brought up for the head cook’s inspection, he does not handle it with a fork. He picks it up in his fingers and slaps it down, runs his thumb round the dish and licks it to taste the gravy, runs it round and licks again, then steps back and contemplates the piece of meat like an artist judging a picture, then presses it lovingly into place with his fat, pink fingers, every one of which he has licked a hundred times that morning. When he is satisfied, he takes a cloth and wipes his fingerprints from the dish, and hands it to the waiter. And the waiter, of course, dips his fingers into the gravy — his nasty, greasy fingers which he is for ever running through his brilliantined hair. Whenever one pays more than, say, ten francs for a dish of meat in Paris, one may be certain that it has been fingered in this manner. In very cheap restaurants it is different; there, the same trouble is not taken over the food, and it is just forked out of the pan and flung on to a plate, without handling. Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.
Dirtiness is inherent in hotels and restaurants, because sound food is sacrificed to punctuality and smartness. The hotel employee is too busy getting food ready to remember that it is meant to be eaten. A meal is simply ‘une commande’ to him, just as a man dying of cancer is simply ‘a case’ to the doctor. A customer orders, for example, a piece of toast. Somebody, pressed with work in a cellar deep underground, has to prepare it. How can he stop and say to himself, ‘This toast is to be eaten — I must make it eatable’? All he knows is that it must look right and must be ready in three minutes. Some large drops of sweat fall from his forehead on to the toast. Why should he worry? Presently the toast falls among the filthy sawdust on the floor. Why trouble to make a new piece? It is much quicker to wipe the sawdust off. On the way upstairs the toast falls again, butter side down. Another wipe is all it needs. And so with everything. The only food at the Hôtel X which was ever prepared cleanly was the staff’s, and the patron’s. The maxim, repeated by everyone, was: ‘Look out for the patron, and as for the clients, s’en fout pas mal!’ Everywhere in the service quarters dirt festered — a secret vein of dirt, running through the great garish hotel like the intestines through a man’s body.
Apart from the dirt, the patron swindled the customers wholeheartedly. For the most part the materials of the food were very bad, though the cooks knew how to serve it up in style. The meat was at best ordinary, and as to the vegetables, no good housekeeper would have looked at them in the market. The cream, by a standing order, was diluted with milk. The tea and coffee were of inferior sorts, and the jam was synthetic stuff out of vast, unlabelled tins. All the cheaper wines, according to Boris, were corked vin ordinaire. There was a rule that employees must pay for anything they spoiled, and in consequence damaged things were seldom thrown away. Once the waiter on the third floor dropped a roast chicken down the shaft of our service lift, where it fell into a litter of broken bread, torn paper and so forth at the bottom. We simply wiped it with a cloth and sent it up again. Upstairs there were dirty tales of once-used sheets not being washed, but simply damped, ironed and put back on the beds. The patron was as mean to us as to the customers. Throughout the vast hotel there was not, for instance, such a thing as a brush and pan; one had to manage with a broom and a piece of cardboard. And the staff lavatory was worthy of Central Asia, and there was no place to wash one’s hands, except the sinks used for washing crockery.
In spite of all this the Hôtel X was one of the dozen most expensive hotels in Paris, and the customers paid startling prices. The ordinary charge for a night’s lodging, not including breakfast, was two hundred francs. All wine and tobacco were sold at exactly double shop prices, though of course the patron bought at the wholesale price. If a customer had a title, or was reputed to be a millionaire, all his charges went up automatically. One morning on the fourth floor an American who was on diet wanted only salt and hot water for his breakfast. Valenti was furious. ‘Jesus Christ!’ he said, ‘what about my ten per cent? Ten per cent of salt and water!’ And he charged twenty-five francs for the breakfast. The customer paid without a murmur.
According to Boris, the same kind of thing went on in all Paris hotels, or at least in all the big, expensive ones. But I imagine that the customers at the Hôtel X were especially easy to swindle, for they were mostly Americans, with a sprinkling of English — no French — and seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American ‘cereals’, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg, dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such o people are swindled or not.
I heard queer tales in the hotel. There were tales of dope fiends, of old debauchees who frequented hotels in search of pretty page-boys, of thefts and blackmail. Mario told me of a hotel in which he had been, where a chambermaid stole a priceless diamond ring from an American lady. For days the staff were searched as they left work, and two detectives searched the hotel from top to bottom, but the ring was never found. The chambermaid had a lover in the bakery, and he had baked the ring into a roll, where it lay unsuspected until the search was over.
Once Valenti, at a slack time, told me a story about himself.
‘You know, mon p’tit, this hotel life is all very well, but it’s the devil when you’re out of work. I expect you know what it is to go without eating, eh? Forcément, otherwise you wouldn’t be scrubbing dishes. Well, I’m not a poor devil of a plongeur; I’m a waiter, and I went five days without eating, once. Five days without even a crust of bread — Jesus Christ!
‘I tell you, those five days were the devil. The only good thing was, I had my rent paid in advance. I was living in a dirty, cheap little hotel in the Rue Sainte Éloïse up in the Latin quarter. It was called the Hotel Suzanne May, after some famous prostitute of the time of the Empire. I was starving, and there was nothing I could do; I couldn’t even go to the cafes where the hotel proprietors come to engage waiters, because I hadn’t the price of a drink. All I could do was to lie in bed getting weaker and weaker, and watching the bugs running about the ceiling. I don’t want to go through that again, I can tell you.
‘In the afternoon of the fifth day I went half mad; at least, that’s how it seems to me now. There was an old faded print of a woman’s head hanging on the wall of my room, and I took to wondering who it could be; and after about an hour I realized that it must be Sainte Éloïse, who was the patron saint of the quarter. I had never taken any notice of the thing before, but now, as I lay staring at it, a most extraordinary idea came into my head.
‘“Écoute, mon cher,” I said to myself, “you’ll be starving to death if this goes on much longer. You’ve got to do something. Why not try a prayer to Sainte Éloïse? Go down on your knees and ask her to send you some money. After all, it can’t do any harm. Try it!”
‘Mad, eh? Still, a man will do anything when he’s hungry. Besides, as I said, it couldn’t do any harm. I got out of bed and began praying. I said:
‘“Dear Sainte Éloïse, if you exist, please send me some money. I don’t ask for much — just enough to buy some bread and a bottle of wine and get my strength back. Three or four francs would do. You don’t know how grateful I’ll be, Sainte Éloïse, if you help me this once. And be sure, if you send me anything, the first thing I’ll do will be to go and bum a candle for you, at your church down the street. Amen.”
