Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Adventures during the Age of Aquarius Part IV




Part I  -  Part II  -  Part III

When I told Lucas that I wouldn't be coming back to his uncle's fish shop he wasn't pleased. He had had great hopes that I'd be available both on and off the job; now he had to renew his efforts to find somebody willing to fall in with his idea of being an employer, while I began to look around the coffee shops of Soho for waitressing work. I lived in the Camden area of London,  a short ride on the No. 24 bus from the Westend. My fares would be low-cost and the coffee would be free, or so I hoped. Perhaps I'd even be given a sandwich as part of my pay.  I knew a lot of the girls working in the area, often spending hours in one café or another, chatting with them and listening to the music. The pay wasn't great and occasionally a customer would become a nuisance, but, on the whole, the environment was pleasant enough.

I needed money urgently. My rent was due weekly and I was already a week in arrears.  I had just cashed Mum and Dad's latest postal order and stupidly left the money, all in crisp £1 notes, open on the bedside table while I was out. The house where I lived was sub-divided into rooms, with a cooker and kitchen sink on the half-landing for the five tenants to share. The landlord and his family lived downstairs. The tenants shared one lavatory in the house and a bathroom in a shed in the garden. The bath had a thick streak of verdigris running from the plughole halfway along the bottom of the tub; the landlord provided scouring cream but the discolouration was permanent. It was all very primitive and run-down. We cleaned our own rooms and were supposed to share the cleaning of the stairs and the communal facilities; the only person who made a real effort was an Irish girl who lived on the floor above; she was always complaining that the cooker was covered in grease. I never used it, so I never cleaned it. My room had been part of a first floor drawing room before the house, which was large and had been quite handsome in its day, became a lodging house. Between my room and the room next door were wide double doors, which would have been thrown open to combine the two rooms for parties and family entertainments in the olden days, but which were now provided with an inadequate lock; a hefty shove would open the door. A young couple were my neighbours, as poor as the rest of us; I never found out who they were or how they earned their living. The Irish girl was a factory worker, and there was another ex-student in a smaller room on my floor, also an illegal waitress.

I have no idea who broke into my room and stole the small pile of pound notes; when I came home that evening the money was gone. I suspected the couple next door; I knocked on their door and accused the woman, who was alone, there and then. She vehemently denied any such theft and kept asking me how I thought she had got in, as she had a chest of drawers across the doorway connecting our rooms. She made rather a point of that chest of drawers, which made me suspect her even more. There was, however, no way I could prove anything and I soon gave up. I mentioned the theft to the landlord when he brought the week's clean sheets and towels; he questioned my sanity for leaving the money lying around in the first place and otherwise shrugged his shoulders. Finding a job was essential.

A lot of the coffee shop owners were foreigners themselves, mainly Italians and some Greeks. Soho was a pretty seedy place, with very few of the elegant restaurants that opened later. It was very mixed, with famous clubs and pubs, as well as Chinese and Italian restaurants, side by side with sex shops and 'working girls' and their protectors. Not so different from today really, except that prices have gone up massively.  The population in the cafés was constantly shifting, proprietors were always looking for new staff willing to work for very low wages; as many of the workers were also illegals, they couldn't complain about the conditions. It didn't take me long to find a job. I think the place was called La Rocca, run by a Greek, a bull of a man, called George. No doubt, both George and La Rocca have long since gone into the great coffee shop in the sky, I cannot be had up for libel. George ran a tight ship when it came to the customers, absolutely no credit and absolutely no hand-outs, but he sometimes forgot to pay the waitresses on time, and always charged us for breakages.  He had his own table in a corner, where other men joined him, some staying for only a few moments, others sitting down with him to discuss business. Sometimes these men became loud, their voices heated; George remained impassive, clicking his worry beads, sipping from a tiny cup of Turkish coffee, an immovable and imperturbable mountain. George had impressed on me, and everybody else he employed, that we were to keep our noses out of the business he conducted in his corner, and that we were to run the coffee shop side of things efficiently and smoothly and only to come to him for help if a customer pestered us.

George wasn't a bad employer, he looked after us in a very hands-off way and often allowed guitar players or one of the many small bands around at the time to come in and play for nothing; he'd switch off the music box for them; when he got tired of their noise he threw them out good-naturedly. The boys didn't seem to mind, they had had a chance to perform, and if they pleased the customers they would be given a tip.

I was quite sad to leave La Rocca. One day several very fit looking young men in very ordinary clothes came in and took a table. We served them their coffee and thought no more about it. They came back two days later, sat, drank their coffee, observed and left again. This happened a few more times. They were quiet, well behaved and, in spite of behaving unobtrusively, stuck out like a pair of maiden aunts visiting one of the sex shops in the area. George saw them and the flow of men to his table stopped. He came out of his corner and chatted amiably with the customers, including the newcomers. After work that day he handed me and the other waitress, both of us illegal aliens, two weeks' wages - which was quite generous under the circumstances - and said "sorry to have to let you go, girls, but you know how it is, better safe than sorry. Can't be seen to be breaking the law. Nothing personal and the best of luck to both of you." George wasn't going to endanger the lucrative side of his private business for the sake of a couple of waitresses. I was once more unemployed.


38 comments:

  1. You certainly can't stop now. This job-no-job thing has me on tenterhooks.
    The way the world has gone in the past ten years, working as a young or illegal allien has taken on sinister connotation - do you think any of us would get jobs outside our home countries today/

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  2. And the hunt continues. Can't wait for more.

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  3. You portray so well how harrowing an "ordinary" life can be. Cliffhanger ending, and I look forward to the next installment.

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  4. I agree with the others, Friko. Am looking forward to the next installment. I know there's a happy ending in a house by a castle, but I'm still on tenterhooks.
    K

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  5. I'll be waiting with baited breath for the next enthralling installment :-).

