“You honest. Can I trust you?”
“Um, yeah, of course.”
“Some of these girls, money goes missing – pfft – from the cash register, you know?”
“Oh. I wouldn’t do that.”
“Ok. You start now, ok?”
This, apparently, is to be the extent of my job interview for the position of Sandwich Hand at the Uni Bite Café. I’m 20 years old, and my only previous job has been five years working in a book store. This new job, which is about all I can squeeze in around my uni contact hours, will prove to be a somewhat different beast. For one thing, there will be vastly greater amounts of scalloped potatoes involved. The levels of scalloped potatoes I encountered while bookselling were suprisingly low. So low, in fact, that I eventually concluded that thinly sliced tubers gently absorbing large amounts of milk and butter were not actually relevant to selling books at all. I know, go figure.
My new employer, Joanne, having decided that I am probably not going to pilfer vast amounts of cash from the till, hands me a black apron and tells me to tie my hair back. She comes up to just under my boobs and keeps up a contant stream of muttering in half-Lebanese, half-English.
“You start training today, maybe three hours, this on your own time, then you do lunchtimes 12-3pm and we see how you go. What days you can do it?”
“Uh – I can’t do Thursdays.”
“Ok. I trust you, I give you these Monday Tuesday Wednesday Fridays.”
“You make coffee?”
Joanne looks up at me with an expression I will quickly become familiar with. If the expression could speak, it would say “How can you be at university, enormous white girl, and yet be such a complete idiot?” I don’t really have an answer for this, but luckily all Joanne actually says is: “Can you make coffee.”
I stare at the large metal machine. It’s got lots of knobs on. I get briefly distracted by my need to make a knob joke, and then realise that a) I haven’t answered Joanne yet, and b) there appears to be small ribbons of smoke extruding from her ears.
“I haven’t done it before, no.”
Joanne sighs, grabs a metal jug of milk and thrusts it at me. I’m going to be bad at this. On my first shot at frothing a jug of milk, I don’t dip the steam nozzle thing in far enough and I send a spectacular spray of milk all over myself and the bench.
“Aieeee!” yells Joanne.
On the second go, I can’t get the milk to foam before it starts to boil out of the jug.
On the third go, we switch to sandwich making. I sucessfully only drop one large salad sandwich on the floor. Joanne’s stream-of-Lebanese-consciousness has started to reach quite audible levels by this point.
After my three hours of training (on my own time, as she reminds me regularly), we’re both pretty much nervous wrecks. “Ok, enough for today,” Joanne says. “You clean the bella marine and then you can go.”
I look wildly around the café. “Clean – clean the what?”
I get The Look. She points silently at the bain marie. “Oh, right, the bain marie,” I say.
Joanne shakes her head witheringly. “Yes, the bella marine. Newspaper under the sink.”
My hands gradually learn the automatic movements required of the café assistant. True to my job title, I develop sandwich hands: my left hand is a pair of tongs, my right hand a sweaty latex glove with horrible powdery stuff on the inside. I have about twenty tiny burn marks on my arms and knuckles from the bain-marie and the damned frothing jug. But I have skills.
I can halve and wrap a towering salad roll in greaseproof paper, and twirl the corners of the bag shut without spraying shredded lettuce at customers. I can separate and layer hundreds of cheese slices into star-shaped dairy-plastic constellations and wrap them gently in cling-wrap so as not to break off any of the corners (an important lesson from Joanne’s reaction to any food wastage: don’t break the cheese.) I can grate large amounts of onions for sausage rolls as long as I breathe through my mouth and don’t mind smelling of onions for a week. I know at what point the spaghetti cabonara in the bain-marie needs re-hydrating. (This, for the unitiated, means that when the pasta starts to dry out under the heat lamps, it gets the leftover milk from the coffee machine jug poured over it. That pasta sits there all day, absorbing luke-warm frothy milk. Don’t buy it.) I can shuffle the bain marie trays around like Tetris with the added prospect of third degree burns. I can re-layer the biscuits in the jars so that the older ones are closest to the top. I can roll hundreds of plastic forks in paper napkins and stick them shut with my wet fingers. I can even avoid getting whipped with a tea towel when I don’t get out of Joanne’s way fast enough.
