Arts & Entertainment
10 min

CHAPTER 10: The Mermaid Café

Foodsluts at Doll & Penny's Café

Credit: Ken Boesem illustration

Andrew was by the door, hiding behind a pair of women’s sunglasses, when I arrived at the café. The windows were still covered with issues of The Province concealing the renovation. “I’m convinced the dry cleaner’s across the street is a cover for the mob,” Andrew said, knocking on the door again. “I never see anyone in there.”

Donna poked her head out the door as if she were wearing only a towel behind it. “Quick — get inside!” she said, shooing us in.

Andrew and I were the last to arrive for computer and cappuccino training. We shielded our eyes from the angelic light pouring in through the new skylight. “Go into the light, Carol Anne,” Yolanda’s blurry silhouette cried out to us.

The rest of the staff roamed cautiously up and down the café looking for alterations like Easter eggs. “A skylight?” Elsa said. “That’s it?”

“Did you notice the glass rack above the bar?” Levi, Papa Ed’s handyman son, asked.

“I like that,” Spike said.

“But can you reach it?” Blair asked. Levi and Donna’s faces were awash with concern. This measurement had obviously not been figured into the rack’s design.

“Of course he can,” Donna said. “But let’s make sure while we’re still closed and the construction crew is here.” There was a moment of silence as Spike went behind the bar and reached for a rocks glass overhead. We gasped when the arc of his fingers missed the lip.

“Shit!” Levi said.

“Just kidding,” Spike said, and pulled the glass down using the full reach of his arm.

Aside from the giant espresso machine behind the bar, the differences between “before” and “after” were subtle. The café had to be wired for the new computer. The black and white silk-screen painting of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford was now behind the bar. The booths had been reupholstered.

“You must admit, the changes are tasteful,” I said to Scooter.

“The point of D&P’s is it isn’t.”

We spent the next three hours learning how to order food on Remanco and make espresso drinks. I had been taught the mark of a good cappuccino was the firmness of the milk. Things had changed since then.

What was a café au lait was now a latte and espresso had to be layered in a glass mug like a parfait. “I like to plug up the espresso hole with a dollop of frothed milk,” Donna demonstrated. “Because it reminds me of a rabbit’s asshole.”

Chakra was the first to give steaming milk a try. She modelled the stainless steel pitcher like it was a prize on a game show then lowered the nozzle into the mouth of the pitcher and turned it on. Instead of paying attention to what the nozzle was doing, Chakra paid attention to us paying attention to her, and sprayed herself in the face with warm milk. We had not laughed so hard collectively since Daphne’s rendition of “Snow Bird” at the Christmas party.

Training was over when everyone could prove to Donna that we could open and close a bill on the computer and make a latte on the espresso machine. Once we had passed this little test, we were rewarded with a refreshing alcoholic beverage of our choosing. By the time Chakra graduated, the training session had turned into a full-fledged staff party.

Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap!

There was a silhouette in the newsprint covering the front window.

Tap! Tap! Tap! Tap!

Levi crawled over a booth and peeled the sports section of The Province off the glass to see Bill Monroe’s face pressed against it. Bill shaded his eyes trying to get a better look inside the café.

“A skylight?” he shouted through the glass. “Big fucking deal!” And walked away. We weren’t even open and the regulars already hated it.

***

Yolanda took to the new computer the way the regulars took to the new menu: with bitterness and resentment. The graveyard was most affected by the menu. The prices were simply too high and the options too narrow for a clientele that was either on welfare, drunk or both.

“Three dollars for guacamole!”

“What do you mean you don’t have gravy?”

“Where did the magnum burger go?”

Some people left when they saw the menu and the new prices; those who stayed did so begrudgingly. Lattes quickly replaced milkshakes as a means of meeting the three-dollar minimum. Even the tackiest drag queen on Davie was now a coffee connoisseur, dazzling us with terms like dopio and grande. Bitches all.

“I reek of spoiled milk,” Dan said as he steamed another pitcher.

“Try having a menu thrown at you! Let me do that, I’m faster,” I said, taking over for him. Dan returned his attention to the bar, where drink orders were piling up.

“What did you think of my revisions to the script?” Elsa asked me as she dumped some dirty dishes into a bus pan.

“I don’t like the use of the word digress. It sounds like Sophia from The Golden Girls. I don’t want people thinking I copied that.”

“It’s digress! That word has been around longer than The Golden Girls.”

“The kitchen wants to talk to you,” Andrew said. “And Table 34 is screaming for the bill.”

