There was a shelf above the counting desk in the crow’s nest filled with photo albums chronicling the history of the café in Kodachrome. Inside were pictures of Yolanda, Blair, Spike, Scooter and Del Rita Deluxe just out of high school, draped suggestively over tables and chairs, hiking the hems of their skirts, their hairy thighs poking through torn fishnets.
It was hard to believe the albums were from the same decade. They reminded me of black-and-white photos from old high school yearbooks: men gathered like basketball and football teams, posing for posterity, to be pondered by future generations.
Most striking were the photos of Scooter. In his prime he was sculpted and chiselled; his T-shirts hung from his nipples like clothespins. Had this man tried to kiss me after our breakfast at the Elbow Room there would be no refusing, virus or not.
Scooter’s retirement from the café was announced unceremoniously with a note from Donna in the manager’s book. I had gone from graveyards to dinners in fewer than eight months, and now I was “senior staff.”
“How would you like to go to the Coronation Ball?” Donna asked Elsa and me. “I’ve convinced Papa Ed to write it off as an expense.”
We shrugged our shoulders and said okay. The catch was we would be going as the Royal Family. “I’ll be Diana — because I’m tall. Bill Monroe will be the Queen, Blair will be Prince Philip, Dan will be Charles, and Dex will be Prince Andrew.”
“Can I be Fergie?” Elsa asked. “I’ve got her hips.”
“What am I going to be?” I asked. “A corgi?”
“You’ll be Edward,” Donna said. “You’re going to push Chakra dressed as Queen Victoria in a wheelchair.”
“You have this all figured out, don’t you?”
“What about Andrew?” Elsa asked.
“He’s busy beading dresses, but he’s going to provide us with royal attire.”
“I used to think the Coronation Ball was pretty faggy,” I said to Elsa. “But I’m actually excited about this.”
“It gets better,” said Donna. “We’re making our entrance on roller skates, just like the waitress in the window!”
“I haven’t been on roller skates since Xanadu,” said Elsa.
In 1989 the Coronation Ball was still held at the Commodore Ballroom and was mostly a parade of courts past and present, Canadian and American. There was the occasional number; otherwise, all there was to do was drink. After a few cocktails and a hit off a joint, the deco frescos melted into tapestries of a turreted castle, the house music a baroque minuet. It was the world through opera glasses.
“We’re up,” Bill Monroe said.
“Where’s Chakra?” Donna seethed, blowing her Princess Diana hair out of her eyes.
“Chello!” Chakra yelled, coming through the crowd. She was still wearing the sequined white gown from her number, her tiara threatening the chandeliers.
“Where’s your costume?” Donna said through gritted teeth.
“It made me look fat.”
“It was supposed to! How will they know you’re Queen Victoria if you’re dressed like Imelda Marcos?”
“Donna,” said Dan, “I’ll be surprised if anyone knows you’re Diana.”
“And representing Doll & Penny’s,” Myria LeNoir yelled into the microphone, “the Royal Family: Elizabeth, Philip, Di, Charles, Fergie, Andrew, Edward and Queen Victoriaaaah!”
“Why can’t we have anything nice?” Donna said.
Bill and Blair rolled gracefully into the spotlight, waving rigidly to the crowd. Chakra plopped herself in the wheelchair, nearly knocking out my contact lens with her tiara. I pushed the chair, but I couldn’t get a purchase on the maple dancefloor with my roller skates, which held up the rest of our procession. Liz and Philip were halfway across when they realized no one was following them.
“Everyone,” Donna said. “Panic!”
It took three of us to get the wheelchair going. Bill continued his wave, glaring, like he wanted to slug us with his purse. We drifted toward the outgoing Empress Venus DiMylar like a curling pin, a cluster-fuck of hair, sashes, tiaras, rhinestones and medals, then collapsed on the stage in a dog pile of exhaustion.
“Who’s up for some dancing?” Elsa panted, already getting her second wind.
I could feel the white disks of the mirror ball against my closed eyes. I danced from person to person: empresses and emperors, dukes and duchesses, and knights in shining armour, the springboard dancefloor carrying me along on a cloud. “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul came on, so I grabbed a beer from the nearest bar and went in search of my party. I found Dex with his head on a table.
“I shouldn’t mix pot with tequila,” he said.
“Where is everyone?”
“Donna and Elsa are in the bathroom and Dan is over there.” He pointed behind me with a limp wrist. Dan was talking with a guy dressed like Mozart. I waved but he didn’t see me. I was about to join them just as Dan pulled Mozart in by the neck and started kissing him full on the lips. I wanted to cause a scene, but I was dressed like a prince.
“I miss Scooter,” Dex said.
“So do I.”
“No. I miss the old Scooter: the bus boy I used to go to clubs and tubs with.” Tears rolled down Dex’s face. “I should have done more to help him.”
“He wouldn’t have accepted it. I think he just wanted to bow out gracefully.”
“Yeah.” Dex’s head hit the table with a thud. “Ouch.”
