Sick and tired of waiting tables, I took over Dan’s old job as manager. Entertaining though Chakra was, she was not the natural-born leader Donna had hoped she would be. Instead, she turned the graveyard shift into a Sally Jessy Raphael–style talk show, with her friends as the special guests. Donna put me in charge of the graveyard on the weekends and left weeknights to Chakra.
Everything about the graveyard shift had changed and nothing had changed. It wasn’t as busy as it used to be, but senior staff still treated the others like Donna’s stepchildren. When the graveyard bitched back, Donna replied, “As bad as you think you have it, the senior staff had it worse.”
Then she would go on about how they used to mop the floor at the end of the shift in their bare feet in the snow and so on. The new graveyard crew had a secret nickname for the senior staff: F*O*D (Friends of Donna).
When I first started at Doll & Penny’s, all I wanted was to manage graveyards; it didn’t take long to see it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Managing it was like trying to referee a professional wrestling match: if the customers weren’t bitching about the waiters, then the waiters were bitching about the customers. Or the waiters were fighting or fucking each other.
More and more people were coming to Doll & Penny’s expecting a freak show since Francis took over the café. Two Italian bodybuilders and their blonde bimbo would often walk to the front of the line and seat themselves at a dirty table, then dine and dash.
“Why don’t you guys just do yourselves a favour and fuck each other,” I wanted to tell them, but was afraid of the consequences. I was a queen with an attitude and a 28-inch waist; they blended people like me in their protein shakes.
The closest I ever came to fisticuffs was one Saturday night after a particularly crazy bar rush. I noticed a lone guy standing on his chair at the table in front of the display case and then sitting down really fast like he was doing calisthenics. He didn’t have a cup of coffee or a bill in front of him, so I asked Prudence what his story was.
“How the fuck should I know?” he said. He had been taking lessons from Andrew.
“He’s in your section.”
“He’s been table hopping all night. I thought he was being social.”
So had Josie, Ollie and Chakra.
“He’s scaring us!” the girls seated next him mouthed to me.
“All right, buddy, time to go,” I told him, trying to disguise my lisp.
The guy started freaking out, waving his hands violently in the air and speaking in tongues. Then he squatted down on his haunches, his hands pressed together in prayer, eyes closed. Every table within a two-foot radius stepped back like he had a bomb. Then he sprang back to his feet, ready to cut me in half with his bare hands.
“You want me to leave? Then you have to fight me.”
“I don’t want to fight. I just need you to leave. You haven’t bought anything.”
“One coffee, please.”
“We’re closing for the night.”
“Then you have to fight me.”
Chakra was already calling the cops, but I wasn’t sure they were going to arrive in time. The guy started doing a form of tai chi that involved slicing the air with his hands. All eyes were on us.
“All right!” I said. “I’ll step outside.”
Staff and customers alike gasped as though they had just seen someone get slapped on TV. My plan was to let him lead the way and lock the front door behind him once he had stepped outside.
“After you,” he said.
Motherfucker! This was obviously not his first time to the rodeo.
“No, after you,” I said.
“Let’s go at the same time,” I suggested.
He thought about it for a minute and said, “Okay.”
A path was cleared as we walked shoulder to shoulder toward the door. My stomach turned as we pressed our hands to the glass. That was when the cops arrived and escorted him out peacefully.
I sat down on the floor and leaned against the door, hyperventilating. Behind me were the graveyard waiters and kitchen staff holding steak knives, two male strippers and Stella Mae armed with the pepper mill, ready to jump the guy if he tried to do anything to me.
“I’m getting too old for this,” I told Chakra as I poured myself a milkshake tin full of beer.
“Yes, but at least you know who your friends are,” she said.
With the Gay Games over, the reality that we now answered to Francis did not take long to set in. We were used to silent owners who ruled from on high, allowing us to pretend we owned the place. Francis would show up at all hours with a bimbo on his arm, demanding a booth in the window even if none was available. He never ordered off the menu. But he did tip.
Donna’s decision to quit the café was the worst-kept secret in the universe, thanks to her roommate, Elsa. By the time Donna told Francis it was yesterday’s news.
The news sent the staff into a tizzy. It was the consensus that she was the only reason we still had jobs. We were convinced Francis was waiting to replace us all with breast-implanted Barbie Dolls, bouncing around in tank tops like super balls.
“What are you going to do?” I asked Donna, pretending to be happy for her.
“Moving to Miami,” she said. “I want to get a job under the table giving scuba tours.”
“It’s not fair,” I thought. It wasn’t fair that all these people were moving on with their lives while I was going in circles. I tried to figure out what I was doing so wrong and what they were doing right. They drank and smoked as much as I did. They were just as neurotic and insecure. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know when, but I had to get my ass out of Doll & Penny’s.
Donna gave Francis a month to find her replacement. We looked through the classifieds every day for the want ad advertising her job, but there was none. This could not be good. When Francis called his first staff meeting, we thought we were doomed for sure.
“He wouldn’t fire us before Donna left, would he?” Elsa asked.
“I don’t know. He’s capable of that kind of evil,” I told her. “I’m convinced of it. But I think if he were going to do it, he would wait until her last shift to make sure she couldn’t do anything about it, like a super-villain.”
