On Nov 4, 1989, the breakfast regulars got a surprise with their morning coffee. On page 9 of The Vancouver Sun was a full-page ad with the banner “Time Is Running Out” above an hourglass. The ad had as many bullet points as there are Commandments, ranging from “the cost of forgiveness and healing” to “the power of prayer.” But what really got people’s attention was a reference to “spiritual warfare.”
“Initiated and paid for by Christian leaders who live in Greater Vancouver who love this city and its people,” the ad read. The Sun wouldn’t reveal who had paid for it, but Reverend Robert Birch of Burnaby Christian Fellowship and a team of pastors that called themselves the Watchmen for the Nation went on record to predict that an earthquake would swallow the city if “The Sodomite Invasion” went ahead as planned.
The Gay Games coincided with the first Molson 500 and the first Symphony of Fire, bringing together the widest array of queers and rednecks Vancouver had ever seen. If spiritual warfare was to be waged, Doll & Penny’s was certain to be a battleground.
As if the staff wasn’t on edge already, Papa Ed sold Doll & Penny’s to his eldest son, Francis — also known as the “asshole in a mink coat,” as Donna described him when he tried to have me fired. Francis had the good sense to leave Donna to work her magic, but he did decree that the café would remain open 24 hours a day for the duration of the Games. It was one of two smart business decisions he made as owner of the café — the other was adding poutine to the menu.
On Aug 4, 1990, beneath the canvas dome of BC Place Stadium, the opening ceremonies for Celebration 90 welcomed 7,300 athletes, 1,500 artists and countless spectators from across the globe. Unlike the ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the organizers managed to light the torch.
Davie St was transformed into the Castro of the 1970s. The lines to get into Doll & Penny’s were longer than Phantom of the Opera’s— and we raked in as much dough. Were it not for the tips and the accents, the staff would never know one of the largest sporting events in the world was happening outside the front window. We were so tired after work that all any of us could do was lie on the couch with a pack of cigarettes and cry.
“Don’t they know there are other restaurants in the city!” Elsa complained, her sweat-smudged liner giving her Tammy Faye Bakker eyes. The heat was unbearable and all there was to keep the café cool were two measly ceiling fans and the front window.
“Fuck this!” Andrew said. “I’m climbing into the ice cream freezer!”
“Not if I beat you to it!” I said, grabbing his leg.
The athletes never complained, despite waiting hours to get into the sauna we called a café, only to learn we had run out of half the menu, then waiting another hour for fries and gravy or a milkshake. The closest the café came to spiritual warfare was when a gang of homeless guys swarmed Spike as he was returning with the liquor order using a hand truck.
“We’ve got your little chap here,” the manager from the Bute St liquor store told Donna over the phone. “He can’t get through the laneway.” She had to send Dex and Blaire to escort him back.
I had just finished counting my cash when Dan climbed the stairs to the crow’s nest, carrying two frozen milkshake tins filled to the brim with beer. I cooled my forehead with tin before taking several long gulps of Kokanee.
“Nectar of the gods,” I said, wiping foam from my lips. Dan pulled me into Donna’s office and lit up a joint. He grabbed the pencil case that contained my cash and threw it into the safe without opening it. “Aren’t you going to count that?”
“Fuck it. We’re going dancing,” he said.
“I don’t know… I’m covered in food and exhausted.”
“I have been living the Games vicariously through the staff of the Odyssey. Francis calls every hour on the hour to find out how much we’ve sold. There are men from all over the world here, and I have not given or received a single blowjob. We’re going dancing tonight if I have to stuff you into the trunk of a cab, goddamn it!”
There was a big dance party at the Plaza of Nations every night of the Games. Dan spoke of nothing but Doll & Penny’s standing in line to get in. “There isn’t a hamburger bun to be found in the city. This is what keeps me up at night,” he said. It was hard to pay attention to what he was saying, there were so many good-looking guys in line. “This is what my life has come to. I’m quitting in September and moving to Guatemala to teach English.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“I’ve never been more serious in my life.”
“But…” We were next in line to get in.
“No buts… I’ve accomplished all I can here. It’s time to move on.”
“But Rhoda, Guatemala is dangerous for a priest. You’re gay, remember?”
“I need a challenge. I need to grow. It’s still a month away.”
“What do we do till then?”
The security person waved us past the velvet rope, and we started to make our way down the mile-long escalator toward the masses of shirtless, sweaty bodies. The Communards’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was playing.
“Keep dancing, Mary.”
Dan and I stopped off at Doll & Penny’s for one more tin of beer on our way to the Holly Lodge to pass out. We arrived in time to watch the graveyard staff stop the bar rush and give a demonstration on the proper use of condoms, like they were stewardesses explaining the safety procedures on a plane. It was one of those spontaneous performances that reminded us what made Doll & Penny’s Doll & Penny’s and not Hamburger Mary’s.
“That was us not long ago,” Dan said.
“Are you sure you want to give this up?”
On Aug 16, 1990, at the very bottom of the page, The Globe and Mail reported that Celebration 90 had come and gone. It was never acknowledged how much money the Gay Games brought to Vancouver, that world records had been broken or that, despite prophesies of wrath and brimstone, the city did not plunge into the ocean.