‘I put in that about the candle, because I had heard that saints like having candles burnt in their honour. I meant to keep my promise, of course. But I am an atheist and I didn’t really believe that anything would come of it.
‘Well, I got into bed again, and five minutes later there came a bang at the door. It was a girl called Maria, a big fat peasant girl who lived at our hotel. She was a very stupid girl, but a good sort, and I didn’t much care for her to see me in the state I was in.
‘She cried out at the sight of me. “Nom de Dieu!” she said, “what’s the matter with you? What are you doing in bed at this time of day? Quelle mine que tu as! You look more like a corpse than a man.”
‘Probably I did look a sight. I had been five days without food, most of the time in bed, and it was three days since I had had a wash or a shave. The room was a regular pigsty, too.
‘“What’s the matter?” said Maria again.
‘“The matter!” I said; “Jesus Christ! I’m starving. I haven’t eaten for five days. That’s what’s the matter.”
‘Maria was horrified. “Not eaten for five days?” she said. “But why? Haven’t you any money, then?”
‘“Money!” I said. “Do you suppose I should be starving if I had money? I’ve got just five sous in the world, and I’ve pawned everything. Look round the room and see if there’s anything more I can sell or pawn. If you can find anything that will fetch fifty centimes, you’re cleverer than I am.”
‘Maria began looking round the room. She poked here and there among a lot of rubbish that was lying about, and then suddenly she got quite excited. Her great thick mouth fell open with astonishment.
‘“You idiot!” she cried out. “Imbecile! What’s this, then?”
‘I saw that she had picked up an empty oil bidon that had been lying in the comer. I had bought it weeks before, for an oil lamp I had before I sold my things.
“That?” I said. “That’s an oil bidon. What about it?”
‘“Imbecile! Didn’t you pay three francs fifty deposit on it?”
‘Now, of course I had paid the three francs fifty. They always make you pay a deposit on the bidon, and you get it back when the bidon is returned. But I’d forgotten all about it.
‘“Yes—” I began.
‘“Idiot!” shouted Maria again. She got so excited that she began to dance about until I thought her sabots would go through the floor, “Idiot! T’es fou! T’es fou! What have you got to do but take it back to the shop and get your deposit back? Starving, with three francs fifty staring you in the face! Imbecile!”
‘I can hardly believe now that in all those five days I had never once thought of taking the bidon back to the shop. As good as three francs fifty in hard cash, and it had never occurred to me! I sat up in bed. “Quick!” I shouted to Maria, “you take it for me. Take it to the grocer’s at the corner — run like the devil. And bring back food!”
‘Maria didn’t need to be told. She grabbed the bidon and went clattering down the stairs like a herd of elephants and in three minutes she was back with two pounds of bread under one arm and a half-litre bottle of wine under the other. I didn’t stop to thank her; I just seized the bread and sank my teeth in it. Have you noticed how bread tastes when you have been hungry for a long time? Cold, wet, doughy — like putty almost. But, Jesus Christ, how good it was! As for the wine, I sucked it all down in one draught, and it seemed to go straight into my veins and flow round my body like new blood. Ah, that made a difference!
‘I wolfed the whole two pounds of bread without stopping to take breath. Maria stood with her hands on her hips, watching me eat. “Well, you feel better, eh?” she said when I had finished.
‘“Better!” I said. “I feel perfect! I’m not the same man as I was five minutes ago. There’s only one thing in the world I need now — a cigarette.”
‘Maria put her hand in her apron pocket. “You can’t have it,” she said. “I’ve no money. This is all I had left out of your three francs fifty — seven sous. It’s no good; the cheapest cigarettes are twelve sous a packet.”
‘“Then I can have them!” I said. “Jesus Christ, what a piece of luck! I’ve got five sous — it’s just enough.”
‘Maria took the twelve sous and was starting out to the tobacconist’s. And then something I had forgotten all this time came into my head. There was that cursed Sainte Éloïse! I had promised her a candle if she sent me money; and really, who could say that the prayer hadn’t come true? “Three or four francs,” I had said; and the next moment along came three francs fifty. There was no getting away from it. I should have to spend my twelve sous on a candle.
‘I called Maria back. “It’s no use,” I said; “there is Sainte Éloïse — I have promised her a candle. The twelve sous will have to go on that. Silly, isn’t it? I can’t have my cigarettes after all.”
‘“Sainte Éloïse?” said Maria. “What about Sainte Éloïse?”
‘“I prayed to her for money and promised her a candle,” I said. “She answered the prayer — at any rate, the money turned up. I shall have to buy that candle. It’s a nuisance, but it seems to me I must keep my promise.”
‘“But what put Sainte Éloïse into your head?” said Maria.
‘“It was her picture,” I said, and I explained the whole thing. “There she is, you see,” I said, and I pointed to the picture on the wall.
‘Maria looked at the picture, and then to my surprise she burst into shouts of laughter. She laughed more and more, stamping about the room and holding her fat sides as though they would burst. I thought she had gone mad. It was two minutes before she could speak.
‘“Idiot!” she cried at last. “T’es louf! T’es louf! Do you mean to tell me you really knelt down and prayed to that picture? Who told you it was Sainte Éloïse?”
‘“But I made sure it was Sainte Éloïse!” I said.
‘“Imbecile! It isn’t Sainte Éloïse at all. Who do you think it is?”
‘“Who?” I said.
‘“It is Suzanne May, the woman this hotel is called after.”
‘I had been praying to Suzanne May, the famous prostitute of the Empire...
‘But, after all, I wasn’t sorry. Maria and I had a good laugh, and then we talked it over, and we made out that I didn’t owe Sainte Éloïse anything. Clearly it wasn’t she who had answered the prayer, and there was no need to buy her a candle. So I had my packet of cigarettes after all.’
Time went on and the Auberge de Jehan Cottard showed no signs of opening. Boris and I went down there one day during our afternoon interval and found that none of the alterations had been done, except the indecent pictures, and there were three duns instead of two. The patron greeted us with his usual blandness, and the next instant turned to me (his prospective dishwasher) and borrowed five francs. After that I felt certain that the restaurant would never get beyond talk. The patron, however, again named the opening for ‘exactly a fortnight from today’, and introduced us to the woman who was to do the cooking, a Baltic Russian five feet tall and a yard across the hips. She told us that she had been a singer before she came down to cooking, and that she was very artistic and adored English literature, especially La Case de l’Oncle Tom.
