What is the worst job that you have ever worked at?

Probably banquet waiter. Here is a brief description so that you can savor the hell.

When I arrived in the U.S. as a penniless immigrant I could find work only as a banquet waiter, at Houston's Shamrock hotel, featured around that time in the great film Giant, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. Surely you recall the cascading liquor shelves falling like dominoes, destroying immense amounts of wines and spirits? A fabulous scene. The hotel had been created by the wildcatter Glenn McCarthy but his profligate ways and oil-patch missteps meant that he soon lost it to the Hilton hotel chain, which renamed it the Shamrock Hilton. It did big banquet business.

There, I was surrounded at work by wetbacks, criminals on the lam, athletes who couldn't make the cut (tennis, golf), and legal immigrants like me-human detritus, the scum of the earth. Calibrating our status in the work pecking order, as far as I could see we reported to the fist-sized Texas cockroaches, big enough to keep as pets if they could be tamed and named, that held up the hotel's walls. The cockroaches in turn reported apparently to the Captain of the Waiters, on up to the Maitre d'. The on-call summons came at the last minute, though such events must surely have been planned a bit earlier. Or were we the movable feast?

Our pay: $1/hour, tackling events like the 5,000-person Humble Oil (pronounced 'umble in Texan, now ExxonMobil) Christmas party. Fifty of us banquet waiters each served one hundred guests. We had to set up the grotesquely decorated banquet room, a bizarre alloy of Victorian frightful and bawdy-house modern, entirely appropriate to the hotel itself, serve the meal and drinks, then clean up. This was all done over a ten-hour period, running like dervishes until the feet were in agony. Hotel gratuity, based on the bill, and tips from the kindness of strangers, were extra.

The gratuity? Funny you should ask. The split: the (absent) Maitre d' took 60%, or $3,000, the Captain of the Waiters took 30%, or $1,500; we fifty waiters split the remaining 10%, or $10 each. Today, even at the miserable minimum wage, those amounts are at least ten times higher. Years later, laws were passed to level the playing field slightly for banquet staff vs. management but we considered ourselves lucky to have work of any kind. Or pay. These days, obscenely rewarded management is normal and most other employees are still starving.

Tips were another interesting phenomenon. First, the banquet-waiter's uniform, to approximate size: a white dress shirt with black clip-on bow tie, red jacket and black trousers, pocketless by design. Tips, if any-rubber-chicken diners are generally niggardly with largesse-had to be pooled for subsequent distribution to all of us at the end of the evening. The money thus derived augmented trivially the $20 ($10 pay, $10 gratuity) for ten hours relentless labour. Say, $1 per waiter, maybe, on a good night. I never saw more than $2 from any event, and I worked regularly, but I suspected that some of my fellow banquet waiters were gaming the system.

In the rubber-chicken mêlée one had to speak to guests occasionally. One-a robust, well-lubricated Texas oilman with wife and/or girlfriend-noted my English accent.

"Whar you from, boy?" he bellowed over the din.

"England, sir." Wasn't it obvious? I am blessed or cursed with an accent you could, perhaps should, cut with a knife, though I always insist that it is others who have the accents, not I.

"Aw hey-ull. It's an itty-bitty place, innit?" His accent was just as distinctive, to me.

I gave him the dimensions of the small island of my birth. He laughed uproariously. "Shee-yut," he exclaimed (Texans have such a way with words), "Ah figger we c'd git England into Texas fahve tahms."

"I imagine you could, sir," I responded, "and think what an improvement it might be."

"I lak you, boy," he said, slipping me an almost unimaginable sum: a $20 bill.

I did not intend to share my new-found riches. The only place to hide the banknote: the instep of my loafer. This had to be done carefully. I was now, myself, playing the system. The penalty for being observed was severe. One might leave later, all innocence, to find that a defrauded peer or two had observed the dastardly deed of hiding funds supposed to be shared and would be waiting at the hotel exit with a blade to create thirty-stitch openings in the face or in even more painful parts of the body. Then they took the money. Such things happened. We all knew.

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