Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Eighty Quid

A much younger me, in Edinburgh with my flatmate, Denise Montante, 1993. Lookin good with the big silver earrings!

I had always dreamed of going to Europe, England specifically. Ever since July 29, 1981, (and I didn't even have to look that date up!) when my friend Regina's mom woke us up at 4am to watch Lady Di walked down the aisle to meet her adultererating jugears Prince Charming, England was where I wanted to be. From sixth grade on, I was a hard core anglophile. Finally I made it there, for a month, between my freshman and sophomore year of college. But, that only whetted my anglo addiction, and after graduating, I came home, worked several McJobs and saved enough money to go backpacking with my friend Tony through Europe, then got a green card to work in London for six months. A dream ten years in the making had come to pass!

After six weeks of backpacking the majority of Western Europe, all Tony and I could dream about was a DRAWER to put our clothes in. We found that shortly in a hostel and I set about finding a job, in order to have money to rent a real flat. Now London had just gotten a taste of Mexican food and it was rather the rage. I heard about a job at a restaurant off Tottenham Court Road called "Break for the Border" - what, for those famous Welsh margaritas? Some Scottish enchiladas? Snicker. I showed up, exaggerated both my Texas accent and my waiting experience to Clive the Manager, who promptly gave me a t-shirt and black "leather" Bono vest. I was hired.

I had waited tables, it was true. What I neglected to mention was that it was at a restaurant in Austin with the unfortunate name of Spaghetti Warehouse, which was one step above a frozen Stouffer's in terms of cuisine. A baby step. I also left off my resume that I was the world's worst waitress. Oh, I was so bad. Refill your ice tea? Ha. You were lucky if you got your food. And don't wear white in my station, no siree. You might leave with some accrutements in a lovely shade of alfredo or marinara. And oh Lord forgive you should ask me to open a wine bottle. Even at the age of 21 it amused me that such a cheap chain joint asked its waiters to try and open a wine bottle with a since of flourish. There was a test on it, y'all. Somehow I passed - out of pity I am sure - and fortunately the college students, old ladies after church and poor young families weren't typically the type to order bottles of our vintage Boone's Farm or whatever it was to accompany their $5.95 pasta with complimentary dinner salad. When one did, I could usually grab another waiter and coerce him into opening it for me. One time I remember I had to do it myself and finally the customer said. "Here, I'll do it." Sheesh. (My other memory of that same guy was that he was a total biker dude, long hair, leather, the works. His date asked what Chianti was and he said, "Real good stuff, it cleanses the palate." To this day, when I see a bottle of Chianti, I have to repeat "cleanses the palate". In my best biker voice.)

At Break for the Border the culture shock soon began. Some things about restaurant working in London were an improvement over the US. For instance, it was considered the norm to feed the whole staff before each shift began (not on your life in Texas restaurants) and as I was po this was greatly appreciated. At the time tipping waitstaff was not the custom in England, but this particular restaurant added a 12% gratuity into every bill. And since Mexican I guess was considered foreign, exotic cuisine (snort), this restaurant was fairly expensive. I was rich! The graciousness of the customers was a bit overwhelming as well - in America, someone brings you your chips and salsa, you say "thanks". The average Londoner replies with, "Oh, thanks, yes, that's brilliant, oh, thanks ever so, that's brilliant, yeah, ta." Um, your, welcome. Brilliant. Ever so.

There were, however, a few crucial downsides. The main was that a typical wait station in London is between six and eight tables. And for a weekday lunch, you got twelve. TWELVE TABLES. At my old digs the Warehouse of Spaghetti I got three, four if a manager was feeling really daring. But in a land where I cannot understand many of the accents, where the currency is foreign, and where everyone needs to be in and out in 30 minutes, I am given twelve. And did I mention that I was the world's worst waitress?

Somehow I survived that lunch shift and they were smart enough to never give me another. That day was not to be my downfall. It would come a couple of weeks later.

