Arts & Entertainment
9 min

CHAPTER 1: “Sorry, we’re open”

Foodsluts at Doll & Penny's Café

Credit: Ken Boesem illustration
The sign in the window read: “Sorry, we’re open.”
I caught my reflection in the glass as I reached to open the door. Even with contact lenses I was still a myopic kid with Coke-bottle glasses. My muffler and gingham overcoat looked exactly as they were: stolen from the Sally Ann, not British New Wave as my friend had promised.
I felt like an imposter. To some degree, I was.
They don’t know you here, a voice reminded me.
It was the same voice that had suggested I drop everything and move to Vancouver sight unseen. It was the voice of a hunch, born from advice delivered as an aside, telling me this was the answer to my prayers. This is why you came here, it said.
In retrospect, I don’t remember if it was momentum or destiny that pulled me through the door of Doll & Penny’s Café, but I do remember that time stood still and the first sound I heard was Petula Clark straining to drown out the orchestra with the lyrics to “Downtown.” The song resuscitated memories of linoleum floors, the smell of Pine-Sol and Sundays in front of the CBC. Outside it was 1988, but here, inside the café, time ceded to a state of perpetual memory, real or imagined.
Next to the “Wait to be seated” sign stood a fake plaster palm tree, a stark contrast to the asthmatic dampness of the late-October air. Halloween was two days away and the café was done up like the Addams Family mansion. Not that it needed decorating. It looked like the inside of a drag queen’s jewellery box — and smelled like a combination of mould and pee. 
A dominatrix crossdresser sipped tea beneath a piano being played by a mannequin with a mermaid tail. A lesbian dressed for safari ate bacon and eggs in a booth that abutted a wall crammed with vintage ads, labels and garage pinup calendars from the ’50s and ’60s. Queens out of drag gossiped like ladies who lunch under a chandelier that looked like it had been rescued from the Titanic.
The only thing understated about the place was the pair of gold Herculean gods that bookended the bar. A broad-shouldered man with a ducktail haircut was examining the bottles of liquor and making notes on a clipboard. His 501s and Buffalo plaid shirt emphasized his brick-shithouse stature.
I pulled my headphones out of my ears. “Excuse me,” I said.
“Sit anywhere you like. A server will be right with you,” he said, his eyes never leaving the clipboard.
“Actually, I’m looking for a job.”
“Oh…” he said, and turned around. That’s when I saw he was wearing bright red lipstick and was actually a very handsome woman.
“Do you have a resumé?” 
I pulled one from my army-surplus courier bag and handed it to her.
“So you’re from Terahnah, huh?”
“This is my second day in Vancouver. I’ve been looking all day.”
“It’s tough out there.”
“Everyone I’ve talked to said I should come back in a week, like that’s how long the average waiter lasts in Vancouver.”
“That’s the gist of it. Ever tended bar?”
“I was a soda jerk at my last job in Toronto. It was ’40s-themed.”
“The 4-D’s Diner?” she said, pointing to it.
“I didn’t mix cocktails or anything, but I poured beer and wine, made shakes, stuff like that.”
“We mostly make Bloody Caesars here, a few blended drinks, nothing rocket-science. Any objections to graveyards?”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.” 
That got her attention.
 “I’m Ivy,” she said. “I’m the assistant general manager here.”
“I’m Tony.”
“You have a great resumé, Tony. We could really use someone like you.” 
My lungs swelled in anticipation of my big break. 
“But we’re not really hiring right now.” 
My chest collapsed, taking my shoulders with it. 
“Keep coming back,” she said. “You never know.” 
“Okay,” I moaned, like a kid who’s been sent to his room.
“Don’t worry,” Ivy offered. “You’re cute. You’ll do fine.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by that, but I took it as a compliment. The drag queens’ eyes burned holes through the back of my gingham coat, banishing me from their presence. I exited the café convinced I would never return unless it was as a customer.
Back on Davie St I fast-forwarded my Sony Walkman to “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” Morrisey’s was the only voice that was familiar to me now.
I continued up the block toward a brownstone castle on the corner of Davie and Jervis. It was as if the building had travelled through time and landed here like Dorothy’s house, it was so out of place among the ’70s-inspired monoliths surrounding it. 
It was the type of building I imagined Holden Caulfield sneaking around in search of his brother’s baseball glove, or where Rosemary would have her baby. I crossed the street for a closer look, feeling like a trespasser as I entered its octagonal courtyard. “The Holly Lodge” was etched into the marble-white archway like a magic rune.
If Vancouver was anything like Toronto, getting an apartment in The Holly Lodge would require the skill and dexterity of a double agent. It would require knowing someone in the building, going on a waiting list, bribes, gifts, key deposits, and then the rent would be so astronomical you’d need a roommate to be able to afford it. 
I was 20 years old with a thousand dollars to my name and a typewritten resumé. The only way I was getting inside The Holly Lodge was if I was invited. I lit a cigarette and dreamed some more of living in this grande old dame before calling it a day and heading home. 
“Home” was Elliot and Megan’s. A manager I worked with at the 4-D’s Diner arranged for me to crash on their hide-a-bed until I got my feet on the ground. 
Elliot and Megan put the British in British Columbia. Elliot’s hair was the colour of a magistrate’s wig, and he had the skin of a Royal Doulton figure. It was Elliot who had introduced me to Vancouver and its floating McDonald’s and its 10-story mural of a mid-drifted bimbo. It was Elliot who introduced me to Doll & Penny’s and warned me not to get my hopes up when I announced I wanted to work there.