In a fortnight I had got so used to the routine of a plongeur’s life that I could hardly imagine anything different. It was a life without much variation. At a quarter to six one woke with a sudden start, tumbled into grease-stiffened clothes, and hurried out with dirty face and protesting muscles. It was dawn, and the windows were dark except for the workmen’s cafés. The sky was like a vast flat wall of cobalt, with roofs and spires of black paper pasted upon it. Drowsy men were sweeping the pavements with ten-foot besoms, and ragged families picking over the dustbins. Workmen, and girls with a piece of chocolate in one hand and a croissant in the other, were pouring into the Métro stations. Trams, filled with more workmen, boomed gloomily past. One hastened down to the station, fought for a place — one does literally have to fight on the Paris Métro at six in the morning — and stood jammed in the swaying mass of passengers, nose to nose with some hideous French face, breathing sour wine and garlic. And then one descended into the labyrinth of the hotel basement, and forgot daylight till two o’clock, when the sun was hot and the town black with people and cars.
After my first week at the hotel I always spent the afternoon interval in sleeping, or, when I had money, in a bistro. Except for a few ambitious waiters who went to English classes, the whole staff wasted their leisure in this way; one seemed too lazy after the morning’s work to do anything better. Sometimes half a dozen plongeurs would make up a party and go to an abominable brothel in the Rue de Sieyès, where the charge was only five francs twenty-five centimes — tenpence half-penny. It was nicknamed ‘le prix fixe’, and they used to describe their experiences there as a great joke. It was a favourite rendezvous of hotel workers. The plongeurs’ wages did not allow them to marry, and no doubt work in the basement does not encourage fastidious feelings.
For another four hours one was in the cellars, and then one emerged, sweating, into the cool street. It was lamplight — that strange purplish gleam of the Paris lamps — and beyond the river the Eiffel Tower flashed from top to bottom with zigzag skysigns, like enormous snakes of fire. Streams of cars glided silently to and fro, and women, exquisite-looking in the dim light, strolled up and down the arcade. Sometimes a woman would glance at Boris or me, and then, noticing our greasy clothes, look hastily away again. One fought another battle in the Métro and was home by ten. Generally from ten to midnight I went to a little bistro in our street, an underground place frequented by Arab navvies. It was a bad place for fights, and I sometimes saw bottles thrown, once with fearful effect, but as a rule the Arabs fought among themselves and let Christians alone. Raki, the Arab drink, was very cheap, and the bistro was open at all hours, for the Arabs — lucky men — had the power of working all day and drinking all night.
It was the typical life of a plongeur, and it did not seem a bad life at the time. I had no sensation of poverty, for even after paying my rent and setting aside enough for tobacco and journeys and my food on Sundays, I still had four francs a day for drinks, and four francs was wealth. There was — it is hard to express it — a sort of heavy contentment, the contentment a well-fed beast might feel, in a life which had become so simple. For nothing could be simpler than the life of a plongeur. He lives in a rhythm between work and sleep, without time to think, hardly conscious of the exterior world; his Paris has shrunk to the hotel, the Métro, a few bistros and his bed. If he goes afield, it is only a few streets away, on a trip with some servant-girl who sits on his knee swallowing oysters and beer. On his free day he lies in bed till noon, puts on a clean shirt, throws dice for drinks, and after lunch goes back to bed again. Nothing is quite real to him but the boulot, drinks and sleep; and of these sleep is the most important.
One night, in the small hours, there was a murder just beneath my window. I was woken by a fearful uproar, and, going to the window, saw a man lying flat on the stones below; I could see the murderers, three of them, flitting away at the end of the street. Some of us went down and found that the man was quite dead, his skull cracked with a piece of lead piping. I remember the colour of his blood, curiously purple, like wine; it was still on the cobbles when I came home that evening, and they said the school-children had come from miles round to see it. But the thing that strikes me in looking back is that I was in bed and asleep within three minutes of the murder. So were most of the people in the street; we just made sure that the man was done for, and went straight back to bed. We were working people, and where was the sense of wasting sleep over a murder?
Work in the hotel taught me the true value of sleep, just as being hungry had taught me the true value of food. Sleep had ceased to be a mere physical necessity; it was something voluptuous, a debauch more than a relief. I had no more trouble with the bugs. Mario had told me of a sure remedy for them, namely pepper, strewed thick over the bedclothes. It made me sneeze, but the bugs all hated it, and emigrated to other rooms.
With thirty francs a week to spend on drinks I could take part in the social life of the quarter. We had some jolly evenings, on Saturdays, in the little bistro at the foot of the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux.
The brick-floored room, fifteen feet square, was packed with twenty people, and the air dim with smoke. The noise was deafening, for everyone was either talking at the top of his voice or singing. Sometimes it was just a confused din of voices; sometimes everyone would burst out together in the same song — the ‘Marseillaise’, or the ‘Internationale’, or ‘Madelon’, or ‘Les Fraises et les Fram-boises’. Azaya, a great clumping peasant girl who worked fourteen hours a day in a glass factory, sang a song about, ‘Il a perdu ses pantalons, tout en dansant le Charleston.’ Her friend Marinette, a thin, dark Gorsican girl of obstinate virtue, tied her knees together and danced the danse du ventre. The old Rougiers wandered in and out, cadging drinks and trying to tell a long, involved story about someone who had once cheated them over a bedstead. R., cadaverous and silent, sat in his comer quietly boozing. Charlie, drunk, half danced, half staggered to and fro with a glass of sham absinthe balanced in one fat hand, pinching the women’s breasts and declaiming poetry. People played darts and diced for drinks. Manuel, a Spaniard, dragged the girls to the bar and shook the dice-box against their bellies, for luck. Madame F. stood at the bar rapidly pouring chopines of wine through the pewter funnel, with a wet dishcloth always handy, because every man in the room tried to make love to her. Two children, bastards of big Louis the bricklayer, sat in a comer sharing a glass of sirop. Everyone was very happy, overwhelmingly certain that the world was a good place and we a notable set of people.