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  6. I LOVE good stories! And this is a very good story, told so masterly - I enjoyed it immense! And the best thing, it is a true story - a story about life and circumstances from long ago! Thank you for sharing this dear Friko! :-)

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  7. I have just finished reading all four chapters, and am looking forward to No. V !

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  8. Doing what you do best, Friko. Very readable. More please!

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  9. Very much a life on the edge, and sounds like it was quite a scary time. I will be interested to see the sequel.

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  10. Great story-telling, Friko. It's interesting how times have changed and how they have stayed the same. Oh how I winced as you described leaving your money on the table -- remembering when I was young how devastating and deflating such crime could be when living pay packet to pay packet -- week to week -- learning to take life as it came.

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  11. It is so interesting to go on this trip back in time with you. Keeping a job was tough back then. Keeping a job can be tough right now. The way companies go out of business so quickly.
    Hugs
    SueAnn

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  12. A very interesting story. A continuance would be nice. We had to release some Mexican workers the other day for the same reason the waitresses jobs were lost. They had papers, but rumors foilded them ... Great guys, too!

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  13. Have read this. Won't patronize you with an opinion that'll likely mean little. Just know that I read it and will read what comes next.

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  14. A brilliant story Friko. Did you ever find out who stole your money?

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  15. It's a wonder that any of us survive young adulthood . But your first steps in The Big Bad World were particularly challenging !
    You might like to read "Up West" by Pip Granger , about growing up in Soho .

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  16. MY youngest son was an illegal alien for about one year while he bummed around Europe. He earned money here and there doing this and that. Apparently he had a good time, but its just as well Mom found out after the fact. I'll bet your parents didn't know everything you got up to either. Dianne

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  17. Hi Friko - those are some musings - and you've certainly seen life and survived to tell the tale.

    Love the way you tell the stories - unemployment is a nightmare ..

    Cheers Hilary

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  18. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Human nature is what it is, as your story so eloquently illustrates.

    You have a decided knack for knowing the right moment to leave off telling your story. I eagerly await the next installment.

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  19. Great story and nicely written!

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  20. A current of sharp understanding of how-life-works-whether-you-like-it-or-not shines through in this.
    ~mary

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  21. I used to be a waitress at a hotel in Waikiki. I lasted just 2 weeks before being fired for being too slow. Ah, well, those were the days.

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  22. This would make a fantastic book, or even film, Friko! Yes, make it a script for a film, with all those characters and seedy surroundings! I am also glad you survived, but what a nightmare! What I have been thinking for a long time now is - why is it so difficult for foreigners who are WILLING TO WORK to get jobs anywhere?! Their illegal status leads to all sorts of unnecessary behaviour (no employer should have such power!).
    I also can`t wait to hear how you got out of this!

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  23. I'm beginning to think this whole peace and love Aquarius thing is a bunch of mularky. Unless, of course, in the next installment you tell us about moving to Piccadilly, becoming a Mod and touring with the
    Beatles! Can't wait.

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  24. I love these stories, Friko.

    Pearl

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  25. I am so thoroughly enjoying these tales of youth and getting by! Brings back memories of those days for me . . . same years, different places, but the living day to day with no idea what tomorrow will bring (and not super worried about it, either!).

    Looking forward to reading more . . .

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  26. I love the feeling of being right there with you. Now you HAVE to post the next installment as soon as possible, lest I start to worry you're going to end up in one of the sex shops there (and this, before your hourly rate would enjoy the massive increases seen in more recent times; if you have to work a sex shop, I want it to be for loads of money).

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  27. I think the whole 'living from paycheque to paycheque while working illegally' makes it particularly exciting. I'm glad you've resumed.

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  28. You needed the energy of youth to live hand to mouth but you certainly saw life.

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  29. "No doubt, both George and La Rocca have long since gone into the great coffee shop in the sky, I cannot be had up for libel." I love your sensibility, Friko.

    These stories are fascinating. Funny, I saw your comment over at Nance's place this morning— something about writing about wallpaper—which made me laugh out loud because wallpaper is exactly what I wrote about yesterday! (Well, as it relates to life, in general. If it does at all!) ;)

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  30. You have me on the edge of my chair waiting to hear the next installment. What, shall we say, a "colorful" place to work. He sounds like quite a character! You have had some very interesting experiences and I'm tickled that you are sharing them with us. :):)

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  31. Dear Friko, . . . Having read the first three chapters as you posted them, I've been waiting for more about your first working days in the UK. Now chapter four comes along and you do not disappoint.

    You write so well and use such "telling" words that we are with you in that house in which you lived and that room. We are with you at George's. I can almost smell the cafe odors. I can surely see the young men who are checking on illegal "aliens."

    Friko, you have such a distinctive style and point of view. I'm so glad you are pursuing the writing of your memoir. It will be memorable.

    Peace.

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  32. I have really enjoyed reading these episodes and hope there are many more to come. Thank you for sharing.

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  33. You write so so good! I totally agree with Susan, that u can portray the hardships of an ordinary life in such a great detail! Waiting for more!

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  34. If it goes on like this you'll be giving Dickens a run for his money, Friko. you certainly know how to tell a gripping story drop by drop.

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  35. what a story. i would have been freaked out to have the little money i had stolen. people are worth less than paper, for some people, hopefully not lots of people.

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  36. stuck out like a pair of maiden aunts visiting one of the sex shops in the area.

    That was a very good line. I came here looking for this in particular. Keep writing... it is really interesting!

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  37. Finally had time to catch up on your saga...life story. I guess what does not kill us makes us strong. It is amazing what we do to survive and how we endure when we are so young.

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