But I still can’t froth a jug of milk to save my life.
“Yalla, yalla,” says Joanne. I’m struggling to plate a sausage roll that keeps threatening to disintegrate. Yalla means ‘hurry up’. This is followed by a longer phrase that I’ve gathered means ‘Move your arse’. Joanne’s not in a great mood, because it’s her birthday and her two sons have forgotten. She’s dealing with this by picking up things and slamming them down in other places. The bain-marie trays cop most of it.
SLAM! The lasagna tray.
“[muttering in Lebanese] BLUDDY MEN [mutter mutter] NO RESPECK”
SLAM! The scalloped potatoes.
“HEPPY BERSDAY TO ME, HEPPY BERSDAY TO ME [mutter mutter]”
SLAM! This time it’s a soup tureen.
“Why I have these sons [mutter mutter] I don’t know which one of them has more cuckoo-brains; both of them.”
Frank, her husband, who looks like a cross between Nero Wolfe and Fat Tony, and whose main function is to fry the chicken schnitzels and sit on the back step smoking, calls out “Shut up woman!” and goes back to his cigarette.
Joanne narrows her eyes at me and shakes her head. “You learn this one, girl. You got to treat the boys mean, keep them wanting or BANG they give you all kind of trouble. And no RESPECK!”
She shouts the last word out into the kitchen and I hear Frank mutter “All the time, shut up, bluddy hell.”
I’ve washed the last scraps of scalloped cement potatoes out of the tray, and then scraped off the creamy slime that’s coated the hairs on my arms. There are long washing up gloves provided but none of us bother with them as the time taken getting them on and off usually earns me and the other sandwich hands a “Yalla!” or two. It’s pay day, so I shuffle up to Frank’s chair on my way out of the kitchen.
“How many hours you work this week, twelve?”
“Fourteen,” I say. “I did extra on Monday and yesterday.”
“Joanne!” yells Frank. “Anna do extra on Monday and yesterday?”
“What? Ah, yis, yis on those days extra hour.”
Frank grunts reluctantly and leans sideways in his chair to pull out his wallet. He rifles through a thick wad of notes and pulls out my pay. “See you next week then.”
I fold the notes over and stuff them in my bag. I’m paid the princely sum of $8 an hour, but I can make a sandwich for myself whenever I like (as long as I don’t use any of the expensive ingredients like meat). Frank has informed me that if ‘The Tax Man’ ever comes in, I’m to say I’m paid only in food. I’m not sure how sounds more legal than cash-in-hand, but as ‘The Tax Man’ doesn’t appear to have The Uni Bite high on his list of venues to personally investigate, I haven’t thought too much about it.
“Um,” I say. Frank looks up. “I’ve been offered a job in a library, so this week will be my last week.”
This is true. Last week after my lunch shift, I ran across to Union House, dressed in black (plus a light dusting of sandwich crumbs) and smelling a lot like scalloped potatoes, for an interview as a library student casual at the Rowden White Library. There were lots of questions, but strangely none of them were about whether I intended to steal from the till. Also no mention of frothing milk or breaking the corners off cheese slices. I got the job.
“Joanne!” yells Frank. “Anna going to another place, put the ad back up.”
Joanne appears in the doorway. “You leaving us? You no like us any more?” She wipes away a pretend tear but grins at me, and I can see it really is her version of a good-natured farewell. Sandwich hands don’t tend to stick around very long.
“I’m going to work in a library,” I say.
Joanne and Frank stare at each other in disbelief. “With the books?” says Joanne.
“Pretty much,” I say.
“Why would you want to work in a library?” says Frank.
I look over at the sink, where a pile of onions are waiting to be grated, and a couple more lasagna trays are soaking. I smell like elderly cream sauce and I’m a sweaty mess after only three hours of running between the bain marie and the sink.
I consider explaining the attractiveness of a job where I won’t be covered in food and sweat, and will most likely be paid a legal wage.
I shrug. “I like books.”