For an hour the noise scarcely slackened. Then about midnight there was a piercing shout of ‘Citoyens!’ and the sound of a chair falling over. A blond, red-faced workman had risen to his feet and was banging a bottle on the table. Everyone stopped singing; the word went round, ‘Sh! Furex is starting!’ Furex was a strange creature, a Limousin stonemason who worked steadily all the week and drank himself into a kind of paroxysm on Saturdays. He had lost his memory and could not remember anything before the war, and he would have gone to pieces through drink if Madame F. had not taken care of him. On Saturday evenings at about five o’clock she would say to someone, ‘Catch Furex before he spends his wages,’ and when he had been caught she would take away his money, leaving him enough for one good drink. One week he escaped, and, rolling blind drunk in the Place Monge, was run over by a car and badly hurt.
The queer thing about Furex was that, though he was a Communist when sober, he turned violently patriotic when drunk. He started the evening with good Communist principles, but after four or five litres he was a rampant Chauvinist, denouncing spies, challenging all foreigners to fight, and, if he was not prevented, throwing bottles. It was at this stage that he made his speech — for he made a patriotic speech every Saturday night. The speech was always the same, word for word. It ran:
‘Citizens of the Republic, are there any Frenchmen here? If there are any Frenchmen here, I rise to remind them — to remind them in effect, of the glorious days of the war. When one looks back upon that time of comradeship and heroism — one looks back, in effect, upon that time of comradeship and heroism. When one remembers the heroes who are dead — one remembers, in effect, the heroes who are dead. Citizens of the Republic, I was wounded at Verdun —’
Here he partially undressed and showed the wound he had received at Verdun. There were shouts of applause. We thought nothing in the world could be funnier than this speech of Furex’s. He was a well-known spectacle in the quarter; people used to come in from other bistros to watch him when his fit started.
The word was passed round to bait Furex. With a wink to the others someone called for silence, and asked him to sing the ‘Marseillaise’. He sang it well, in a fine bass voice, with patriotic gurgling noises deep down in his chest when he came to ‘Aux arrmes, citoyens! Forrmez vos bataillons!’ Veritable tears rolled down his cheeks; he was too drunk to see that everyone was laughing at him. Then, before he had finished, two strong workmen seized him by either arm and held him down, while Azaya shouted, ‘Vive l’Allemagne!’ just out of his reach. Furex’s face went purple at such infamy. Everyone in the bistro began shouting together, ‘Vive l’Allemagne! À bas la France!’ while Furex struggled to get at them. But suddenly he spoiled the fun. His face turned pale and doleful, his limbs went limp, and before anyone could stop him he was sick on the table. Then Madame F. hoisted him like a sack and carried him up to bed. In the morning he reappeared quiet and civil, and bought a copy of L’Humanité.
The table was wiped with a cloth, Madame F. brought more litre bottles and loaves of bread, and we Settled down to serious drinking. There were more songs. An itinerant singer came in with his banjo and performed for five-sou pieces. An Arab and a girl from the bistro down the street did a dance, the man wielding a painted wooden phallus the size of a rolling-pin. There were gaps in the noise now. People had begun to talk about their love-affairs, and the war, and the barbel fishing in the Seine, and the best way to faire la révolution, and to tell stories. Charlie, grown sober again, captured the conversation and talked about his soul for five minutes. The doors and windows were opened to cool the room. The street was emptying, and in the distance one could hear the lonely milk train thundering down the Boulevard St Michel. The air blew cold on our foreheads, and the coarse African wine still tasted good: we were still happy, but meditatively, with the shouting and hilarious mood finished.
By one o’clock we were not happy any longer. We felt the joy of the evening wearing thin, and called hastily for more bottles, but Madame F. was watering the wine now, and it did not taste the same. Men grew quarrelsome. The girls were violently kissed and hands thrust into their bosoms and they made off lest worse should happen. Big Louis, the bricklayer, was drunk, and crawled about the floor barking and pretending to be a dog. The others grew tired of him and kicked at him as he went past. People seized each other by the arm and began long rambling confessions, and were angry when these were not listened to. The crowd thinned. Manuel and another man, both gamblers, went across to the Arab bistro, where card-playing went on till daylight. Charlie suddenly borrowed thirty francs from Madame F. and disappeared, probably to a brothel. Men began to empty their glasses, call briefly, ‘’Sieurs, dames!’ and go off to bed.
By half past one the last drop of pleasure had evaporated, leaving nothing but headaches. We perceived that we were not splendid inhabitants of a splendid world, but a crew of underpaid workmen grown squalidly and dismally drunk. We went on swallowing the wine, but it was only from habit, and the stuff seemed suddenly nauseating. One’s head had swollen up like a balloon, the floor rocked, one’s tongue and lips were stained purple. At last it was no use keeping it up any longer. Several men went out into the yard behind the bistro and were sick. We crawled up to bed, tumbled down half dressed, and stayed there ten hours.
Most of my Saturday nights went in this way. On the whole, the two hours when one was perfectly and wildly happy seemed worth the subsequent headache. For many men in the quarter, unmarried and with no future to think of, the weekly drinking-bout was the one thing that made life worth living.
Charlie told us a good story one Saturday night in the bistro. Try and picture him — drunk, but sober enough to talk consecutively. He bangs on the zinc bar and yells for silence:
‘Silence, messieurs et dames — silence, I implore you! Listen to this story, that I am about to tell you. A memorable story, an instructive story, one of the souvenirs of a refined and civilized life. Silence, messieurs et dames!
‘It happened at a time when I was hard up. You know what that is like — how damnable, that a man of refinement should ever be in such a condition. My money had not come from home; I had pawned everything, and there was nothing open to me except to work, which is a thing I will not do. I was living with a girl at the time — Yvonne her name was — a great half-witted peasant girl like Azaya there, with yellow hair and fat legs. The two of us had eaten nothing in three days. Mon Dieu, what sufferings! The girl used to walk up and down the room with her hands on her belly, howling like a dog that she was dying of starvation. It was terrible.
‘But to a man of intelligence nothing is impossible. I propounded to myself the question, “What is the easiest way to get money without working?” And immediately the answer came: “To get money easily one must be a woman. Has not every woman something to sell?” And then, as I lay reflecting upon the things I should do if I were a woman, an idea came into my head. I remembered the Government maternity hospitals — you know the Government maternity hospitals? They are places where women who are enceinte are given meals free and no questions are asked. It is done to encourage childbearing. Any woman can go there and demand a meal, and she is given it immediately.
‘“Mon Dieu!” I thought, “if only I were a woman! I would eat at one of those places every day. Who can tell whether a woman is enceinte or not, without an examination?”