The staff gathered around Table 31 as we always had, baseball caps pulled low over our eyes, hung over from the impromptu staff meeting at Elsa and Donna’s apartment the night before. Francis was nowhere to be seen.
“Ten bucks says he appears from a plume of smoke from the floor,” Blair said.
“Fucking mink-coat-wearing prick,” Yolanda said. “If his dick weren’t so small I would kill him.”
“His dick is not small,” Blair said. “A man that ugly in furs does not have a small dick.”
“Bigger than yours?”
“Bigger than yours.”
Blair silently nodded his head yes. This was how Blair and Yolanda viewed the world.
There was a knock on the glass door. It was Francis. He had been in possession of the café for nearly six months and did not have his own key. Spike got up to let him in.
“Leave him there,” Yolanda said.
Francis walked through the door, his mink coat flowing behind him like a train. His hair looked like a home perm gone bad; his lips turned up at one side in a snarl. He looked forever pissed off even when he was in a good mood. He wore his insincerity like bad perfume that people were too polite to tell him was far too strong for public consumption. And yet it worked for him.
Francis eyed Blair’s seat at the head of the table. Blair smoked away, oblivious, waiting for the meeting to start.
“Do you mind?” he asked Blair.
“Your seat. I’m the boss. Therefore I’m at the head of the table.”
Blair fumed cigarette smoke and moved over a seat, creating a chain reaction around the table. “All right! Now who’s getting me a cup of coffee?”
“Oh Jesus,” Elsa said. “I will.”
“Two creams and a Sweet’N Low,” Francis instructed her. “I’m sweet enough!”
Had Elsa squeezed the handle on the coffee pot any harder she would have cracked it in two. His coffee in front of him, Francis called the meeting to order.
“So you’re probably all wondering what the hell is going to happen now that Donna is leaving. Do you still have jobs? Will the café stay gay? I’ll be honest: I would love to say no to both, but I would be shooting myself in the foot, and I can’t do that since I owe my dad lots of money. What I’m about to propose is something that’s radical even for me. Instead of bringing in someone that doesn’t know the café or the neighbourhood, I’m going to experiment with something called a waiters’ co-op.
“What will happen is that instead of having a general manager, I’m going to divide Donna’s job between Blair, Spike, Yolanda, Elsa and Dex. They will run the café as a collective and report back to me every week. Life will go on as usual and everyone can keep their jobs.”
The senior staff had pleased expressions on their faces. The graveyard waiters were more skeptical.
“But I’m warning you,” Francis added. “The minute this goes down the toilet it’s over, and we start doing things my way, whether you, or the neighbourhood, like it or not.”
“In other words,” said Josie, a graveyard waitress, “the senior staff are all managers and the graveyard gets no say whatsoever.”
“Not exactly,” Francis said. “You would voice your concerns to them and they would raise them with me.”
Josie looked like she was about to press the issue further, but her best buddy, Ollie, motioned for her to drop it.
“Any other questions?” Francis asked.
Hundreds, but we were all too afraid to raise them. There was no way Francis could have come up with this idea on his own; Donna must have had a hand in it somehow — with the added sense of not telling Elsa, or we would’ve known by now.
On the outset, it sounded like not a bad plan. There was no imagining who Francis might otherwise have brought in — we were expecting the Hell’s Angels. What no one anticipated was that the waiters’ co-op would become another clandestine organization but without the jackets.
On her last shift at the café, Donna saw the whipped cream coming and was armed with a can of her own. The staff chased her up and down the café, shooting bursts of non-dairy whipped cream that she dodged and returned with blasts of her own. Had Francis walked in we would have been fired, but we didn’t care. It was the end of an era, the close of another golden age, and we could not sit back idly and let it pass by.
Whereas staff meetings were looked upon with a sense of dread, Waiters’ Co-op meetings were a reason to celebrate. Entire bottles of wine were consumed over three-course meals. They were a pain to serve, but it was worth it, thanks to Francis’s new 50 percent staff meal policy.
The Co-op had been running the show for less than a month when we walked into the café to discover the pictures of the royal family had been replaced by a giant photograph of the Waiters’ Co-op, with the caption, “We don’t have attitude; we’re just cruel.”
“Who are they?” the graveyard patrons asked. “I don’t get it. What happened to the queen?”
It was the last straw for the graveyard staff. As a form of rebellion, they organized a waiter’s un-co-op, which met after every graveyard shift around Table 31, drinking beer out of shake tins and complaining about the senior staff. It was petty and immature, but it cured what ailed them. They really were getting the short end of the stick.
Elsa was public enemy number one since she was the one who fell victim to the Stockholm syndrome the fastest and hardest. She was Kate and Ivy rolled into one. I was in the unenviable position of being somewhere in the middle. Sometimes the graveyard staff questioned my loyalties and would mind their words around me for fear of it getting back to the Co-op, and vice versa.
We had always known that Donna was the glue that held the café together, but we did not know exactly how much until she was gone. It was sad how quickly friendships deteriorated and how divisive the café became. Doll & Penny’s was spiralling out of control like an alcoholic, but it did not hit bottom until the third Month of Wednesdays, and even then, we were only skimming the surface.