Starting trouble: Picking up the empties in A Pub

How NOT to deal with irate customers

Was I really this dumb?

Another in a series on work called THE REAL WORLD

By Russell D. Hoffman. Copyright (c) 1996 by Russell D. Hoffman.

Advice is a wonderful thing. You should get as much of it as you can in life. But be careful not to apply the advice in the wrong situation, and be careful to think about whether one person's situtation is comparable to your own, which might render the advice ill-advised.

If you think it's not possible for a 15 year old Connecticut Yankee to work in a pub in London, England, with no 'green' card, and accidentally start a fight with a bar patron who the constables comes and kick out, and keep your job, well, I'm here to tell you it is possible. I know because I did it, and I'm sure the statutes of limitations have all run out. Nonetheless, I'll keep the names out of the story.

Since you're probably wondering how it's possible to accidentally start a bar fight, here's the trick: Listen to your coworkers. Do everything they tell you to do. I'll explain it all in detail in a moment.

Gotta have that green thing...

To work in a foreign country, or for foreigners to work here, something generally called a 'green card' is needed, which you get (if you're lucky) from a host country. Otherwise, you have to work 'outside the law' and hold a job illegally. Or you don't work.

When I was 14 my mother, my older brother and I all traveled around Europe one summer. I turned 15, and my brother went back to America and my mom and I stayed for nearly three more months in a 'flat' in London (A flat is what we call an apartment in America.). I wanted a job after school so I could earn some money (something I was cronically short of at the time, and still am today!)

Upon attempting to get a job, I quickly learned that I needed some sort of permission from Her Majesty or somebody, or no one could legally hire me. Getting into school on the other hand was relatively easy and I was able to go to a lovely public school (which they call a private school) in London where the food was excellent (but the students all hated it). But when I tried to get a job, I waited five hours in a 'queue' (we call it a line in the U.S.) to be told I was too young.

Opportunity knocks at last...

I was dejected, but one day when I came home from school my mother told me to talk to one of our downstairs neighbors, who knew of a job I might be able to get. It turned out it was at a local pub as something called a "potman" which in America, is generally called a busboy. All we did was we would walk around and pick up empty bottles, and wipe off counters and tables if they looked dirty. We never sold anything or brought food or drink. We could send over a waitress or waiter but that would be it. Nevertheless we did occasionally get tips.

One time a patron bought me a beer. The proprietor's wife let me drink it, but gave me a good stiff warning not to have too much, or have it too often. It wasn't my first beer (I don't remember my first beer, but I do remember leaving a note on my door when I went to bed after my first beer, which was a six-pack, asking my family to let me sleep through my hangover.)

Most of the other "potmen" were older gentlemen, retirees of some sort or other. They were all wonderful, of course, and so were the waiters, waitresses, barmaids and bartenders, and most of the patrons, and even the Gov'nor and his wife were fine folks. Even the house band was great--I had a great time.

Always listen to your coworkers...

But one day, the oldest potmen of them all and I were talking. He was a great guy, actually my favorite, a shriveled up old guy probably in his 80's, or at least 70's, with half his jaw missing (old war injury?). He had taken me under his wing and taught me how to do the job. You'd think it'd be easy, and I guess it is, but still, the first time you 'solo' you have to know that you need to go from room to room in a pattern, that you should check this trash can, and always ask that bartender if he needs anything since when it's busy he can't go around the corner and get it himself like he usually does. Little things, but it adds up. He must of been doing it for decades.

You have to go from room to room, and you should check to see if the bottles are empty. If they are, then next time around or the time after that, you'll pick them up. No one likes to sit without a beer in front of them, so by picking the bottles up, they are 'forced' to order more beer. Pretty subtle, eh? We were actually supposed to consider this--it was the reason we existed. That, and to scoop up the empties from the folks that have no problem ordering more and have a table full of bottles.

And you thought we were just being nice! Nobody ever hired anybody just to be nice to people!