‘I turned to Yvonne. “Stop that insufferable bawling.” I said, “I have thought of a way to get food.”
‘“How?” she said.
‘“It is simple,” I said. “Go to the Government maternity hospital. Tell them you are enceinte and ask for food. They will give you a good meal and ask no questions.”
‘Yvonne was appalled. “Mais, mon Dieu,” she cried, “I am not enceinte!”
‘“Who cares?” I said. “That is easily remedied. What do you need except a cushion — two cushions if necessary? It is an inspiration from heaven, ma chère. Don’t waste it.”
‘Well, in the end I persuaded her, and then we borrowed a cushion and I got her ready and took her to the maternity hospital. They received her with open arms. They gave her cabbage soup, a ragoût of beef, a purée of potatoes, bread and cheese and beer, and all kinds of advice about her baby. Yvonne gorged till she almost burst her skin, and managed to slip some of the bread and cheese into her pocket for me. I took her there every day until I had money again. My intelligence had saved us.
‘Everything went well until a year later. I was with Yvonne again, and one day we were walking down the Boulevard Port Royal, near the barracks. Suddenly Yvonne’s mouth fell open, and she began turning red and white, and red again.
‘“Mon Dieu!” she cried, “look at that who is coming! It is the nurse who was in charge at the maternity hospital. I am ruined!”
‘“Quick!” I said, “run!” But it was too late. The nurse had recognized Yvonne, and she came straight up to us, smiling. She was a big fat woman with a gold pince-nez and red cheeks like the cheeks of an apple. A motherly, interfering kind of woman.
‘“I hope you are well, ma petite?” she said kindly. “And your baby, is he well too? Was it a boy, as you were hoping?”
‘Yvonne had begun trembling so hard that I had to grip her arm. “No,” she said at last.
‘“Ah, then, évidemment, it was a girl?”
‘Thereupon Yvonne, the idiot, lost her head completely. “No,” she actually said again!
‘The nurse was taken aback. “Comment!” she exclaimed, “neither a boy nor a girl! But how can that be?”
‘Figure to yourselves, messieurs et dames, it was a dangerous moment. Yvonne had turned the colour of a beetroot and she looked ready to burst into tears; another second and she would have confessed everything. Heaven knows what might have happened. But as for me, I had kept my head; I stepped in and saved the situation.
‘“It was twins,” I said calmly.
‘“Twins!” exclaimed the nurse. And she was so pleased that she took Yvonne by the shoulders and embraced her on both cheeks, publicly.
One day, when we had been at the Hôtel X five or six weeks, Boris disappeared without notice. In the evening I found him waiting for me in the Rue de Rivoli. He slapped me gaily on the shoulder.
‘Free at last, mon ami! You can give notice in the morning. The Auberge opens tomorrow.’
‘Well, possibly we shall need a day or two to arrange things. But, at any rate, no more cafeteria! Nous sommes lancés, mon ami! My tail coat is out of pawn already.’
His manner was so hearty that I felt sure there was something wrong, and I did not at all want to leave my safe and comfortable job at the hotel. However, I had promised Boris, so I gave notice, and the next morning at seven went down to the Auberge de Jehan Cottard. It was locked, and I went in search of Boris, who had once more bolted from his lodgings and taken a room in the rue de la Groix Nivert. I found him asleep, together with a girl whom he had picked up the night before, and who he told me was ‘of a very sympathetic temperament.’ As to the restaurant, he said that it was all arranged; there were only a few little things to be seen to before we opened.
At ten I managed to get Boris out of bed, and we unlocked the restaurant. At a glance I saw what the ‘few little things’ amounted to. It was briefly this: that the alterations had not been touched since our last visit. The stoves for the kitchen had not arrived, the water and electricity had not been laid on, and there was all manner of painting, polishing and carpentering to be done. Nothing short of a miracle could open the restaurant within ten days, and by the look of things it might collapse without even opening. It was obvious what had happened. The patron was short of money, and he had engaged the staff (there were four of us) in order to use us instead of workmen. He would be getting our services almost free, for waiters are paid no wages, and though he would have to pay me, he would not be feeding me till the restaurant opened. In effect, he had swindled us of several hundred francs by sending for us before the restaurant was open. We had thrown up a good job for nothing.
Boris, however, was full of hope. He had only one idea in his head, namely, that here at last was a chance of being a waiter and wearing a tail coat once more. For this he was quite willing to do ten days’ work unpaid, with the chance of being left jobless in the end. ‘Patience!’ he kept saying. ‘That will arrange itself. Wait till the restaurant opens, and we’ll get it all back. Patience, mon ami!’
We needed patience, for days passed and the restaurant did not even progress towards opening. We cleaned out the cellars, fixed the shelves, distempered the walls, polished the woodwork, whitewashed the ceiling, stained the floor; but the main work, the plumbing and gas-fitting and electricity, was still not done, because the patron could not pay the bills. Evidently he was almost penniless, for he refused the smallest charges, and he had a trick of swiftly disappearing when asked for money. His blend of shiftiness and aristocratic manners made him very hard to deal with. Melancholy duns came looking for him at all hours, and by instruction we always told them that he was at Fontainebleau, or Saint Cloud, or some other place that was safely distant. Meanwhile, I was getting hungrier and hungrier. I had left the hotel with thirty francs, and I had to go back immediately to a diet of dry bread. Boris had managed in the beginning to extract an advance of sixty francs from the patron, but he had spent half of it, in redeeming his waiter’s clothes, and half on the girl of sympathetic temperament. He borrowed three francs a day from Jules, the second waiter, and spent it on bread. Some days we had not even money for tobacco.
Sometimes the cook came to see how things were getting on, and when she saw that the kitchen was still bare of pots and pans she usually wept. Jules, the second waiter, refused steadily to help with the work. He was a Magyar, a little dark, sharp-featured fellow in spectacles, and very talkative; he had been a medical student, but had abandoned his training for lack of money. He had a taste for talking while other people were working, and he told me all about himself and his ideas. It appeared that he was a Communist, and had various strange theories (he could prove to you by figures that it was wrong to work), and he was also, like most Magyars, passionately proud. Proud and lazy men do not make good waiters. It was Jules’s dearest boast that once when a customer in a restaurant had insulted him, he had poured a plate of hot soup down the customer’s neck, and then walked straight out without even waiting to be sacked.
