Orwell imagines a new life for himself as a waiter. In a fit of optimism, he buys a pack of cigarettes. Then he goes to visit Boris, assuming he’ll find his friend doing well. Instead, he discovers that Boris is living in a hotel that is even dirtier than his own. Bugs roam the ceiling and there are insect bites on Boris’s chest. Boris has been living on two francs a day since leaving the hospital with crippling arthritis. He can’t get work on account of his condition, and he is sharing a small attic room with another man, a Jewish auto mechanic.
Optimism, like cigarettes, is something the poor can ill afford. Orwell was unwise to get his hopes up that Boris would be able to fix his financial situation immediately. Underscoring Boris’ sad state, Orwell describes the bugs roaming his room and biting his chest, which symbolize the ways in which poverty and hardship have eaten away at Boris.
Orwell, realizing his friend is practically starving, buys a loaf of bread and gives it to Boris, who, having eaten it all, tells Orwell he knows of a new Russian restaurant opening where they can both find employment. In the meantime, Boris says, they need not worry. He has a number of schemes that could pay off soon, including asking former mistresses for loans.
His friend, once a strong and successful man, is now pathetic and weak. He is also delusional. The Russian restaurant fails to open for months. The appeal to the mistress also ends in nothing. Sometimes, when a man has lost everything, all he has to sustain him are dreams. Unfortunately, dreams to not pay the rent, nor do they buy bread or coffee or cigarettes.
Orwell suggests they go looking for work now, and Boris agrees. Boris manages to make himself look respectable through several ingenious efforts, including painting his skin black where it would have shown through the holes in his shoes, and he and Orwell go out to a café on Rue de Rivoli frequented by restaurant workers. Surrounded by cooks and dishwashers and waiters, Orwell and Boris hope to network themselves into jobs, but nobody is interested in hiring them. Only later do they find out they should have bribed the barman.
In order to secure work, a man has to look a certain way, and for the man living in poverty, that is a tall order. His clothes are often in terrible condition and give him away as destitute. Employers do not want to hire desperate men. In the case of Orwell and Boris at the café, though, it’s not their attire that handicaps them, but the fact that they do not understand the rules of the game. Again, the poor man loses.
They wander over to another hotel, hoping the manager will appear. When he doesn’t, they make their way to the new Russian restaurant Boris mentioned earlier, but it’s closed. Boris says they should consider turning to crime, but both he and Orwell reject the idea because, as foreigners, they would be easily apprehended. They return to Orwell’s lodgings, split some bread and chocolate, and Boris, buoyed by the food, says they will use their brains to find work. Everything will be fine, he declares. Men with brains can’t starve, and he and Orwell have brains. He then falls asleep in Orwell’s room.
Impoverished by bad luck, the poor are often plagued by setbacks when searching for work. Again, this reality flies in the face of many people’s opinion that the poor are that way because they would rather get something for nothing than work for it. Boris’s statement about men with brains never starving is particularly ironic because malnutrition robs a man of his ability to think in a nuanced way.