Years ago I was a line cook in a popular Ottawa diner, whose name I won’t mention but which can easily be Googled or otherwise determined. In every job I’ve had since, no matter how stressed, overworked, or underpaid I felt, I have always consoled myself with the thought that at least I was no longer toiling in that restaurant. Still, there were some memorable experiences to be had with my brother and sister employees, one of which I can recount here. Names have been changed to protect the guilty, or perhaps more accurately the guilt-ridden.
The operators of any restaurant or bar will confirm that the mark-up on sales of alcoholic beverages – what the stuff costs them versus what they can charge customers for it – is the most profitable part of their business, so “comping” free drinks to employees is an easy and cheap gesture of good will. It was very easy at this diner, where the kitchen and floor staff were provided with liberal amounts of ale after every shift. Friday or Saturday nights ended with virtual keg parties among five or six of us. Naturally this already generous policy was further abused, and when the evening shift punched out after especially busy rushes, say by 1:30 AM, we’d settle in for several more hours of serious chugging. It got so that it would take me an entire pitcher or two just to douse the trauma of nine hours on the line, and then another couple of pitchers to get a pleasant after-work buzz on, and three or four pitchers after that I might even get a bit drunk. By that time it would be about four or five in the morning. We were in essence running an after-hours bar by then, and I have vague memories of lying around soppy tables forested with empty glasses and jugs as the day staff showed up. Then I’d quote for them John Belushi in Animal House: “Grab a brew…Don’t cost nothin’.”
One summer night four of us committed to an overtime stint whereby we’d be paid to stay late and clean the wads of gum stuck underneath the tables (the gum was given out with meals as part of the establishment’s Archie comics aesthetic). The bartender Ray and I, along with two busboys Hutch and Scott, took on the job because of the promise of free beer. Ray had also deduced how to access the forty-ouncers kept locked in the liquor cabinet: by easing out of their storage slots the bins of chocolate chips, marshmallows, and other delights sprinkled on our allegedly world-famous sundaes, he could reach down to get the adult treats stashed below. So we scraped off all the gum over a few hours, or maybe just some of it, I can’t remember and who cares now, all the while quaffing brew and doing shots of Johnny Walker and his brothers Black and Red. As dawn broke we stumbled back for more partying at Ray’s place in the neighborhood of Lower Town, adjacent to the touristy Byward Market where the restaurant stood, although Hutch and I showed up there first and Ray and Scott were somehow waylaid. Sitting outside I dispensed to Hutch my philosophies of life for a while, as we awaited the missing Scott and Ray. Hutch was a bit younger than me, so I solemnly slurred on about the purity of random experience and the grand cosmic purpose of getting regularly fucked up, adapted from my readings of Jack Kerouac and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Credit to Hutch for listening politely, instead of pointing out that I was a twenty-five-year-old service worker pissing his life away on intoxication and dried bubble gum.
Anyway, at last Ray and Scott showed up. “We just got blown by two hookers!” exulted Ray. It turned out they’d stopped off a construction site with a couple of neighbourhood streetwalkers and spent Ray’s tip money. Ray told me later he and Scott had eyed each other uncomprehendingly across the vacant parking lot while their new girlfriends knelt before them; Scott wore an indelible what-are-we-doing here look on his face, to which the Beatles might have replied, “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be…It’s ea-sy.” After eventually making it back to my own Lower Town apartment (how low can you go?) and crashing in a cyclone of bedspins I woke up with an apocalyptic hangover that afternoon, then broke into debilitating laughter as I remembered Ray, who’d just moved to the area, had earlier told me how affronted he was over the prostitutes that were strolling the quaint old laneways and sidewalks around his residence. “Man, it’s really disgusting, I’d like to write a city councillor,” he’d complained in the more idealistic era of twenty-four hours and multiple Johnny Walkers ago. Scott was good enough to repay the money he’d borrowed from Ray for their adventure, leaving it with a note that advised, “Don’t blow it all in one place.”
I’ve never seen Ray, Scott, or Hutch in the decades since, and I’m happy to have put my culinary credentials well behind me. During the current lockdown restrictions, however, which have disproportionately affected small businesses like bars and restaurants (and their employees), I wonder if such drunken inanities as enjoyed by me and my colleagues of 1992 will ever be known to future generations, for whom social justice, social networking, and now social distancing have replaced Jack Kerouac and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as the dominant imperatives of youth. Or perhaps I am more like George Orwell, reminiscing about his student days in his great essay “Such, Such Were the Joys”: “Now, however, the place is out of my system for good. Its magic works no longer, and I have not even enough animosity left to make me hope that Flip and Sambo are dead or that the story of the school being burnt down was true.” In any case, this pandemic, like my diner job and Ray’s Lower Town welcome committee, really sucks.