Allders of Croydon and its Basement Cafe: my first ever job.
Excepting my earlier paper-round, that is – but nostalgia is better when it’s neat. Parenthetically, though, I did indeed make the princely sum of four pounds and twenty pence each week for delivering an even cheaper version of the free Sutton Guardian. (Stuffing two papers through every letterbox I figured the perfect crime: it cut my labour in half and yet each individual recipient would miss my wickedness through the smokescreen of innocent mistake.)
I would have been about 16 when I started – and I remember one moment of my first day well. Without meaning to, I upset the Basement Cafe’s resident shit, a crotchety old duffer who would sip his way through a day’s worth of coffee without ever letting the caffeine alter a fraction his default grumpiness. I picked up his coat with him back up at the drinks counter, wrongly thinking it lost property. Seeing this, he grabbed it and called me a bastard. The start of a long relationship never less than frosty.
What I couldn’t have known at the time was that several of my new colleagues habitually insulted old Mr. Grumpy. Jigesh would somehow keep a straight face while pretending to never hear a word of what he said, and Kevin would likewise only ever serve him while affecting the broadest possible parody of a miserable old man voice. Hard to tell, in hindsight, if our most loyal customer was pissy first, or a long-bothered second.
Either way, I fear I’m putting the cart before the horse. I haven’t yet mentioned our rota or the hours of our work (Saturdays, nine till six). The rota always solved the mystery of what our day would be like. Sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not – given the customary hangover from the Friday night before.
“Till” was best as that meant (nominal) control of the stereo and a bare minimum of moving about. “Beverages” put you in the firing line of the public, through serving them, while “tables” was comparatively anonymous, a good thing offset by the truth of what it really meant: cleaning up (baby food, the horror). Lastly, there was “dishwasher,” the hardest slog of all. No fun that after a late night (though pouring hot drinks in the morning was quite the challenge too; cappuccino + slightly trembling hand = a saucer full of warm milk).
“Dishwasher” would have been easier were it not the usual domain of another colleague, Susan. She was older than us and a full-timer. She was also, as the happy euphemism has it, ‘special.’ Far be it from me to question Susan’s fierce commitment to the cause – she was a hard-worker, alright – but she was, let’s say, prone to being difficult. Her regular bonhomie could falter in moments of high stress. Such as when the standards of the dishwashing machine slipped, causing her to curse mightily. Or else when Luke would flick bits of water at her and blame it on me.
Luke was never the hardest working chap. But, just a year older than me (as was more-or-less everyone it seemed), he made up for it by often boasting our moral. And, indeed, through working harder than Tom.
Tom was a lazy bastard. On the one hand, yes, he mostly showed up on time; on the other, he seldom ever did anything else. Save to make, I must admit, his customary contribution: hiding under the counter, he would pour icing sugar over my shoes as I tried to serve a busy queue full of customers.
Breaks, naturally, were paramount. An hour for lunch, and another twenty minutes to be taken either side of it. Always: to the 6th floor smoking room! A retro throwback to a time when it was still ok for an employer to slowly kill its staff. Through the thick fug of smoke, it was usually just about possible to read the least offensive part of the Daily Mail forever lying around, the TV guide. Better yet, Mike “from luggage” might be on his break as well, ready to ponder his enduring love for all things Samsonite. (Once, Mike’s dad Charlie joined us just long enough to do the coolest thing I’d ever seen – stub out his extra-long Superking after but a single hearty drag.) No portion-control at the canteen-style staff restaurant took care of lunch: every now and then I was capable of standing upright again around three.
Which gets me pretty close to the end of the working day. And ‘left-overs.’ These for some arcane reason we weren’t allowed to eat, an instruction we ignored with great intensity and during our most focussed burst of labour. Apple turnovers, cinnamon buns, doughnuts and other assorted pastries together formed a baseline of consumption; while jacket potatoes, chili-con-carne, tuna melts and sausages from the hot-plate were all set to reward a more ambitious eating plan.
We would have eaten more – but the rest was stockpiled by the cleaner Reg in his tiny cleaning closet, from where, occasionally, his West Indian accent would issue covert requests for a coke. (Susan obliged once and we insisted it the start of a passionate affair.)
Stuffed silly and ready for home (to change before another night out in Croydon of course), one final choice remained. Would we stay behind for another quick smoke and a pint in the staff bar Dingwalls? Ah, what the hell. Sure we would. Especially after Kevin first discovered how the pool table coin-op ball return mechanism was ripe for cheating. For as many games as we could stand to play, all we had to do was stuff our ties into the six table pockets.
Happy, happy days. Only thing is, I don’t remember us ever wearing ties.