We are the passengers of the last bus.
You’ll recognise us, if you’ve ever been out for a night on the town and then caught the final bus home. We’re not the loud, lairy drunks. We’re not the neat boys on stag dos, all dressed the same in striped long-sleeve shirts, jeans and polished slip-on shoes, nor are we their sluttily-dressed hen party counterparts.
We’re the tired-looking, blank-faced ones. We don’t smell of too much aftershave, but more likely of sweat. Half of us will be dressed in black shirts and trousers: as frigid and bitter as the last of Mussolini’s fascists.
We’re the ones that have poured your drinks, cooked your food and waited on your tables all night. For you it’s the week-end, for us the start of the working week. We look down on all of you, sneering the sneer of the sober in face of the inebriated.
We’re the unfortunates of the hospitality industry, and god help the lot of us.
That particularly bleak image came to me a few nights ago as I was coming home from work. The last bus, the bus I’ve been catching for the past eleven years, always evokes a curious mixture of pride and melancholy in me. It’s always a somewhat soulless journey, as those going home from work try desperately to maintain their dignity and personal space in face of the final cargo of pissheads. Generally, we really don’t want to talk to anybody, particularly not customers who might recognise us. Sometimes, however, the façade slips and humanity reaches out to humanity in joint commiseration and triumph.
In this area of the country, people are not prone at the best of times to strike up conversation with random strangers on the bus. I remember shortly after moving down here as a kid and my mother, used to the slightly more garrulous passengers of Wales and the Midlands, tried to make polite conversation with people on the bus. Invariably, people would shift uncomfortably and change seats. Conversely, I recall how uncomfortable I was when I moved back to Wales at the age of nineteen and people tried to talk to me on the bus. A few nights ago, however, I broke from my customary reserve.
A guy in a t-shirt, roughly the same age as me, sat down heavily on the seat next to me. To put it gently, he smelt rather “ripe”, and I tried to breathe more shallowly. Then I looked down at his arms. Like mine, they were covered in scalds, burns and cuts. Gently, dear reader, I murmured “So, chef, had a busy night?”
And so we struck up a conversation. The normal kind that chefs tend to have among themselves: we spoke of places we’ve worked, compared notes on chefs who we’ve worked with, established common ground. We swapped horror stories of difficult tables and impossible waiters, moaned about the pay and hours of our profession. Then we talked about how we got into the trade in the first place. In both our cases, the answer was “by accident”. Turns out that my new-found friend on the bus had an MA in Computer Animation.
This is more common than you might think. My own sorrowful story of an academic manqué is hardly unique. Very few people choose the trade as their first option: most of us have an escape plan, dreams of what we’d rather be doing. Indeed, the waiter who’s actually a “resting” actor is a well-established trope of popular culture. We all tell ourselves that one day our ship will come in, that we’ll finally get out of the trade for good and finally be who we “really” are.
So why do people actually get into the trade in the first place, and why don’t more leave? As to the second: they do. The hospitality industry has an incredibly high staff turnover. Bar staff in particular are largely transient employees. Nevertheless, there’s always a core of lifers: those who have been in the industry for decades and, in spite of their grand plans and fervent self-delusion, will be in the industry decades hence. I live in perpetual fear of becoming one of them.
The answer to the first is more difficult. For many of us, it was simply an accident of fate. In my own case, it all stems from taking a “summer job” as a dishwasher when I was fifteen or so. I often wonder what might have happened had I learnt to ride a bike and gotten a paper round instead. Some of us just fall into it by default. We drop out of school, or fail our GCSEs, or get told to by our probation officer, and end up doing a GNVQ in catering thinking it’ll be a soft option (indoor work, not much heavy lifting, etc.) A lot of us are running from something. Of course, many of us tell ourselves that it’s only for the interim. We might even try getting a “proper job” outside the trade and discover that we’re far too maladjusted to cope in the real world (ahem.)
The more puzzling cases are those who have “re-skilled”, coming from occupations outside the trade. Those journalists and investment analysts one reads about in the Sunday papers who have decided to retrain as chefs, or to run quaint country pubs. They’re frequently foodies, or real ale enthusiasts. They rarely last more than a few years: they realise that it’s a hell of a lot more work than managing the accounts of Dunkington, Blithely and Smithwick.
When I got home that evening, I finished off editing one of the essays I’m going to submit to Oxford and began to think about what I’m going to write for my “statement of purpose”. That’s my exit plan, and I intend on giving it my best shot. Hedging my bets, though, I still did a cost analysis of the weekend’s specials...