Miscellaneous - The Open Door
By elsie katz
Corals Head Office in their glitzy new setting in Stratford's Westside Shopping Centre had now cut my hours cleaning my local betting shop from five down to three. Needing to keep busier, in January this year I updated my voluntary work portfolio by returning to the Open Door Community Cafe and offering my help as a kitchen assistant. David the chef was keen to take me on. We chatted briefly about balancing the creative need to vary the menu with the practicalities of what the regular customers in our budget cafe and drop-in centre would eat. Curry?' Yes', said Davy, once they tried it they found it was good.
Although I am not a Christian, the Open Door which gets a small amount of money from Exmouth Council for Churches is mainly staffed, at paid worker level by devout churchgoers and I respect that. It does the 'Christian thing' in a good way. I particularly respect the fact that we open on December 25th and provide, after our optional Carol Service a full Christmas meal and a couple of small gifts to all our customers. I feel that for the Centre and all involved in its running to open its doors on the day itself shows true committment. The volunteers get fed too on the day and there are always more volunteers than customers. I have played both roles at different times; sometimes one of the helpers sometimes one of the helped.
The cafe is open three days a week from 9.30 to 2.45 pm providing budget food, and a place with comfy seats where we can all hang out and chat for as long as we like during its opening hours. Also people who need to be 'signposted' to other places for example the Housing Benefit and Citizens Advice places in the town can be although I am sure that most of us know how to find the way there ourselves.
The coffee machine does the fancy stuff at a cheap price and this is one of my reasons for being a regular customer.
One stumbling block to my voluntary employability remained; my incurable truthfulness.
'I'd best tell you. What with it being a hard winter, I have a few chilblains on my hands.'
Surely this was OK. Davy was starting me on dishwashing. I would not be touching the food. Wrong! After seeing the raw patches he explained that our customers might find fault. He couldn't risk it. I could see where he was coming from. We have a lot of diners who are from the bottom of the pile. Because life has given them a kicking they could be hard to please. Any sign that things might be not right, there behind the kitchen door...
I was to show him my hands when my skin had cleared, then he would start me as requested on Mondays. By the end of March,( those damn chilblains lingered forever!), I was ready to rock. I now had part-time paid work as a shop assistant at the Exmouth Model Railway Gift Shop along the seafront. A nice little job and with alright bosses Derek and his missus Sally. Seasonal of course, it would not pay to keep the business open in the winter and, I told you this earlier, I like to keep busy so I started on Monday as pre-arranged.
I found Davy far harder to please than the customers, many of whom I had known for years, both as a volunteer and as a customer. A short, trim, brisk grey haired man with a small gold cross around his neck who moved as if he had a red-hot poker shoved up his backside. Everything had to be organised in the same place every time - well I could understand that at least. His 'pet hates'; nibbling the leftovers, my putting warm plates on top of cold (this too could see the sense of of). When I started, I had Stewie, the Wednesday washer upper showing me what to do till I got 'on top of it'. When the lad upended a full pail of water at the end of the shift and we were all running round like billy-o I made my excuses for the moment and said I would be back at the same time next week. Davy muttered darkly about 'seeing the shift through till the end.'
'What rubbish!' Not only was this voluntary work and in the last three weeks he had not given me a word of thanks but to have three workers rushing around mopping and mowing on a slippery surface is a greater health and safety hazard than two.
I kept my feelings to myself. I am surprisingly good at this. I came back next Monday with elaborate explanations about my boots lacking grip on wet floors and me now wearing trainers which were more non-slip. Got down to same old.
Why come back at all? Well, I wanted to learn something about working in a well-organised kitchen and Davy runs a tight ship in a way I can learn from because everything is always the same and he explains his rules and reasons clearly. Also I like 'difficult' people. Let's get real here 'it takes one to know one.' Davy hates people standing watching him when he is working and I have the same 'quirk'. He also has sudden bursts of kindness when not under pressure. A man like me.
Acceptance came bit by bit, probably simply because I stuck the job and his ways of doing it. This Monday I told him that after work I was boarding the train to Bristol and stopping over in the YHA. He was interested. What was I up to?
'Poetry?, You always surprise me, Elsie. I don't mean that in a disrespectful way, don't get me wrong. And back in the eighties you went on between punk bands?'
Davy then shared some of his life with me. His change of career from dispatch manager of a big firm in Southampton to cheffing. He had worked his way up from the shop floor and become restless. His new colleagues were a less good bunch than the old crowd and he had completed his learning curve. So he enrolled at college when forty to learn catering as cookery had long been a personal pleasure. He is hard-working and meticulously clean and tidy so work soon followed. His reason for shifting to Exmouth, for moving form a big place to a small place over 100 miles away; 'I needed to get away.' I know better than to probe his privacy.
Give and take. To give - time and patience. To take - criticism and an awareness that our ways of life outside the workplace may diverge and that is fine.
Davy gave me a big box of freshly cooked chicken and vegetables to feed me on my poetry reading trip to the open mic at Bristol's wonderful Halo Bar.
It pays to keep an 'Open Door.'
After 14 months of Monday afternoons, I have finally hung up my kitchen apron. My working life is now far busier than when I started helping. Dave left this week and I decided to go too.