Nor was there any assistance from the provincial government in relieving the debt the organizers had accrued. It was as though the Games had never happened, that they were just some urban legend, and there was no amount of evidence that would prove otherwise.
It was tradition at Doll & Penny’s that anyone who lasted long enough to quit be doused with cans of whipped cream by the poor souls they left behind. That’s what Donna told us, anyway. For as long as I had worked there, anyone who left the café was fired, carried out on a stretcher or died.
Donna made certain Dan was seated between Dex and me on the pew at Table 31, giving him no room for escape. I looked around the table. It would be the last time Dan, Elsa, Andrew, Chakra, Elvis and I would be in one place at the same time.
“Now!” Donna shouted.
Dex and I held Dan in place while the staff sprayed him with whipped cream like silly string. The oil from the cream lubricated Dan’s arms, allowing him to escape over the top of the pew and onto the table below us. We caught up to him at the tree in front of the café by climbing over the booths and through the sliding windows.
Our clothes smelled of curdled milk by the time we got to the Odyssey. At last call, Dan and I were the only two left voguing poorly to Madonna.
“Is that the disco ball or is my head spinning?” I asked him.
“A little of both.”
“Promise me you won’t get caught having sex by the police in Guatemala. I’d hate to see you in some prison like that guy in Midnight Express.”
“Promise. Promise me you won’t give up writing,” Dan said.
“I wouldn’t call what I do writing.”
“Stop being hard on yourself.”
“Hard on myself? I’m working for a man who tried to have me fired. The first guy I kissed in Vancouver is dead and now you’re leaving. I had to serve one of my exes while he stole a guy right out from under my nose! Hard on myself? I think the world is doing a good job of doing that for me.”
“Get off the cross, Mary. And I’m not being ironic.”
“Very funny, Rhoda.”
“It’s strange how you have such low expectations for yourself while everyone around you sees great things for you.”
“What do you see?”
“I always imagined you living in San Francisco for some strange reason. You’ll probably have a dog with some butch name like Montana or Nevada. I see you at peace with yourself.”
“Then why don’t I?”
“You will. You just need to let yourself.”
“Last call; last call to the bar,” DJ Jewels said into the microphone. “This song goes out to Tony and Dan.”
Dan and I held each other tight and swayed gently to the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
He was not far off with his predictions. I moved to San Francisco three years later, but the dog’s name was Yukon, not Nevada. I don’t know if you would describe what I found as “peace,” but it’s something close to it.
For the first time in the café’s history, the staff Christmas party was held after the holidays. Francis didn’t just move the date; he invited the staff from his Hotel California, a strip club famous for its mural of a woman in hot pants and a tube top who bore a striking resemblance to the British pop star Samantha Fox.
“I don’t want to party with a bunch of Hell’s Angels,” Andrew complained.
Elsa, Andrew and I were at Table 31 indulging in Francis’s new staff meal policy: 50 percent off everything — booze included. He extended the discount to the pub at the Hotel California, where you could get a burger and a pint of beer for $1.99. The only problem was the staff was too afraid to go.
“There’s still going to be an open bar, right?” I asked Elsa, sounding a lot like a few cooks I knew.
“Even if it wasn’t, I don’t think he could get any one of us to pay for a drink,” she said.
Drinking was the only reason any of the staff were going. None of us got dressed up. Andrew came as a boy because he was afraid of being the only drag queen. Elsa just assumed the hotel staff would think she was a stripper. The café was divided in half, with the Hotel California hanging out at the front and Doll & Penny’s staff near the back.
Instead of starting the talent show with the usual thank-you message from Papa Ed, Donna brought Francis, pimped out in his mink coat, onto the stage. “I would like to wish you a belated happy holidays,” Francis read from a piece of paper. “And tell you you’re all fired.”
“Is this a joke?” Blair shouted back.
“Of course it’s a joke.”
Still no one laughed.
“So much for humour,” Francis said, clearing his throat. “Thanks for your hard work bladdy… bladdy… You made me a lot of money this year. Have a great night.”
“That’s it?” Elsa said.
“He makes Papa Ed look like Churchill,” said Yolanda.
The staff talent show was shorter than previous years. Andrew’s concerns to the contrary, there were other drag queens — if you could call what Daphne did drag. Daphne hauled out the garbage-bag dress and feather-duster lashes for another go at “Snowbird,” but unlike years past, the tattooed crew from the Hotel California applauded politely. One even whistled his approval.
The Doll & Penny’s staff was not prepared for this. We expected to hate these people — we expected fights to break out and drinks to be thrown in faces. They hooted and hollered like cowboys as Donna read excerpts from the manager’s book, slamming the tables with laughter. They so enjoyed Chakra’s Janet Jackson impersonation that they lined up to tip her.
It turned out that Doll & Penny’s had more in common with a motorcycle stripper club than we knew. Same crowd; different drag. We also had one other profound thing in common with the staff of the Hotel California: our mutual loathing of Francis.