“Can I go back to your place tonight?”
“Of course. Let’s get you out of here. There’s nothing worse than a blubbering royal.”
“Do you mind if we walk?”
Walking past the Roxy on Granville St with your arm around another guy is not recommended on a good day, but dressed as a member of the Royal Family somehow made it okay. The only tense moment was when a cop stopped us to ask how drunk Dex was.
“Our friend died,” I lied, playing the AIDS card. “He’s very upset.”
“As long you’re going straight home.”
“Where else would I be going dressed like this?”
I propped Dex up against the red bricks while I dug my keys from my pocket. A car was parked at the bus stop next to the Davie entrance of The Holly Lodge. The driver leaned over and rolled the passenger window down.
“Excuse me,” he said. I turned, expecting him to ask for directions. “Can I give you a blowjob?”
“Fuck off,” I told him.
A few days later Donna added the photos from the Coronation Ball to the albums above the counting desk. Whenever I looked at those pictures again, I would remember that night as the evening I stopped talking to Dan.
Dan and I entered into a competition of who could out-fuck whom. We were like two fading divas when we crossed paths at a club, dividing the room in half and hunting for innocent prey. Unless you included my trips to the Garden Baths, Dan was winning by the time Gay Pride rolled around.
Doll & Penny’s had won the prize for best float the year before, a feat Donna was convinced the café would repeat. The 1988 float consisted of little more than a couple of scantily clad waiters dressed as Triton and the bearded chef in a mermaid tail that was now worn by a mannequin playing the piano above the display case. This year, Donna was going all out.
“The theme is Doll & Penny’s Welcomes the World,” she explained to Elsa, Andrew, Dex, Chakra and me at Table 31. “Levi will be mounting an eight-foot globe onto a trailer, and Chakra will be in front of it waving to the crowd.”
“What do you want us to do?” Dex asked.
“I was hoping to paint you gold and dress you up in togas like the Greek gods behind the bar.”
“Let me guess who’s making the togas,” Andrew said.
“We’ll pay you — don’t worry,” Donna told him.
“And what will we be wearing under these togas?”
“Underwear! I don’t want you getting arrested on Denman St, Tony.”
“Me, half naked in front of a crowd of drunk, horny men?” Dex asked. “I’m in.”
“Me too,” Elsa said. “It’ll be the most captive audience of my life. Can we throw grapes at the crowd?”
“I’ll do it on the condition that I’m a goddess,” said Andrew.
“I don’t know,” I whined.
“What?” they said at once.
“I’m still Portuguese and Catholic, you know!”
“You’ll troll the baths in a towel,” said Dex, “but you won’t walk down Pacific Blvd painted gold in a toga?”
“Bitch!” I called Dex by his new nickname. Dex and I had filled the voids that Dan and Scooter left. He had indoctrinated me to the Garden Spa not long after the ball. It was our favourite place to hang out. “That’s our little secret!”
“Come on,” said Elsa. “I thought those muscles were for show!”
Dan arrived at the café for his shift. He approached the table, avoiding eye contact with me.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“We’re trying to convince Tony to wear a toga and gold paint for the Pride float,” Donna said. “You can drink for free at the café before and after the parade.”
“Tony drunk, gold and in a toga,” Dan said. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“You’ll get laid for sure,” Dex said.
“I’ll do it!” I said.
The float was about to leave without Chakra when she ran through the green metal door in a pair of red pumps that could launch a rocket and matching tube. The five of us climbed aboard the trailer. I felt like I was going to throw up as soon as Levi gunned the engine.
“Smiles everyone!” Donna shouted from the cab. Levi pulled the truck up in front of the café for the brunch staff and customers to see. A cheer roared through the front windows. Blair, Yolanda and Spike dropped everything to come out for a closer look.
“If you guys don’t win best float there is no god,” Spike said.
“There is no god,” Yolanda reminded him. “Mulroney has a majority, remember?”
“It seems like only yesterday I was on the back of a truck in a wig and torn stockings,” Blair said. “Now I know how Neely O’Hara felt when she fell into the ocean in Valley of the Dolls.”
Yolanda put his arm around Blair’s shoulder. “Let’s get you inside before you’re seen revealing an emotion.”
Levi inched his way down the hill toward the staging area while the five of us clung to the edges of the flatbed for dear life. As soon as we found our position in the parade, Donna went on a reconnaissance mission to scope out the competition.
“We’ve got this locked,” she said, lighting a joint. “One more trophy for the display case!”
We stayed in the shade to keep our body paint from melting in the August sun until we heard the roar of the Dykes on Bikes at the front of the parade. “Places everyone!” Elsa shouted.
“You know,” Dex said, sucking in his breath, “I always get just a little choked up when I hear those engines rev.”
The parade started to unravel from its stationary position like a rope attached to a sinking anchor. We marched in silence down the sleepy residential streets west of Denman until we hit Robson, where we were met by a sea of people.
“Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God!” I hyperventilated.
Andrew took my hand and said, “Pretend they’re naked.”
