This is an unusually long working week with long working hours for me, and it’s beginning to take its toll. To try and keep a sense of perspective, I find myself thinking back to a time when I held a job that provided me with more character-building experience than I’d ever had up until then.
As I’ve often mentioned, I spent a huge chunk of my childhood growing up in the Middle East. We moved to Palestine, my father’s homeland, for the last two years of my high school education. As I’ve stated before, things got a bit… tense.
We stuck it out until my sister and I were out of school and then fled back to England. When we got here, we were homeless. My mother, my sister and I spent a couple of nights sleeping on a family friend’s floor before we were re-located to a hostel for the homeless by the local council. My father was still in Palestine, as he hadn’t wanted to leave while he still had a job that paid him.
The hostel used to be an actual hotel – the building was beautiful, if a little run down, and was old enough to have been a listed site. There was a pool in the basement, and a gym. The entire basement floor was locked off, of course, as it had fallen into disrepair over the years.
We were lucky enough to only have been there a few weeks before being offered a house, which we snapped up despite the roughness of the neighbourhood. The hostel’s residents were a mix of down-on-their-luck folks, asylum seekers, people fleeing unsafe domestic circumstances – and also junkies, juvenile delinquents and career criminals. All of us could have been generously termed ‘unfortunates’.
Barely a year later, I happened to meet a lovely young lady named Lynda, who by a massive coincidence was the daughter of the hostel’s manager. Oh we did laugh when first we found out. What a small world, etc etc. Realistically, I know it’s because Loughborough’s not exactly a sprawling urban metropolis; this sort of thing was bound to happen, really. We became close friends, and though I don’t see her often I still count her among my closest of friends. I was grateful when, as I approached the end of my patience with the drudgery of my first job (office slave in a car dealership), Lynda and her mother offered me a job as receptionist at the very hostel I’d lived in. I cockily burnt my bridges at the dealership and walked headlong into what I can only call the best worst job I have ever had.
I was a meek, quiet little thing, wouldn’t say boo to a goose. Geese are scary.
My duties were simple. Answer the telephone. Open the door when someone buzzes to be let in. Track the keys. Log incidents in the logbook. Cook breakfasts at the weekend. Mop up vomit and blood. Check people in.
Wait, what was that one just before checking people in?
Yes, bodily fluids made a regular appearance on my shifts. The job that I had expected to be, if not easy, at least manageable and less stressful than an office job? Not so much, especially when I started taking on night security shifts as well.
On a good day, it was so quiet that I could play on my laptop, write, watch 3 films in a row, barely be interrupted. It was peaceful bliss, interrupted by the occasional phone call, the occasional resident’s demand, the occasional hiccup. On a bad day, it was hell. I’ve learnt to never ever use the word ‘quiet’ at work. If one of us remarked how quiet it was, there would be a fight. A vomiting session. An overdose. All sorts of trouble. Even now, I flinch visibly if anyone at work uses what I call ‘the q word’.
The actual meat of the job itself was pretty ok. For the regular shifts, I’d start in the afternoon. For 2 hours or so, I’d have the full backing of Management staff behind me, so if anything happened, I was covered. After that, I was on my own. Just me and a hostel full of people I was responsible for. These people, as I’ve mentioned, were a healthy mix of ne’er do wells and poor unfortunate souls. They didn’t always mix well. There were plenty of teen tearaways, throwing their weight around and trying to establish themselves as big fish in the hostel’s little pond. Occasionally a shark would pop up and wreak havoc. And then there would be blood in the water.
I became a diplomat and a disciplinarian. I was the velvet glove and the iron fist. I was much more comfortable being the velvet glove – I’ve never liked imposing my will and generally wielding authority. But occasionally it needed to be done. I’d always try to appeal to reason first. I once had to stop a drunk man from beating another resident’s door down with a fire extinguisher by explaining why it was a terrible idea. I tried to stop a distraught asylum seeker from severely hurting himself with a knife he was waving around (until the police barged in spraying CS liquid all over the place and bumrushing him). I’ve stood in between fistfights, changed minds and maybe even saved lives.
It didn’t always work, of course, and that’s when I had to get authoritative. There were procedures that had to be followed for the safety of all, and strict rules on drug and alcohol use. I was a detective. On some occasions I was judge, jury and executioner – I’ve had to evict people, bar them from the premises, contact the police to have them escorted away. I’m not proud. I often was at the time, but I’m not proud now. I was a bully. It doesn’t matter that the people I was dumping on were junkies and thieves and generally nasty sorts. I would treat everyone with courtesy until they showed me they weren’t ‘deserving’ of it, and then that was it. I was as nasty as them at times.
I’m glad I left when I did. I was there for 3 years, and I was starting to become someone that I really wasn’t comfortable with. One of the residents spotted me in the street. He called my name, I ignored him. He whistled to get my attention, a thing I hate enough without it coming from someone whose company I felt I had to suffer through. I saw red, got up in his face, screaming at him to never whistle for me like a dog. I’m ashamed when I think of it now. He was a scumbag, a thoroughly reprehensible kid, but does that justify my behaviour? No.
