Some things happen in life that are so strange, that you wonder if they really happened. Some things happen that are so horrible you wish they didn’t. Some things are like a living nightmare that you can’t escape. My following story is a mix of all of the above and is so strange and awful that I can’t come up with a title that isn’t sensationalist and clichéd (so I went to the other extreme of understatement). I was so shaken by the whole event that it’s only now that I am far away that I feel comfortable telling it (I’m getting very shaky again just remembering it all while writing this).
It all began three months ago. I had crashed and burned my way out of my masters course and had no money or idea what to do with myself. So I went looking for work. The economy being what it is, there were/are few jobs available for graduates and I was desperate so I took the first job I was offered, as a waiter in a cafe/restaurant here in South Dublin. I was glad for the chance to support myself and earn some money while I figured out what to do next.
At first the job seemed fine. It was tiring, but that was to be expected. The other staff were friendly and helpful. The manager seemed a bit strict and a little boastful (he threw out wild claims of working 90-120 hours per week and of how at my age he was running three bars in New York and set up his first business aged 23) but that’s pretty common too. The place was/is very posh (I served Miriam O’Callaghan on my first day). I started on a Monday and did a three hour shift on Tuesday and Wednesday. Everything seemed fine and there was the promise of a free dinner too some nights.
Then came Saturday, the busiest night of the week when we were booked out. The Minister for Transport, Leo Varadker, would be there. The pressure would be on, but I was ready to give everything I got. I had only brief waiting experience, but I’ve worked in kitchens so I’m used to the pressure and how it causes people to occasionally lose their temper. I was eager to learn fast and do a good job. As the evening began and customers were slowly filling the place up, the manager whispered to me: “Robert, do you see what is wrong with table 3?” I examined the table; they were in the middle of the dinner, so I didn’t see anything that needed to be done. I said this, to which the manager replied “Are you fucking blind? They need more water.”
It only got worse from there. After I brought the table a bottle of water, the manager told me in his low menacing tone (quiet enough so no one but I could hear him) “Are you retarded? Why haven’t you cleared table 6?” This was not an isolated incident but rather how the night continued. Every time I did a task, he would come over and insult me (retard was his favourite word). If two tables needed to be cleared, I was a retard if I a cleared one and a fucking retard if I cleared the other. Then I was gobshite if I re-set one but not the other, and a moron if I re-set the other before this one. No matter what I did, I couldn’t win.
Every time, it was always the same. Always the snarling tone, the insult that went past my skills or how I was doing the job and right to who I was. I wasn’t doing a terrible job, I was a terrible person. Most of the time, I hadn’t even made a mistake, but rather simply hadn’t gotten to the particular task. Not that that made any difference. In a restaurant there is always something to be done, which meant there was always a reason to insult me. Every time a nasty insult and always ending with a threat. I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t have the skills, I wasn’t showing anything to impress, unless I improved drastically he would let me go, I didn’t have what it took to work there. Every time, a pause after each insult, as though he wanted me to explain exactly what kind of retard I was.
How do you respond to that? What do you say to hours of constant insults over every little thing? What do you say to someone abusing you, knowing they controlled whether or not you could pay rent? Perhaps if this was TV, I would say something brave or clever, but in reality I was terrified and stayed silent. Strange as it sounds, I spoke only to beg him not to fire me, to give me another chance to prove myself. Prove what? That I could take foul insults and wanted the privilege to continue receiving them?
The thing is that if you tell people something enough time they start to (at least partially) believe it. I knew the manager was horrible, but I began to believe that I was an idiot, a retard, a stupid moron who was too useless to deserve a job. If only I wasn’t so worthless, he wouldn’t insult me. So every time he insulted me, I cursed my lack of skill (remember this was my first week and only my second full shift) and vowed to work harder. I thought I was being soft or a wimp for letting his insults get to me, I had to toughen up.
Of course, all these insults gradually broke me down. I was like a dog that’s been beaten too much, I was constantly afraid of the next hit. I got nervous, shaky and scared. Carrying several plates is difficult when you’re new (especially as the restaurant used elaborate plates that looked lovely but were very difficult to carry) and the fear made me rattle like a ghost. Of course the managers tactic of calling my attempt to carry plates “fucking retarded” only made me rattle more. It got to the stage that he would threaten to fire me unless I “fucking relaxed”. Unsurprisingly this approach didn’t work.