The barmaids and bartenders would get bottles of beer as tips, and they'd often have an open one so the patrons wouldn't be offended if they acknowledged the tip by simply moving a beer from the cupboard to a box under the counter. At the end of the night, they'd go home with half a case, sometimes more, even as much as two cases of beer each.

As everyone knows, in Britian they drink their beer warm. Actually, that's not entirely true. Some beers should indeed be chilled. One of the bartenders explained this to me one night, adding that you should learn the temperature your customers like their beer at, as well as the brand. But of course, they all end up at room temperature soon enough...

So one day, the old geezer and I were talking. (That's what we all called him, and he knew it too, and didn't care. But we didn't do it to his face. It wasn't meant as an insult, it was just the way it was. He was an old geezer.)

We were talking about some of the patrons that grumble when we pick up the empties. Yes, sometimes they would claim there's still beer in that there bottle. Yet we had passed it half a dozen times and there ain't nothing to sip in there. The old geezer told me that if the guy gets nasty, he just tells 'em to go to another pub.

What happened next?

Well, it was either later that very night, or else the next night, when sure enough, some regular gets all testy with me for picking up his bottles too soon.

"You're always picking up the bottle before it's empty" he says.

"You can just go to another pub."

Big Mistake.

He asks me what I said.

Stumbling, I say something about I'm just doing my job and if you don't like the way I do it there are plenty of other pubs around here and you can go to any of them.

So the drunk stands up, and he's probably a foot taller than me and can't be under 16 or 18 stone, which is 224 pounds minimum to us Americans. The biggest guy in the pub, without question. He stood up and I thought he was going to say something. He didn't.

I had two or three bottles on my tray at the time he slapped me. It was a powerful backhanded slap that hurt like the Dickens. But what are you going to do? (I would have broken the neck off a bottle on a table and made him apologize, said a fellow potman, later.)

I didn't drop the bottles. In fact I didn't do anything. I didn't even stop looking at him. I think this surprised him, because we just stood there for a second before he thought of what he wanted to do next. He then backhand-slapped me even harder on the other cheek. I should have known! Somehow I still didn't drop the bottles, but by this time I decided I should at least leave the room, so I did, and I went up to the bar in the next room and simply said to the first coworker I came across: "There's a guy causing trouble in the front room". While she went to investigate and to tell the management, someone else took one look at me and drew me a half pint of ale.

Nobody's perfect. Some of us aren't even close.

Okay, Okay, go ahead, tell me I was wrong. I was wrong! But more than that, I was incredibly stupid. Later that night, an old couple that were also regulars told me I was wrong. They usually sat in a different room but that night, they were right next to me when the guy whacked me. They said I stood up to him well, but that I should never have said anything in the first place. I have no doubt they were right about that, of course.

The constables came, and the Gov'nor's wife told me to stay in the back room, and she refused to let the constables talk to me, since I was underage (and didn't have a green card.) She told them I was all shaken up.

The patron was told to go to another pub and apparently it took a bit of convincing but he finally left, and I never saw him again.

When I saw my friend the old geezer again I was able to laugh about it. "I took your advice and guess what! It didn't work too good!"

I think his response was something like: "What? Oh, that. Yeah, I heard about it." Then of course, he explained to me how I should be careful about getting certain patrons mad. "I knew he was a rough one, Russ. I always was wary of him. He had that look in his eye."

Everyone else, of course, told me to be more careful about taking any of the old geezers' advice.

What I learned:

That night, a warm beer helped, and a few minutes sitting down got me revived. It was the talk of the pub for days. For years my jaw creaked, reminding me in no uncertain terms that the feelings of the customer always comes first.

I also learned that if you can survive a blow to one cheek, it's not that much harder to survive a blow to the other.

I learned that it's never too late to try to de-escalate a fight.

I learned to like warm beer.

If you enjoyed this story, please check out these others:

(Highlighted entries are currently online. The rest I'm writing as I get time.)

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First placed online September 26th, 1996.
Last modified May 22nd, 1997.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman
Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman