Orwell settles in to his job at Hotel X where he works mostly eleven-hour days, and once in a while a fourteen-hour shift. He finds the work manageable, despite the heat and cramped working quarters. In the cellar, the temperature usually ranges between 110-130 degrees. The duties of Orwell’s job as plongeur are many and include making toast, boiling eggs, preparing coffee, rolling butter, and making sure each check is correct down to the last lump of sugar. He works in the basement with Boris, Mario, and Magyar. With fourteen years of experience as a water, Mario is a master at all of it, and he performs his duties while singing bits from Rigoletto. He holds the sweating, sometimes lazy, crew together.
The duties of a plongeur and hotel waiter are seemingly never ending. They are also menial to the point of being mind-numbing. It’s no wonder that some men stay in the job their entire lives: they work so hard and so long that they have no energy or opportunity to look for other positions. Mario is an example of one of those men and, as such, is to be admired and pitied at the same time. Orwell looks up to Mario for his abilities and boundless cheer, but later goes on to say Mario’s vocation is empty and without purpose.
The busiest hours at the Hotel X are from 8-10 p.m. and between 12 and 2 p.m. The basement staff gets ten minutes for lunch, and when Orwell and his fellow plongeurs and waiters aren’t fetching meals from hot-tempered cooks, they are sweeping floors and polishing brass and cleaning crockery. At 2 p.m. they’re finally free to leave the basement and most of them visit a nearby bistro, where they sometimes meet up with their superiors, who, freed from the hotel, treat the lowly plongeurs as equals. Everyone returns to the hotel at a quarter to 5 p.m. to do odd jobs and get ready for the dinner hour, which requires the chaotic feeding of fifty to sixty people that, according to the narrator, defies description in its sheer maniacal intensity. Making matters even trickier is the fact that the staff is exhausted and often drunk.
This is the life of a turn-of-the-century Paris restaurant worker. The hours are full of tedious tasks and the kind of relentless busy work that makes any leisure time fly by. Orwell describes the typical day rather than a particular one in order to underscore the dreary monotony of such a life, the utter sameness of each passing day. That said, it is not without its exhilarating moments. The insanity that reigns in the kitchen at dinner time is just exciting enough to convince a man the work he does there is worthwhile.
Drinking forms a large part of hotel worker life. Orwell discovers the yin and yang of this when he gets drunk with his co-workers one Saturday night, planning to spend Sunday sleeping it off. His plans are thwarted when, at 5 a.m., a night watchman from the hotel wakes him up and drags him back to work because the hotel is understaffed. His head throbbing and his back on fire, Orwell is sure he’ll collapse before the day is out, but then, an hour in, he finds he’s sweated out the poison. Drinking massive quantities of wine and working it off is one of the only compensations of such grueling work.
The one pleasure granted to the restaurant worker is drinking to excess. This activity obviously has its drawbacks, particularly when a man has no guaranteed days off, and it also suggests that Orwell and his compatriots find happiness mostly in forgetting. They work all day, drink all night, and wake up to do it all over again. Like poverty, restaurant work is cyclical and self-perpetuating.