Down and Out

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In the semi-autobiographical Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell delineates poverty in the two cities. In Paris, the narrator works as a “plongeur” (dishwasher); his jobs exist from day to day, and if a restaurant is not doing well his pay is delayed. He offers a look into this life, such as the “caste system” of a hotel restaurant where the narrator works in which the dishwasher is at the bottom. At a new restaurant, the narrator finds himself working “seventeen and a half hours” a day, “almost without a break.” He says that “such hours, though not usual, are nothing extraordinary in Paris.”

Here is an excerpt:

I think one should start by saying a plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world. Not that there is any need to whine over him, for he is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack.

Though the book was published in 1933, I can tell you as a restaurant insider that it rings true today. Consider the dishwasher–a steam engine in the kitchen; he is sweating over your dirty dishes and not getting a tip or any thanks. He works long hours and sometimes two or more jobs at minimum wage and waits for the bus because he cannot afford to own a car or to live near his work. I admit that I participate in this industry as a patron, and all I can do, short of never again enjoying a meal in a “smart” restaurant (as Orwell’s narrator vows), is avoid eating establishments with oppressive owners and vote appropriately.

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