“That’s the problem,” I said. “They’re not — I am!”
“YAH-HOOO!” Elsa hollered. She grabbed a handful of grapes from a wooden caesar salad bowl and pelted the crowd with them. Some people actually ate them. “Those aren’t washed!” she warned.
We were stopped every 10 or 20 feet to have our picture taken. Customers shouted our names to wave to them. Dante ran out to kiss me. The spectators’ applause and approval drowned out the Bible Lady’s abominations and hate, despite her megaphone. Ketchup from the bottle Yolanda had heaved at her still stained her Gospel-covered sandwich board like blood.
My ass was black and blue by the time we got back to Doll & Penny’s. Dan was run ragged managing the café in Donna’s absence. Part of the privilege of being with Donna and marching in the parade was not only cutting the line but priority seating: Table 31. Dan was none the happier to see us.
“Do you know the hell I went through saving you this table?” he said, practically shoving menus at us.
“Oh Dan, relax,” Donna said à la Holly Golightly. “It’s only food. Now be a dear and grab us a couple of pitchers of beer. We’ve been marching all morning and we’re exhausted.”
“Yeah Dan,” I said. “Be a dear.”
“Burn in hell,” he said. “All of you.”
“Now we drink until we collect our prize,” Donna said, relaxing into the church pew. “I cleared a place for it yesterday.”
“How will we know?” Dex asked.
“Bill’s emceeing. He’s going to call us from a payphone at Sunset Beach.”
We were the toast of the café. Boys started sending us drinks of all shapes and sizes until they started piling up around us like chips at a roulette table. Our conversation was disturbed when Del Rita Deluxe climbed through the front window of the café and joined our table.
Del Rita Deluxe was a thing of legend. How many stories had I heard? He who had inspired the awning and whose idea of a manager’s special was a blowjob.
Del Rita brushed my gold skin with the hair of his brawny chest and mustache, his baby blues reflected in the skylight. He was a cross between the ’70s pornstar Al Parker and a wet nurse — all man and yet all woman at the same time.
“And what’s your name?” he purred, one hand on my thigh.
“Del Rita!” Donna said, throwing a napkin at him. “He’s only 20!”
“You don’t say!” Del Rita reached for my dick under the table. I hadn’t been that hard since the last time I fucked Dante.
“This is too weird,” I said. “I’m painted gold; you’re dressed like a nurse. I’m a fucking Catholic!”
“Oh baby,” Del Rita said, brushing the umbrella in his frozen cocktail with his Dolly Parton eyelashes. “It’s about to get even weirder.”
The phone rang.
“That’s Bill,” Donna said, climbing over us. “I know it!”
Dan picked up the phone and held it out for Donna as she went behind the bar. She turned her back to us and plugged her ear with a finger, her shoulders hunched, trying to hear over the disco. It did not look good. Donna returned the phone to the cradle, lit a cigarette from Spike’s pack and poured a pitcher of beer before returning to Table 31.
“We lost,” she said.
“Who won?” asked Andrew.
“Little Sister’s bookstore.”
“For what?” Elsa demanded. “They marched in single file! We made togas!”
“It’s because they’re taking Canada Customs to court,” Dex said. “And they were bombed.”
“Come on!” Del Rita said, yanking my forearm.
“I can’t go anywhere!” I said. “I’m hard and I’m wearing a toga!”
“Don’t argue with me!” Del Rita ordered, making me even harder. He dragged me by the arm up the stairs to the crow’s nest.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked. This was turning into a question I asked about every three months.
“To Donna’s office.”
“How will we get in?”
“Do you think the mannequins on the awning change themselves?” Del Rita pulled a key ring from his white vinyl purse and unlocked the door to Donna’s office. He slammed the door behind us and pushed everything off Donna’s desk. “Are you a top or a bottom?”
“Top, I guess.”
“Here,” he said, pulling a condom and lube from his purse. He hopped onto the desk like it was an examining table, hiked up his nurse’s uniform and spread his legs, revealing a black leather jockstrap. “Keep the toga on.”
“Holy fuck!” I said. “What’s with you tough drag queens and your humungous cocks!”
Del Rita started pounding the desk with his fists and moaning at the top of his lungs as soon as I entered him.
“Shhh!” I said. “People can hear you.”
There was no silencing him, however, and the sex was too good to stop. The music in the café stopped playing. Del Rita’s orgasm was like an aria by Callas.
“Atta girl,” said someone on the other side of the closed office door.
“Here,” he said, pulling out a cum rag. “Well, I could use another drink now.”
“You’re going back out there?”
“What was your name again?”
“Tony,” he said, looking at his watch. “It is not even 2pm on Gay Pride Day. There are plenty more boys where you came from.”
There was still gold body paint in his chest hair and mustache when he headed back to Table 31 to a chorus of hoots and hollers. I slipped out the green door and into the alley; the sunshine was blinding in my drunken state. My dick was still hard from the thought of fucking Del Rita and at how angry I must have made Dan.