As each day went by Jules grew more and more enraged at the trick the patron had played on us. He had a spluttering, oratorical way of talking. He used to walk up and down shaking his fist, and trying to incite me not to work:
‘Put that brush down, you fool! You and I belong to proud races; we don’t work for nothing, like these damned Russian serfs. I tell you, to be cheated like this is torture to me. There have been times in my life, when someone has cheated me even of five sous, when I have vomited — yes, vomited with rage.
‘Besides, mon vieux, don’t forget that I’m a Communist. À bas la bourgeoisie! Did any man alive ever see me working when I could avoid it? No. And not only I don’t wear myself out working, like you other fools, but I steal, just to show my independence. Once I was in a restaurant where the patron thought he could treat me like a dog. Well, in revenge I found out a way to steal milk from the milk-cans and seal them up again so that no one should know. I tell you I just swilled that milk down night and morning. Every day I drank four litres of milk, besides half a litre of cream. The patron was at his wits’ end to know where the milk was going. It wasn’t that I wanted milk, you understand, because I hate the stuff; it was principle, just principle.
‘Well, after three days I began to get dreadful pains in my belly, and I went to the doctor. “What have you been eating?” he said. I said: “I drink four litres of milk a day, and half a litre of cream.” “Four litres!” he said. “Then stop it at once. You’ll burst if you go on.” “What do I care?” I said. “With me principle is everything. I shall go on drinking that milk, even if I do burst.”
‘Well, the next day the patron caught me stealing milk. “You’re sacked,” he said; “you leave at the end of the week.” “Pardon, monsieur,” I said, “I shall leave this morning.” “No, you won’t,” he said, “I can’t spare you till Saturday.” “Very well, mon patron,” I thought to myself, “we’ll see who gets tired of it first.” And then I set to work to smash the crockery. I broke nine plates the first day and thirteen the second; after that the patron was glad to see the last of me.
‘Ah, I’m not one of your Russian moujiks...’
Ten days passed. It was a bad time. I was absolutely at the end of my money, and my rent was several days overdue. We loafed about the dismal empty restaurant, too hungry even to get on with the work that remained. Only Boris now believed that the restaurant would open. He had set his heart on being maître d’hôtel, and he invented a theory that the patron’s money was tied up in shares and he was waiting a favourable moment for selling. On the tenth day I had nothing to eat or smoke, and I told the patron that I could not continue working without an advance on my wages. As blandly as usual, the patron promised the advance, and then, according to his custom, vanished. I walked part of the way home, but I did not feel equal to a scene with Madame F. over the rent, so I passed the night on a bench on the boulevard. It was very uncomfortable — the arm of the seat cuts into your back — and much colder than I had expected. There was plenty of time, in the long boring hours between dawn and work, to think what a fool I had been to deliver myself into the hands of these Russians.
Then, in the morning, the luck changed. Evidently the patron had come to an understanding with his creditors, for he arrived with money in his pockets, set the alterations going, and gave me my advance. Boris and I bought macaroni and a piece of horse’s liver, and had our first hot meal in ten days.
The workmen were brought in and the alterations made, hastily and with incredible shoddiness. The tables, for instance, were to be covered with baize, but when the patron found that baize was expensive he bought instead disused army blankets, smelling incorrigibly of sweat. The table cloths (they were check, to go with the ‘Norman’ decorations) would cover them, of course. On the last night we were at work till two in the morning, getting things ready. The crockery did not arrive till eight, and, being new, had all to be washed. The cutlery did not arrive till the next morning, nor the linen either, so that we had to dry the crockery with a shirt of the patron’s and an old pillowslip belonging to the concierge. Boris and I did all the work. Jules was skulking, and the patron and his wife sat in the bar with a dun and some Russian friends, drinking success to the restaurant. The cook was in the kitchen with her head on the table, crying, because she was expected to cook for fifty people, and there were not pots and pans enough for ten. About midnight there was a fearful interview with some duns, who came intending to seize eight copper saucepans which the patron had obtained on credit. They were bought off with half a bottle of brandy.
Jules and I missed the last Métro home and had to sleep on the floor of the restaurant. The first thing we saw in the morning were two large rats sitting on the kitchen table, eating from a ham that stood there. It seemed a bad omen, and I was surer than ever that the Auberge de Jehan Cottard would turn out a failure.
The patron had engaged me as kitchen plongeur; that is, my job was to wash up, keep the kitchen clean, prepare vegetables, make tea, coffee and sandwiches, do the simpler cooking, and run errands. The terms were, as usual, five hundred francs a month and food, but I had no free day and no fixed working hours. At the Hôtel X I had seen catering at its best, with unlimited money and good organization. Now, at the Auberge, I learned how things are done in a thoroughly bad restaurant. It is worth describing, for there are hundreds of similar restaurants in Paris, and every visitor feeds in one of them occasionally.
I should add, by the way, that the Auberge was not the ordinary cheap eating-house frequented by students and workmen. We did not provide an adequate meal at less than twenty-five francs, and we were picturesque and artistic, which sent up our social standing. There were the indecent pictures in the bar, and the Norman decorations — sham beams on the walls, electric lights done up as candlesticks, ‘peasant’ pottery, even a mounting-block at the door — and the patron and the head waiter were Russian officers, and many of the customers tided Russian refugees. In short, we were decidedly chic.
Nevertheless, the conditions behind the kitchen door were suitable for a pigsty. For this is what our service arrangements were like.
The kitchen measured fifteen feet long by eight broad, and half this space was taken up by the stoves and tables. All the pots had to be kept on shelves out of reach, and there was only room for one dustbin. This dustbin used to be crammed full by midday, and the floor was normally an inch deep in a compost of trampled food.
For firing we had nothing but three gas-stoves, without ovens, and all joints had to be sent out to the bakery.
There was no larder. Our substitute for one was a half-roofed shed in the yard, with a tree growing in the middle of it. The meat, vegetables and so forth lay there on the bare earth, raided by rats and cats.
There was no hot water laid on. Water for washing up had to be heated in pans, and, as there was no room for these on the stoves when meals were cooking, most of the plates had to be washed in cold water. This, with soft soap and the hard Paris water, meant scraping the grease off with bits of newspaper.
We were so short of saucepans that I had to wash each one as soon as it was done with, instead of leaving them till the evening. This alone wasted probably an hour a day.
Owing to some scamping of expense in the installation, the electric light usually fused at eight in the evening. The patron would only allow us three candles in the kitchen, and the cook said three were unlucky, so we had only two.
