It was an amiable split when Michael - my friend that I left Czechoslovakia with - and I went our separate ways sometime in 1970, but I found living alone in London quite tough. All I could afford were bedsitting rooms or “bedsits”, as they were called, essentially rooms in a Victorian rooming house with a shared bathroom and kitchen. They were mostly dreary and lonely places. Finding a job was another challenge. I could now speak passable English, but at 19, I really had no marketable skills beyond good looks and unbridled ambition, but by shamelessly exaggerating my linguistic talents, I managed to get a job with a small hotel reservation agency in Victoria Coach Station Building. My plan very nearly backfired, the agency was staffed by people from many different countries and I was lucky that my claim of fluent Parisian French was not put to an immediate and decisive test with terminal results.
I started in the accounting department. In those days the most hi-tech item in the office was a mimeograph machine and a painfully slow copier that required two passes to produce a copy. Accounts were kept in huge dusty ledgers and digital calculators were not invented yet. We didn't use quills, but there were echoes of Ebenezar Scrooge in that office.
It took me a while to understand the scope of my job and my boss later told me that I came close to being fired as I was not quite grasping the arcana of debit/credit entries and balancing the books fast enough. But once it all clicked, I did reasonably well. The hardest part was overcoming the fear of talking to strangers on the phone. In English! Just the idea of having to call someone was enough for me to break out in a cold sweat.
After a while I settled into a comfortable routine and I started dating some of the girls in the office, to my boss' chagrin as he viewed me as some kind of Lothario. Then the company hired a Czech girl named Dana. She was older then me by only two or three years, but she was far more sophisticated and worldly than the 19-year old me. That was an immediate challenge and after a few lunches together where she regaled me with stories about parties she gave for 100 or 200 people, I knew I had to up the ante to impress her.
I invited her to dinner in an upscale Austro-Hungarian restaurant in downscale Soho called The Gay Hussar. It was pretty romantic, complete with a violinist accompanying the goulash, low lighting and crisp white linens. The shock came when the check arrived. I'd just spent two weeks salary on one dinner for two and all I got at the end of the evening was a peck on the cheek.
Our association did not last in any case. Dana was a bit of a princess and expected to be treated as such. That included a certain living standard that I was unable to match. I tried, but I knew it was an uphill struggle. Up a very steep hill! I was not particularly upset by it; Dana was clearly moving in different circles and had certain expectations. Then the ghost of anti-semitism raised its hideous head. Dana was fired, for no reason other than she was Jewish; a fact I was totally unaware of until Tullio "Il Duce", the resident Italian fascist dickhead called her into his office. The Italian son-of-a-bitch boasted about this the following day.
I was flabbergasted, but I did not try to defend her. I was so stunned by this event that I didn't really know how to react. In retrospect, I should have tried to defend her against Tullio, generate few waves, make a stand. But I did not. I was 19 years old and trying to make a living. Dana and I parted ways shortly after. We both knew that we were not economically matched and all that held us together was our Czech background.
Every week was tough as I struggled to find the money for basics like food, rent and transport. I walked to work often just to save few shillings - a scenic journey, enjoyable enough through Hyde Park and past Buckingham Palace, but it took about two hours. Then I got an idea. I'll get a second job in the evenings! I wandered into a German/Austrian Restaurant, "Die Jagerhutte" (Hunter's Lodge”) on Queensway in Bayswater. The restaurant was on the edge of Hyde Park and I'd passed it on my daily trek on the way home to my vile bedsit. This establishment had a decent restaurant on the ground floor and a cellar for the hoi-polloi whose basic food preference was beer and bratwurst. It was owned by a sleazy Czech couple; she a brassy, edgy blonde and he a kind weaselly Humphrey Bogart type with eyes like piss-holes in the snow. At least Humphrey had charisma; this guy emitted foul body odor instead.
At first I was assigned to the kitchen along with a Hungarian chef and a Slovak dishwasher. I was a general dogsbody. London had some quirky licensing law in those days that food had to be served with booze so I spent most of the evening artfully arranging cheap hot dogs around a dollop of potato salad on little plates. It wasn't too bad. Once I took Michael there on my night off and there in the spit-and-sawdust bierkeller, we met a couple of Canadian girls. Michael later married one of them and they are still together some 40 years later.
Promotion Time! I was transferred from the kitchen to the front door of the Bierkellar - I became the skinniest, cowardliest bouncer in Greater London. All went well until one night a batallion of burly Germans stormed in and got progressively rowdier as the evening wore on. At midnight, someone threw the first punch and it was a free-for-all fistfight. Mindful of my duties, I danced around the scrum, tapping on the brawny shoulders and politely asking them to STOP, sit down and behave, BITTE! That was totally ineffective, and after a while someone called the London Constabulary and the bobbies politely (as ever) threw everyone out.
The following evening I'd come to work and Humphrey-the-Sleazebag was waiting for me. "If thith happenth again", he thaid as he reached behind the counter to retrieve a huge blacksmith's hammer, "You take thith, and jump in...." as he demonstrated how I should crush the Teutonic skulls by waving the hammer in the air. Never, EVER, never call the poleeth, he thaid. That was too much. I walked out never to return.
Die Jagerhutte was my first restaurant job and since I really had no training or the education to do anything else, I thought I could make a career out of it and a few restaurant jobs followed. A year later when my girlfriend Maureen and I moved to Glasgow together, I got a job as a waiter at the The Cattleman Restaurant. If you're thinking The Cattlemen Club from "Dallas" think again. This was a steakhouse in a mediocre hotel, but it had a quasi-western theme with a couple of Highland cattle horns on the walls and wagon wheel chandeliers, as in “Cowboys and Indians in the Land of Bagpipes and Kilts”. Seriously! We were issued Stetson hats and checked flannel shirts but we had to supply our own dark pants and shoes. That way we'd match the general ambiance that was enhanced by honky-tonk muzak.
As was customary in the Wild West, this was a Silver Service restaurant. In other words, each diner was given an empty plate and we, the waiters, carried the meat and vegetables in large serving bowls to the table to fill each diner's plate in front of him. This process required a fair amount of dexterity. Holding the steaming dish of vegetables with one hand and in the other a large serving spoon and fork held as a pair of chopsticks, we were required to deftly serve everyone - from the correct side, avoiding large breasts and animated conversation. It was an absurd set-up for blue collar Glasgow in the seventies, but I got to be quite good at it and garnered some decent tips, mostly from tipsy middle-aged women.
The job could have been fun, except for my co-workers who were rabid soccer fanatics. When I arrived, the first question was: "Rangers or Celtic?" - the two local soccer teams. The fan loyalties were even further divided by religious affiliations as the Rangers were Protestant and Celtic, Catholic (or maybe the other way around, who gives a papal shit!).
I indicated a total lack of interest in local soccer and from that point on I was ostracized by both groups. Whatever tips we received were pooled and shared by everyone. It was pre-Christmas and we served a lot of large parties. I tried very hard to be a good waiter and very often my efforts to charm the diners were rewarded by a special tip stealthily squeezed into my palm; "This is just for you, don't share" ...usually from a female diner. I was a pretend cowboy waiter Adonis.
That job did not last long - eventually I got into a disagreement with the management and left never to look back. But I can still handle the outsized serving spoon and fork used in Silver Service with remarkable dexterity.