Megan was stout like a kettle and spoke with a thick English accent I found difficult not to mimic. She drank wine from a box, smoked Craven A menthols and was swept up in the romanticism of my starting fresh in Vancouver.
“Reminds me of when Elliot and I were starting out,” she said dreamily.
The Province was waiting for me on the kitchen table next to a handful of menthol cigarettes. Beside them was a note from Megan. “There’s some coffee left in the pot if you want to warm it up in the microwave. I’ve circled some ads in the classifieds you might find interesting.”
My own mother didn’t write notes like that — mostly because she couldn’t write in English, but if she could I doubt she would. 
I warmed up a cup of coffee, lit one of the menthols and cracked open the paper. The first ad to catch my eye was a listing for a one-bedroom apartment on Jervis at Davie for $384 a month. 
Now why did Jervis and Davie ring a bell?
It couldn’t be… not for $384 a month. I ran over to the wall-mounted rotary phone and called to make an appointment. 
“Please be The Holly Lodge! Please be The Holly Lodge,” I chanted as I neared the corner of Davie and Jervis. I stopped in front of 1210 and double-checked it against the address I had written down. It was indeed The Holly Lodge. There was a brief moment where I was convinced I had magic powers and had willed this to happen.
Hufriz, the landlady, was showing the apartment to a straight couple when I got there. The woman was inspecting the corners and running her hands against the floral-embossed beige wallpaper. She was not impressed.
“Do the blinds come with the apartment?” she asked no one in particular.  
I was shamelessly racing back and forth across the apartment like an over-stimulated child, yelling, “Is this really $384 a month? This can’t be $384 a month!”
It was the kind of apartment that renters’ dreams are made of: 600 square feet, a bay window in the living room, and the kitchen was right out of The Honeymooners. The bedroom window led out to a silver fire escape where I could picture myself strumming a guitar and singing “Moon River.”
“I’ll take it!” I said, like it was first dibs.
“You need to fill out an application,” Hufriz said, handing me the form and a Bic pen.
The application reminded me of many a high school exam.
Present employer: blank.
Annual income: blank.
The only information I could provide was a reference, Elliot and Megan, and they barely knew me from Adam.
“I just moved here,” I explained to Hufriz. “I don’t have a job yet, but I have enough in the bank to pay a couple of months’ rent.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “We all have to start somewhere.”
Somehow, I didn’t think she meant here.
My hand was cramping from filling out the same Grand & Toy application form over and over again. My last stop of the day was at a small café called Concept 2 tucked into the side of a building on Nelson St. The proprietor was sitting alone at a table smoking a Gitanes. Her caftan and Egyptian eyeliner made her look less like a restaurateur and more like a tarot reader. 
“How can I help you?” she said, her voice saturated in noir.
“I’m here about the job in the window.”
“Do you have a resumé?”
“Yes,” I said, handing her the last one in my bag.
“You’re from Toronto,” she said. It was the first time I’d heard anyone in Vancouver pronounce “Toronto” with all the consonants. “You don’t look like you’re from around here.”
“I don’t?”
“No. There’s something very… cosmopolitan about you.”
“It’s probably because I’m not wearing acid-wash jeans and white high-tops.”
“We’ve just opened,” she said. “We’re only hiring part-time lunches at the moment.”
“That’s fine.”
“Can you start the day after tomorrow at 10am?”
“We’ll see you then.”
“Thank you!” I said and ran out before she had a chance to change her mind.
I bounded through the front door of Elliot and Megan’s house, nearly running face first into Megan who was rushing from the kitchen to greet me.
“I got a job! I got a job!” I said, doing a happy dance. 
“You did? Well now you have two!” Megan said breathlessly. “Doll & Penny’s called,” she said, fanning herself. “They have a part-time job for you!”  
“Get out of town!” I was lightheaded. This wasn’t my typical sort of luck. 
Megan lit a cigarette and handed it to me to calm down. “And…” she started to say.  
“And… the apartment in The Holly Lodge is yours if you want it.”
“Holy shit!” I shouted. “Pardon my language.”
“No need, I said the same thing myself,” Megan laughed. “I couldn’t believe it -— it was one call right after the other.”
I moved into The Holly Lodge the next day with my one suitcase, a mattress and bedspring, some melamine plates, a kettle, an old tea set and my copy of The Brothers Karamazov. 
Elliot and Megan brought a bottle of champagne and we toasted my good fortune with the not-so-fine china.  
“This doesn’t seem real,” I said. “I didn’t have a job or references and she gave me the apartment.”
“I asked her about that,” Megan said. “She said she had a good feeling about you. We all do.”
“I can’t thank you two enough.” 
“Stop it,” Elliot said. “We were your age once.”
“Just remember to do it for someone else,” Megan said. “Pass on the good luck.”
Elliot and Megan left, and I spent the rest of the night sitting on my suitcase chain-smoking and getting drunk in the dark. I stared out my bay window past the SuperValu, beyond the marquee lights of Doll & Penny’s and the Ming Court Hotel, into a future that was unravelling like a red carpet before my very eyes.
The suitcase collapsed from under my ass, sending me to the floor in an avalanche. I felt like a kid making a fort out of a refrigerator box, lying there in the dark, staring up at the ceiling.
It was the most time and space I have ever had to myself before or since.