I was working a dinner shift and had done exceptionally well in tips, meaning that a few drunken men had tipped Miss America (me) well beyond the automatic 12%. I had one problem that I knew of. This restaurant's cash register system assigned the tabs to tables instead of parties, which, in case you have never been privileged enough to wait tables, meant that if you forgot to close out a tab when a customer left, the next party's order would be added to that tab. And extremely stupid system, by the way, as many waiters just close all their tabs out at the end of the night. At least that's how it's done in AMERICA, where things make sense. So I handed a bill to a table and they were quite shocked at the amount, as it included both their and the previous party's food and drinks (and if the British excel in anything, it is drinking). So, I had already gotten in trouble for that by Clive, who stood at the cash register and cussed and rolled his eyes like I was the stupidest girl he'd ever seen, how on earth we won our independence he couldn't tell. Aside from that, I thought I had had a good evening. I knew I had made tons of cash and was excited to think of the cider and U2 cds I might be able to buy with it.

I was in the middle of doing all the end of the night waiter jobs you do when Clive called me into his office. I could tell it was bad.

Clive wasn't bad looking at all, he almost looked American (which at the time, surrounded by pasty white boys in red jeans, looking American was the highest compliment I could pay a guy.) Not sure how old he was, probably 30 max, ie, ancient by my 23 year old standards. He had kind of Matt Dillon look to him. He was sitting at a table with some papers in front of him, smoking (another British obsession). He motioned me to sit down. I sunk my black jeans into my seat, and sheepishly played with the zipper on my black "leather" Bono vest. He cut to the point. "I been over your checks, Mis." Aggressive toke on the cigarette. "Before even adding up your tips, you are missing eighty quid. EIGHTY QUID Mis. (aggressive toke) Eighty quid (aggressive toke)."

Ok, the thing is, you really need to hear this. Because many Brits (like many New Englanders) drop their t's. So they way this actually sounded was: long A + long E + quid. Eighty become AE, with a British accent. Quid, by the way, is the slang for pounds. So, read it again saying 80 the proper way for full effect. It's so funny that my brother-in-law would make me say "AE quid, Mis" with a fake inhale every time I saw him for about the first year of my marriage.

Now, how this happened is still one of the grand mysteries of my life. I have no idea where that money went. And it was way, way more than AE quid. That did not include my 12% tips, nor the major overage I had been looking forward to tallying. So probably, we're talking more about between 200 and 300 quid that had gone missing, or $320 to $480. Almost my monthly rent. Either I got majorly confused with the currency, or I dropped the money, or...someone nicked it from my apron. Either way, as Clive said...

"I like ya, Mis. (aggressive toke) I do. But I got no choice. Eighty quid. (aggressive toke) I gotta sack ya. (stub out cigarette and long sigh.) Turn in ya vest."

GASP! I had been SACKED! No more "leather" Bono vest. No more free meals. No more explaining to very polite English ladies how to eat fra-jee-tas. And most of all, no more 12% grat! I turned in my vest and slunk away.

As I waited for a late night bus to take me back to my flat, which took about 30 minutes, I was way, way humiliated. And the uniform black jeans and black tennis shoes made it all the more worse - I was jobless and unfashionable. I couldn't believe I had been sacked, British for FIRED, so embarrassing, and I could not imagine where all that money had gone. Plus I was a Texan, I had been raised on Mexican food, I felt like I had betrayed my state somehow - it was just So Humiliating.

Despondently I gazed out over the red brick homes of London from the top of a red double decker bus. Then a thought occurred to me. I was in London. I had been fired in London. Any loser could get fired in Austin, or Houston...but this loser had been fired in London.

A smile crept across my face. It really wasn't so bad after all.
AE quid.

I soon landed another job in London...and that is the subject for a whole 'nother post.

Till then....


PS - this dreadful old memory was prompted by a call out for embarrassing moments by Megan at Fried Okra. You can read her's here.

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