Cocktails and Conversations: Musings of George Orwell, the dishwasher

BY • May 3 • 490 Views • No Comments on Cocktails and Conversations: Musings of George Orwell, the dishwasher

If customers feel like they’ve eaten spectacularly, every now and then, they will leave a tip for the chef. For most cooks who I have worked with over the years, slaving away somewhere in the back in cramped spaces, without windows and plenty of hot surfaces on which to burn fingers and forearms, this generosity is well-deserved. I say “slaving away” because many receive a paid salary and, therefore, aren’t eligible for overtime on the 10 or 20 hours over 40 they put in each week. So there is more of a sense of bondage when compared to someone like a dishwasher, who is paid by the hour. On the other hand, I have never had a customer tip dishwashers, even though they are often some of the most interesting people of all.

joel finsel

Joel Finsel tends the bar at downtown’s Manna. Photo by Trent Williams

One of my favorite dishwashers of all time was George Orwell. Decades before he published “Animal Farm” or “1984,” the writer spent the late 1920s as a vagabond—“Down and Out in Paris and London,” as he later titled his memoir. In the first part, he described living in near-destitution in Paris. Here’s his description of his first day on the job:

“The Hotel X was a vast, grandiose place with a classical facade, and at one side a little, dark doorway like a rat-hole, which was the service entrance. I arrived at quarter to seven in the morning . . . a sort of assistant manager arrived and began to question me . . . he asked whether I was an experienced dishwasher, and I said I was; he glanced at my hands and saw that I was lying, but on hearing that I was an Englishman he changed his tone . . . ‘We have been looking for someone to practise our English on,’ he said . . .

“He led me down a winding staircase into a narrow passage, deep underground, and so low that I had to stoop . . . it was stifling hot and very dark . . . there seemed to be miles of dark labyrinthine passages . . . we passed doorways which let out sometimes a shouting of oaths, sometimes the red glare of fire, once a shuddering draught from an ice chamber. As we went along, something struck me violently in the back. It was a hundred-pound block of ice, carried by a blue-aproned porter. After him came a boy with a great slab of veal on his shoulder, his cheek pressed into the damp, spongy flesh. They shoved me aside . . . on the wall, under one of the lights, someone had written in a very neat hand: ‘Sooner will you find a cloudless sky in winter, than a woman at the Hotel X who has her maidenhead.’ It seemed a queer sort of place . . . I worked until quarter past nine, when the waiter put his head into the doorway and told me to leave the rest of the crockery. To my astonishment, after calling me pig, mackerel, etc., all day, he suddenly grew quite friendly. I realized the curses I had met with were only a kind of probation. ‘That’ll do . . . ,’ he said. ‘Come up and have your dinner. The hotel allows us two liters of wine each, and I’ve stolen another bottle. We’ll have a fine booze.’”

Orwell shared an excellent dinner that evening while the waiter told him stories about his love affairs, and about the two men he had stabbed in Italy, and about how he dodged US military service. Drenched in sweat, Orwell listened. He was later paid 25 francs, but before he could leave, the manager patted down his coat to check for stolen food.

By the time Orwell left Paris for London, he seemed to have given up on earning a living. His tone shifts from describing his surroundings and encounters with others to a sort of field manual on how to survive homelessness on the street. Yet, unlike Paris, a person was not allowed to sleep outside in London. It was against a law meant to protect people from dying of “exposure.” But Orwell called it “a piece of willful offensiveness.” If a homeless person couldn’t lie down in an alley or on a park bench without the police prodding him away, they were left with either being shuffled along until morning or paying for one of a few fairly strange secondary options.

For fourpence a night, a person could sleep in “the coffin,” which was basically a wooden box covered with a tarpaulin. It’s often cold, depending on the weather, but the worse part were the bugs.

“Being enclosed in a box,” he wrote, “you can’t escape.”

For those too broke to afford a coffin, there was an even cheaper choice: the Twopenny Hangover. Imagine a room in which “lodgers sit in a row on a bench; there is a rope in front of them, and they lean on this as though leaning over a fence. A man, humorously called the valet, cuts the rope at five in the morning.”

There were similar places in Paris that were even cheaper, according to Orwell.

Could this down-and-out, last resort of lodging be the source of the expression “hangover” as we know it today—meaning the unpleasant effects of consuming alcohol?

Orwell doesn’t say.

Veteran bartender Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane.” Feel free to send questions or comments to

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