“Now I know how a mother of two feels,” I said, heading back into the fray.

I returned from the kitchen to see Dan standing with Chakra at the computer terminal as her section banged their empty coffee mugs for refills like an angry cellblock. Though Chakra had mastered the opening and closing of a single cheque, she had yet to master several at once. To disguise her ignorance, when someone asked her for a bill she created a new one from scratch, printed it for the customer, then ran back to the kitchen and told them not make it — on the assumption Dan would fix it later.

And then there was a clap of thunder.

PLOP! PLOP! PLOP! went the raindrops on the new skylight — then through the skylight, drowning Angostura bitters and Ms Fitz’s wigs.

“I feel like I’m in The Poseidon Adventure,” Andrew said, passing me on his way to kitchen.

Gravy would be the first item to make its way back on the menu, followed by the magnum burger. The kitchen went back to using prepared guacamole, cutting its price in half. Within a couple of weeks, the menu had pretty much gone back to what it was and Chef Raul was in search of another job.

“John Q Public knows what it likes,” Elsa said, a cigarette dangling from her mouth as she inserted the new-old menu into the plastic slots. “And John Q Public has spoken loud and clear.”

Now if we could only get back the regulars we had pissed off.
 

***

Kitty-corner to Doll & Penny’s was the competition, Hamburger Mary’s. Mary’s was to D&P’s what Canada is to the United States: much maligned and underrated. Despite being in business longer and having better food, Mary’s seemed destined to play homely younger sister to Doll & Penny’s voluptuous cheerleader. 

Mary’s was a ’50s diner as seen through ’80s-tinted lenses. Pink neon portraits of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe illuminated the walls and the jukebox played nothing but disco. As far as the staff and regulars at Doll & Penny’s were concerned, Hamburger Mary’s was where people went after they had been banned or fired from D&P’s. We kept an eye on them just the same, like soldiers in a foxhole spying on their enemy through binoculars.

Mary’s experienced a bump in business thanks to the renovation and the café’s adjustment to the not-so-latest technology. Frustrated with the slow service or not able to afford the new prices, regulars defected to Mary’s in a huff like a disgruntled bride going to live with her mother. They didn’t let us forget it either.

Elsa and I were buying cigarettes at Shoppers Drug Mart when Tippy Ladders tapped me on the shoulder. “So how are things at D&P’s?” he lisped. “I wouldn’t know; I’ve been eating at Mary’s.”

“Things are good,” Elsa said. “We’re actually on our way to rehearse a play for a show there in May.”

That pricked up his ears.

“A show? You don’t say. And where’s this happening?”

“You haven’t heard? D&P’s is doing a month-long fundraiser every Wednesday in May. I thought for sure Donna would have asked you to perform. But if you haven’t been hanging around the café I can see how you would have been overlooked. Hell, Tony and I are doing something for it, right?”

“Will there be drag queens?” Tippy asked.

“Does Joan Collins wear shoulder pads?”

Tippy nearly knocked us over trying to get himself on the list of performers for the Month of Wednesdays. “Queens are so easily humbled,” Elsa said, cracking the plastic on a fresh pack of 100s.

“That had to be like the fifth time that’s happened to me,” I said. “The second time by her. I’m starting to take it personally.”

“Screw her. You’ve got something she’ll never have.”

“What?”

“A spot in that show.”

It was strange how the staff put its faith in Donna’s prediction that the Month of Wednesdays fundraiser would bring back business. After you’ve worked in a few restaurants you learn that executive decisions are often made under the influence and labour laws aren’t always adhered to. Donna wasn’t like that. She was that rare breed of restaurant manager who treated her staff like human beings. Ultimately, it was not Doll & Penny’s we were loyal to, but Donna.

“Elsa! No!” Blair said, blocking our path to the waiters’ station. “You can’t take another coffee pot for your stupid play.”

“I don’t need a coffee pot. I need a bus pan.”

“This isn’t the props department of MGM, Elsa!” Yolanda said, backing up Blair.

“We’ll bring it back!”

“What now, you guys?” Donna shouted from the crow’s nest.

“Blair and Yolanda won’t let us have a bus pan to rehearse our play,” Elsa shouted.

“Let them have it, guys,” Donna said. “They go on in a week.”

“Fine,” Yolanda said. “Let Andy and Judy have their stupid bus pan then.”

The owner of Aquariums West, the pet store across the street, entered the café, holding the door open for a pair of bushy-haired guys wearing Nirvana T-shirts carrying a fish tank the size of a child’s coffin.