I left to belatedly go to University, one of the best decisions of my life. I was watching Clerks on one of the q-word days and Dante happened to mention he was 22 and in a dead-end job and how he wasn’t even supposed to be there that day. I was 22. I was in a dead-end job. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I had learned enough, grown enough, changed enough. It was time to move on.
I took away a host of stories from that place. I remember a drunk pissing on the gates of the farm next door, much to the farmer’s dismay. I remember a family who would send their little kids out thieving at the nearby dump. I remember a young single mother whose son had shoes on that were 3 sizes too small and whose daughter’s nappy had felted itself to her skin. I remember the asylum seekers, Kurdish and Iranian and Somali and Afghani and even Albanian, learning English and joking around. I remember the hilarious attempts at cooking. I remember the housekeeping staff especially fondly, and late night talks with security guards Barbara and Ron. I remember 3am patrols with my close friend and fellow security monkey Lizzy making The Grudge noises through the walkie-talkie (thanks, Lizzy). I remember a resident giving my first ever fried eggs ‘nil points’. When I pressed for details, he elaborated with ‘Well, I ate them.”
I remember two particular incidents, which I’ll relate briefly here. I call them The Race Riot and The Stabbening.
The Race Riot :
I started work at 3pm. I remember was a hot day, and there was a lot of tension in the air. The asylum seekers and the English lads didn’t always get on, and there was something especially off about today. I was watching closely, because I felt something was going to happen.
It didn’t. There was a brief argument, but I nipped that in the bud. 8pm came, the end of my shift, and off I went. As I walked down the road, one of the asylum seekers ran past me at full pelt. He was pursued by what felt like a horde of the English lads. There were only about 6 or 7 of them, but it felt like a stampede. I could tell what was about to happen, and I tried to block a couple but they got around me, of course. I have to admit, I didn’t try very hard.
What I did do was turn on my heel and march back to the hotel, dialling 999 on the way. 999 and all the 2’s, numbers I became very familiar with over those three years. I spoke to the operator, explaining what had happened. I got back to the hostel and was lapped by a few of the lads, who told me he ‘had it coming.’ I berated them for being so stupid and violent. They shrugged.
The police came, and there was pandemonium. The other asylum seekers were roused, seeking vengeance. The English lads went to ground, hiding in each others rooms. I kept the peace in the reception area while the officers turfed them out. If I remember correctly, all who were involved were carted away in handcuffs, including two of the asylum seekers who got a bit rambunctious with the police. I had to give a statement and didn’t leave the hotel until 3am. I got paid for a 12 hour shift that day. The next day? Business as usual.
My actual shift was unremarkable. I don’t remember it at all, not a minute of it. Lizzy and Ron, that night’s security, came to relieve me. I stayed because I wanted to watch Bog Bodies, a documentary that my friends had some acting involvement in. I was really looking forward to it.
The phone rang. Lizzy answered it.
“Reception. Yeah? Oh. How bad is it? Hmm. Come down and let me look.”
She explained that there’d been an accident and one of the residents had cut themselves on a glass. She’d asked him to come down so she could see and give him a plaster.
This proved to be a tactical error. The man came down leaving a gushing river of blood down the stairs and across the reception. This was no minor glass cut, this was deep and nasty. An ambulance was called.
The ambulance got there and it was determined that the man had actually suffered the cut to his hand when his partner attacked him with a knife and he put his hand up to defend himself. The partner was evicted.
Ron mopped up the blood in the reception while Lizzy and I went upstairs to assess the damage. It was carnage. The carpet was sodden with blood, and it squelched underfoot. I promise you I am not exaggerating. It was like a scene from The Shining. As we surveyed the room, trying not to be sick, we came to a deeply unpleasant realisation.
It was Friday. Housekeeping would not be back until Monday.
We spent at least an hour trying to get as much blood up as we could out of the carpet and off the walls. We barely put a dent in it. We came down, exhausted and looking like refugees from a Tarantino film, to find that Bog Bodies had been and gone. Ron, having had to man reception while we were cleaning, said that it was very good.
You may have read all this and be thinking ‘why on Earth do you miss the job? Why is it the best worst job? What are you smoking?’
Easy. Like I said, it’s character-building. I’d never have been ready for Uni, never have been ready to strike out on my own, if I hadn’t been thrust into the deep end like this. It’s one of many many things that have made me who I am. I don’t regret it for a moment, though I’m not proud of some of my behaviour back then. Would I go back? No, and not just because it’s a car park now. I was young and invincible then, and I’m just not the same.
So thank you, Mary, for giving me a chance. Thank you Lynda and Lizzy for keeping me (in)sane while I was there. And thank you to all the staff who helped me and made me smile.
It was a hell of a ride. A hell of a ride.