Our coffee-grinder was borrowed from a bistro near by, and our dustbin and brooms from the concierge. After the first week a quantity of linen did not come back from the wash, as the bill was not paid. We were in trouble with the inspector of labour, who had discovered that the staff included no Frenchmen; he had several private interviews with the patron, who, I believe, was obliged to bribe him. The electric company was still dunning us, and when the duns found that we would buy them off with apéritifs, they came every morning. We were in debt at the grocery, and credit would have been stopped, only the grocer’s wife (a moustachio’d woman of sixty) had taken a fancy to Jules, who was sent every morning to cajole her. Similarly I had to waste an hour every day haggling over vegetables in the rue du Commerce, to save a few centimes.
These are the results of starting a restaurant on insufficient capital. And in these conditions the cook and I were expected to serve thirty or forty meals a day, and would later on be serving a hundred. From the first day it was too much for us. The cook’s working hours were from eight in the morning till midnight, and mine from seven in the morning till half past twelve the next morning — seventeen and a half hours, almost without a break. We never had time to sit down till five in the afternoon, and even then there was no seat except the top of the dustbin. Boris, who lived near by and had not to catch the last Métro home, worked from eight in the morning till two the next morning — eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. Such hours, though not usual, are nothing extraordinary in Paris.
Life settled at once into a routine that made the Hôtel X seem like a holiday. Every morning at six I drove myself out of bed, did not shave, sometimes washed, hurried up to the Place d’ltalie and fought for a place on the Métro. By seven I was in the desolation of the cold, filthy kitchen, with the potato skins and bones and fishtails littered on the floor, and a pile of plates, stuck together in their grease, waiting from overnight. I could not start on the plates yet, because the water was cold, and I had to fetch milk and make coffee, for the others arrived at eight and expected to find coffee ready. Also, there were always several copper saucepans to clean. Those copper saucepans are the bane of a plongeur’s life. They have to be scoured with sand and bunches of chain, ten minutes to each one, and then polished on the outside with Brasso. Fortunately, the art of making them has been lost and they are gradually vanishing from French kitchens, though one can still buy them second-hand.
When I had begun on the plates the cook would take me away from the plates to begin skinning onions, and when I had begun on the onions the patron would arrive and send me out to buy cabbages. When I came back with the cabbages the patron’s wife would tell me to go to some shop half a mile away and buy a pot of rouge; by the time I came back there would be more vegetables waiting, and the plates were still not done. In this way our incompetence piled one job on another throughout the day, everything in arrears.
Till ten, things went comparatively easily, though we were working fast, and no one lost his temper. The cook would find time to talk about her artistic nature, and say did I not think Tolstoy was épatant, and sing in a fine soprano voice as she minced beef on the board. But at ten the waiters began clamouring for their lunch, which they had early, and at eleven the first customers would be arriving. Suddenly everything became hurry and bad temper. There was not the same furious rushing and yelling as at the Hôtel X, but an atmosphere of muddle, petty spite and exasperation. Discomfort was at the bottom of it. It was unbearably cramped in the kitchen, and dishes had to be put on the floor, and one had to be thinking constantly about not stepping on them. The cook’s vast buttocks banged against me as she moved to and fro. A ceaseless, nagging chorus of orders streamed from her:
‘Unspeakable idiot! How many times have I told you not to bleed the beetroots? Quick, let me get to the sink! Put those knives away; get on with the potatoes. What have you done with my strainer? Oh, leave those potatoes alone. Didn’t I tell you to skim the bouillon? Take that can of water off the stove. Never mind the washing up, chop this celery. No, not like that, you fool, like this. There! Look at you letting those peas boil over! Now get to work and scale these herrings. Look, do you call this plate clean? Wipe it on your apron. Put that salad on the floor. That’s right, put it where I’m bound to step in it! Look out, that pot’s boiling over! Get me down that saucepan. No, the other one. Put this on the grill. Throw those potatoes away. Don’t waste time, throw them on the floor. Tread them in. Now throw down some sawdust; this floor’s like a skating-rink. Look, you fool, that steak’s burning! Mon Dieu, why did they send me an idiot for a plongeur? Who are you talking to? Do you realize that my aunt was a Russian countess?’ etc. etc. etc.
This went on till three o’clock without much variation, except that about eleven the cook usually had a crise de nerfs and a flood of tears. From three to five was a fairly slack time for the waiters, but the cook was still busy, and I was working my fastest, for there was a pile of dirty plates waiting, and it was a race to get them done, or partly done, before dinner began. The washing up was doubled by the primitive conditions — a cramped draining-board, tepid water, sodden cloths, and a sink that got blocked once in an hour. By five the cook and I were feeling unsteady on our feet, not having eaten or sat down since seven. We used to collapse, she on the dustbin and I on the floor, drink a bottle of beer, and apologize for some of the things we had said in the morning. Tea was what kept us going. We took care to have a pot always stewing, and drank pints during the day.
At half-past five the hurry and quarrelling began again, and now worse than before, because everyone was tired out. The cook had a crise de nerfs at six and another at nine; they came on so regularly that one could have told the time by them. She would flop down on the dustbin, begin weeping hysterically, and cry out that never, no, never had she thought to come to such a life as this; her nerves would not stand it; she had studied music at Vienna; she had a bedridden husband to support, etc. etc. At another time one would have been sorry for her, but, tired as we all were, her whimpering voice merely infuriated us. Jules used to stand in the doorway and mimic her weeping. The patron’s wife nagged, and Boris and Jules quarrelled all day, because Jules shirked his work, and Boris, as head waiter, claimed the larger share of the tips. Only the second day after the restaurant opened, they came to blows in the kitchen over a two-franc tip, and the cook and I had to separate them. The only person who never forgot his manners was the patron. He kept the same hours as the rest of us, but he had no work to do, for it was his wife who really managed things. His sole job, besides ordering the supplies, was to stand in the bar smoking cigarettes and looking gentlemanly, and he did that to perfection.
The cook and I generally found time to eat our dinner between ten and eleven o’clock. At midnight the cook would steal a packet of food for her husband, stow it under her clothes, and make off, whimpering that these hours would kill her and she would give notice in the morning. Jules also left at midnight, usually after a dispute with Boris, who had to look after the bar till two. Between twelve and half past I did what I could to finish the washing up. There was no time to attempt doing the work properly, and I used simply to rub the grease off the plates with table-napkins. As for the dirt on the floor, I let it lie, or swept the worst of it out of sight under the stoves.
At half past twelve I would put on my coat and hurry out. The patron, bland as ever, would stop me as I went down the alley-way past the bar. ‘Mais, mon cher monsieur, how tired you look! Please do me the favour of accepting this glass of brandy.’
He would hand me the glass of brandy as courteously as though I had been a Russian duke instead of a plongeur. He treated all of us like this. It was our compensation for working seventeen hours a day.
As a rule the last Métro was almost empty — a great advantage, for one could sit down and sleep for a quarter of an hour. Generally I was in bed by half past one. Sometimes I missed the train and had to sleep on the floor of the restaurant, but it hardly mattered, for I could have slept on cobblestones at that time.
This life went on for about a fortnight, with a slight increase of work as more customers came to the restaurant. I could have saved an hour a day by taking a room near the restaurant, but it seemed impossible to find time to change lodgings — or, for that matter, to get my hair cut, look at a newspaper, or even undress completely. After ten days I managed to find a free quarter of an hour, and wrote to my friend B. in London asking him if he could get me a job of some sort — anything, so long as it allowed more than five hours sleep. I was simply not equal to going on with a seventeen-hour day, though there are plenty of people who think nothing of it. When one is overworked, it is a good cure for self-pity to think of the thousands of people in Paris restaurants who work such hours, and will go on doing it, not for a few weeks, but for years. There was a girl in a bistro near my hotel who worked from seven in the morning till midnight for a whole year, only sitting down to her meals. I remember once asking her to come to a dance, and she laughed and said that she had not been farther than the street comer for several months. She was consumptive, and died about the time I left Paris.
After only a week we were all neurasthenic with fatigue, except Jules, who skulked persistently. The quarrels, intermittent at first, had now become continuous. For hours’ one would keep up a drizzle of useless nagging, rising into storms of abuse every few minutes. ‘Get me down that saucepan, idiot!’ the cook would cry (she was not tall enough to reach the shelves where the saucepans were kept). ‘Get it down yourself, you old whore,’ I would answer. Such remarks seemed to be generated spontaneously from the air of the kitchen.
We quarrelled over things of inconceivable pettiness. The dustbin, for instance, was an unending source of quarrels — whether it should be put where I wanted it, which was in the cook’s way, or where she wanted it, which was between me and the sink. Once she nagged and nagged until at last, in pure spite, I lifted the dustbin up and put it out in the middle of the floor, where she was bound to trip over it.
‘Now, you cow,’ I said, ‘move it yourself.’
Poor old woman, it was too heavy for her to lift, and she sat down, put her head on the table and burst out crying. And I jeered at her. This is the kind of effect that fatigue has upon one’s manners.
After a few days the cook had ceased talking about Tolstoy and her artistic nature, and she and I were not on speaking terms, except for the purposes of work, and Boris and Jules were not on speaking terms, and neither of them was on speaking terms with the cook. Even Boris and I were barely on speaking terms. We had agreed beforehand that the engueulades of working hours did not count between times; but we had called each other things too bad to be forgotten — and besides, there were no between times. Jules grew lazier and lazier, and he stole food constantly — from a sense of duty, he said. He called the rest of us jaune — blackleg — when we would not join with him in stealing. He had a curious, malignant spirit. He told me, as a matter of pride, that he had sometimes wrung a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup before taking it in, just to be revenged upon a member of the bourgeoisie.
The kitchen grew dirtier and the rats bolder, though we trapped a few of them. Looking round that filthy room, with raw meat lying among refuse on the floor, and cold, clotted saucepans sprawling everywhere, and the sink blocked and coated with grease, I used to wonder whether there could be a restaurant in the world as bad as ours. But the other three all said that they had been in dirtier places. Jules took a positive pleasure in seeings things dirty. In the afternoon, when he had not much to do, he used to stand in the kitchen doorway jeering at us for working too hard:
‘Fool! Why do you wash that plate? Wipe it on your trousers. Who cares about the customers? They don’t know what’s going on. What is restaurant work? You are carving a chicken and it falls on the floor. You apologize, you bow, you go out; and in five minutes you come back by another door — with the same chicken. That is restaurant work,’ etc.
And, strange to say, in spite of all this filth and incompetence, the Auberge de Jehan Cottard was actually a success. For the first few days all our customers were Russians, friends of the patron, and these were followed by Americans and other foreigners — no Frenchmen. Then one night there was tremendous excitement, because our first Frenchman had arrived. For a moment our quarrels were forgotten and we all united in the effort to serve a good dinner. Boris tiptoed into the kitchen, jerked his thumb over his shoulder and whispered conspiratorially:
‘Sh! Attention, un Français!’
A moment later the patron’s wife came and whispered:
‘Attention, un Français! See that he gets a double portion of all vegetables.’
While the Frenchman ate, the patron’s wife stood behind the grille of the kitchen door and watched the expression of his face. Next night the Frenchman came back with two other Frenchmen. This meant that we were earning a good name; the surest sign of a bad restaurant is to be frequented only by foreigners. Probably part of the reason for our success was that the patron, with the sole gleam of sense he had shown in fitting out the restaurant, had bought very sharp table-knives. Sharp knives, of course, are the secret of a successful restaurant. I am glad that this happened, for it destroyed one of my illusions, namely, the idea that Frenchmen know good food when they see it. Or perhaps we were a fairly good restaurant by Paris standards; in which case the bad ones must be past imagining.
In a very few days after I had written to B he replied to say that there was a job he could get for me. It was to look after a congenital imbecile, which sounded a splendid rest cure after the Auberge de Jehan Cottard. I pictured myself loafing in the country lanes, knocking thistle-heads off with my stick, feeding on roast lamb and treacle tart, and sleeping ten hours a night in sheets smelling of lavender. B sent me a fiver to pay my passage and get my clothes out of the pawn, and as soon as the money arrived I gave one day’s notice and left the restaurant. My leaving so suddenly embarrassed the patron, for as usual he was penniless, and he had to pay my wages thirty francs short. However he stood me a glass of Courvoisier ’48 brandy, and I think he felt that this made up the difference. They engaged a Czech, a thoroughly competent plongeur, in my place, and the poor old cook was sacked a few weeks later. Afterwards I heard that, with two first-rate people in the kitchen, the plongeur’s work had been cut down to fifteen hours a day. Below that no one could have cut it, short of modernizing the kitchen.