“All right, where do you want it?” he asked us. We didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

“The fish tank is here!” Donna said, and ran down the stairs from the crow’s nest.

“We already have a fish tank,” Spike said.

“It’s for the silent auction,” Donna said. It was the first time any of us had ever heard of such a construct as a silent auction, adding to Donna’s worldliness. She moved a stack of water glasses off the bar to make way for the aquarium. “You can put it right here.”

“On the bar?” Spike said, holding his heart.

“It’s only for a month, Spike.”

Elsa and I ate lunch and watched the aquarium be assembled. Maybe it was the Bloody Caesars, but we were mesmerized by the tropical fish squiggling through the water like ticker tape. At the centre of the tank was a big black fish the size of softball. It hung in the water like a mine, its slightest movement creating a ripple effect throughout the tank.

“Now watch this,” the owner of Aquariums West said.

Staff and customers gathered round the aquarium as he poured a goldfish into the tank from a plastic bag. The unsuspecting fish didn’t even have time to adjust to the water before the big black fish bared its teeth and swallowed it whole.

“We’ll call that one Francis,” Donna said, nudging me in the ribs with her elbow.

***

Scooter’s condition was deteriorating. He had cut his schedule to two days a week after the renovation. Donna distributed his shifts evenly between Elsa, Andrew and myself; Chakra was being trained to become a graveyard manager and Elvis was nocturnal by nature.

Our new schedules and a one-act play in production spoiled Elsa and I. We were down to two graveyards shifts on the weekends and back to a normal sleeping schedule during the week. When we weren’t waiting tables, Elsa and I were hanging out smoking and drinking, working on the play or bitching about work. It was the life.

The ads for the Month of Wednesdays boasted “well-known entertainment personalities… the comedy of Theatresports and surprise celebrity guests.” As well as the monster fish tank, which was becoming a neighbourhood attraction at feeding time, there were door prizes and silent auctions for gift certificates at nicer restaurants than Doll & Penny’s, as well as a grand prize of a holiday for two.

“In addition, a percentage of each day’s revenue at Doll & Penny’s Restaurant during the entire month of May will be donated to PWA” the ad read.

On May 3, 1989, the Month of Wednesdays opened to a modest audience with Bill Monroe’s rendition of “New York, New York.” Midway through the show a crowd had gathered outside the front window to watch the performances, luring some inside while others participated from the street. It was one of those magical moments on Davie St when the lines between gay and straight are blurred and the neighbourhood becomes one. By the time Bill signed off for the evening, half the restaurant had been reserved for the next week’s show.

Foodsluts at The Mermaid Café debuted the following week. We were on after Gary, the resident sound guy and composer of the Gay Games theme. I stood with Elsa in the back by the green metal door waiting for him to finish singing. “God, I hate this song,” Elsa said.

“Shhh!” I said, pointing to the clip mic on her shirt.

“Fuck! Did they hear me?” she mouthed.

“I don’t think so,” I mouthed back. The song ended to polite applause. “You’re on. Break a leg.”

I went behind the bar where Dan was working. He put his arm around my shoulder and squeezed it. “You’re shaking,” he said.

“I know.”

Elsa delivered the lines exactly the way I heard them in my head when I wrote it. I had seen her perform the show nearly 20 times since then, but watching her on that tiny stage, it felt like someone else had written it. She got a standing ovation. I couldn’t have been prouder.

“That applause is as much for you as it is for her,” Dan said. “Remember that.”

After the show Elsa and I were engulfed in a crowd of well-wishers. “Didn’t think you had it in you,” said Yolanda.

“You should write jokes for me,” Myria Le Noir said.

Elsa nearly dislocated my shoulder yanking me to her side.

“Back off, bitch! He’s mine!”

The Month of Wednesdays fundraiser kept building on its success to the point where people would come in during the rest of the week expecting a show. On closing night Donna announced that the benefit had raised a thousand dollars for the BC People with AIDS Coalition. To hear the crowd cheer, you would have thought it was a million.

We went to the Odyssey to celebrate. As the evening wound down I went to the bathroom wearing Bill Monroe’s wig and ended up peeing next to Scooter. He was the only one of us who had not been drinking that night, and though he was his chipper self, he was not swinging from the mirror ball as Dan had attempted to do earlier.

“You did a great job with that script,” he said.

“Thanks.”

“No,” he said. “Thank you.”

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know it wasn’t the play he was talking about but the money we raised. It was the closest any staff member of Doll & Penny’s Café would ever come to admitting they had AIDS.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

Then the Mary Tyler Moore theme came on and it was time for us all to go home.