Saturday, August 17, 2019
It's October of 2002 in Montreal, and winter is coming on fast. Past due on his first freelance gig and ensnared in lies to his family and friends, a graphic design student with a gambling addiction goes after the first job that promises a paycheque: dishwasher at the sophisticated La Trattoria.
You could see in through the glass panes of a garage door. On a sign above it, the restaurant's name was written in an elegant sans-serif: la trattoria. I pushed open the door and walked into a spacious slate-grey hallway. It wasn't what I expected. The fanciest place I'd ever eaten was Saint-Hubert bbq chicken, my dad took us there all the time when I was little. But La Trattoria was nothing like SaintHubert, or the Normandin in Trois-Rivières or the Georges in Longueuil or any other family restaurant. It was nothing like the diners my friends and I hung out at after class or a night out. I was expecting some greasy fast-food joint. This room with its shimmering glassware felt more like an art gallery.
I tried not to think about it, told myself again that I was doing the right thing. At this point I didn't have a thousand options. The way Dave put it, there was no way they'd turn me down. No one took a job washing dishes unless they were desperate. I was desperate as hell.
I went into the hallway and pushed open a second glass door.
From outside, the dining room had seemed cavernous and dark. Now I saw it was bigger than I'd thought, and even in the dim light everything looked polished to a shine.
The chairs weren't normal restaurant chairs, more like what we had in the drafting studio at my Cegep, the junior college where I studied graphic design. The lacquered wood tables looked clean enough to eat off. The walls were exposed brick, with mortar oozing out of the joints as if someone had gone out of their way to botch the job. Two massive, ultramodern light fixtures hung from the ceiling like diamond-encrusted radar antennae.
The dark wood floor made me feel like I should take my boots off before walking on it. A long, padded leather partition divided the rectangular room into two sections.
Next to it stood a large wall of wine bottles stacked to the ceiling, at least 15 feet high. There weren't any customers yet. My hands were sweaty. I dried them on my pants.
Back then I didn't know a thing.
Were there 20, 120, 220 seats? I couldn't have told you. In fact the room held 70 diners, plus 15 at the bar that stretched pretty much the full length of the room.
A handful of employees in black were gathered for a talk at the back of the room, next to the wall of wine bottles. They stopped for a minute and looked in my direction, then started talking again. A young woman was finishing up the table settings and bread dishes. When she saw me she put her little pile of dishes down on the corner of the bar and walked toward me. Her hair was blond and very short. She was also dressed in black: a skirt and a top that left her shoulders bare. She had prominent collarbones and pale skin. She said hi. I mumbled hi back.
"Yes?" She spoke clearly in a tone that made it known I was an unwelcome intrusion. Clearly not a customer. I stuttered that I was here for a training shift as a dishwasher. She sized me up in a second. I tried to appear determined and outgoing, as I'd learned at private school. She looked five or six years older than me, maybe seven.
"Next time, go around the back and ring the bell. The address is on the door, you'll see it."
I followed her through the dining room. Every single table was perfectly set. The cloth napkins were identically folded. I'd never set foot in a restaurant to do anything but eat.
The employees sitting around talking looked over at me as if I'd disrupted an important ritual. Only one of them dignified me with a nod. My nerves were starting to get the better of me. Everyone was blurring together, their faces somehow out of focus. The guys were all different ages, with the same chiselled features and GQ style, kicking back in fitted shirts and well-cut pants. The sound of the soles of my work boots on the hardwood echoed through the whole room. I felt like someone banging a hammer in a church.
The waitress led me through the front kitchen. The contrast with the dining room was stark. It was a kind of narrow rectangle, lit more brightly than a gym, with large growling hood vents above the ovens. A massive pizza oven was built into the back wall, throwing a dry, intense heat even through closed doors. Around the oven's legs a motley collection of receptacles had piled up: plastic buckets, buspans and greasy containers that must have been chucked there during the lunch rush. The kitchen was divided into two stations by shelves stacked high with dishes. A cook was kneeling in front of the open fridges, writing on an aluminum pad with a black marker. He didn't say a word to me.
We passed a staircase down to the basement. The stairwell walls were painted a cheerless turquoise and covered with red, brown, and green splotches of sauce. The odd fly buzzed around the fluorescent lights above the stairs. I was getting hot in my coat. A strangely soothing smell wafted up from the basement. It took me a moment to place it: chicken broth.
The waitress stopped in the doorway of a room lined with shelves full of dishes. It was pretty big, maybe ten feet by twenty.
The left side was stacked with clean dishes; the right with the dirty ones. Between was a battlefield where the remains of the day's lunch lay in agony. A tall, grimy metal shelving unit was covered with piles of splattered plates. Pots stained with burnt tomato sauce harboured twisted ladles, tongs coated with unidentifiable sauces, plastic inserts with soggy julienned vegetables and viscous marinades, baking sheets spackled with fat and strips of scorched chicken skin.
On the dishpit's long steel counter piles of crusted frying pans leaned precariously next to a dishwasher from which small puffs of steam emerged. At the bottom of one of the overstuffed shelves a mountain of cutlery soaked in a bucket of grey water. The tiled walls were filthier than a high-school cafeteria after a food fight: knots of overcooked linguine, brown shreds of lettuce poised to come unstuck, unidentifiable lumps, soup splatters and squirts of sauce covered the wall with a layer that grew thicker as it neared the ground, where it coalesced into a seam of sodden, oily black gunk. A large garbage can rose in the centre of it all like a sacrificial well, its black bag overflowing with what the lunchtime hordes had rejected, like the entrails of an animal with rumpled, slimy skin. The area smelled like disinfectant and something else I couldn't put my finger on, a greasy, fetid odour that filled my nostrils. A much smaller hood vent was noisily sucking up the humid air that had long ago had its way with the ceiling.
Two cooks were hanging out at the back of the dishpit next to the open back door.
Their black pants were stained with soup and the fronts of their white shirts were smeared, as if every kid at a daycare had wiped off their hands after an especially gross snack. They were smoking and speaking English. One held his rolled-up chef's hat in his hand.
They turned toward us. The waitress pointed her thumb at me.
"I've got a new one for you."
Excerpted from The Dishwasher by Stéphane Larue, translated into English by Pablo Strauss.
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