However, there was one particular moment where thing went beyond nasty and into the psychopathic realm. I was clearing a table when the manager walked up behind me. The mere sight of him scared me and I started shaking, dropping a knife, which made a loud clang on the wooden floor. Silently, the manager picked the knife up and signalled for me to go into the kitchen. He brought me aside and pointing the knife at my face, he menacingly said:
“Robert, if you ever drop another knife, I’ll stick it in your fucking throat!”
I was petrified. This was no longer a case of a tough boss, this was abusive. I was on the verge of breaking down or out into tears. I wanted to run and hide, but there was nowhere to go. I had to keep serving table, keep getting abused. We didn’t get breaks, no matter how long we worked, even having a glass of water was frowned upon and we had to have a sneaky one in the side of the kitchen beside the toilet. You can imagine what happened to me when I committed the horrendous sin of drinking water behind the bar where a customer could see me.
Inevitably, I dropped a plate (right by Minister Varadker too). I have never seen someone so angry in my life as the manager. I genuinely expected him to punch me. He restrained himself physically and unleashed himself verbally. I knew I was one fuck up away from him exploding. He even told me himself that if I dropped another plate, I wasn’t to pick it up, but to run out the door and keep running (advice I would have undoubtedly taken). Then the manager would turn around and politely compliment the ladies and banter with the men. I couldn’t believe how quickly he could change from abusive to charming as easily as putting on a mask.
I don’t know how he treated the other staff, but probably just as badly. I saw the other waitress I was working with red faced from crying several times during the night. It was only through her help and kindness (and that of the Romanian dishwasher) that I was able to last the night. I was convinced that I would be thrown out the door at some point during the night. Even looking at the manager (and therefore not the tables) were cause for insult. The way I was refilling the cutlery draw made him ask what kind of spastic I was and the way I wiped down a table made him ask if I had ever had a job in my life or had even lifted a finger around the house.
By far the most bizarre point of the night was after the customers had left and I was clearing a bottle of Prosecco. There was about a glass or two left in the bottle and I asked what to do with it. The manager began to answer, then paused, and said “Do you know what you should do Robert?” (Uh-oh). “You should go out back to the bins and down it. Drink the bottle.” I had no idea what sort of trap he had planned, but he was insisting and I wasn’t going to refuse. So I went outside into the back courtyard beside the bins and drank half of what was left in the bottle and wondered what the hell was going on.
Once the customers left, the manager entered a surreal phase where suddenly he was my friend and kindly dispensed advice about how this was all for my own good. Being deadly afraid of him, I played along. He even talked about going out together for a work party in a city nightclub and how he wasn’t going to literally stab me in the throat with a knife. He reassured me that I wasn’t worth going to jail for. However, when I asked where to put the candles, he looked me dead in the eye and said “Up your hole.” He paused and then repeated “Come on Robert, where do you think? Where do you think we should put the fucking candles?” My excuse that it was my first week and I had never worked with the candles before was not acceptable. Even without the pressures of work he was still extremely nasty.
To my surprise, he told me I would be working the next morning. I hardly slept that night nor could I eat anything (despite not having dinner). I was physically shaking getting ready for work and have never been so scared in my life. I spent the whole shift hiding from the manager. I deliberately avoided him as much as possible and stayed at literally the opposite end of the restaurant to him. I considered this policy a success as he only called me a retard about five times that day. It was only when I told my friends about it that I realised how truly awful it was (sometimes you are too close to events to get proper perspective). I couldn’t work somewhere I was terrified all the time, so I quit. I considered going to the police, but decided to wait on my wages (which I eventually got after two weeks, cash in an unmarked envelope for less than the minimum wage). In the end I just wanted to get the hell away from there and forget the whole thing, so I didn’t do anything about it.
Luckily my story has a happy ending. Although I had to undergo weeks of unemployment and a stint doing door to door sales and working in a call centre, I eventually landed a job in an office. The people are good, I’m not run off my feet (I actually get to sit down all day), the bosses are non-threatening and I’m paid above the minimum wage (the most money I’ve ever earned). It’s only a temporary contract, but there’s the promise of more and I’m hopeful that I’ve left my days as a terrified waiter behind me.