Arts & Entertainment
8 min

CHAPTER 16: Month of Wednesdays

Foodsluts at Doll & Penny's Café

Credit: Ken Boesem illustration

Francis made his most indelible mark on Doll & Penny’s Café when he repackaged the Month of Wednesdays fundraiser into something more palatable or, as Elsa would say, more “John-Q-Public.” More to the point: more geared to straight people.

First he stopped inviting Bill Monroe to MC the show. Rusty Ryan was bussed in from Toronto instead.

Rusty was discovered by the legendary drag performer Craig Russell and featured in the 1977 movie Outrageous. He was also one of the founding members of The Great Imposters, a drag troupe that toured the farthest reaches of Canada. Rusty modelled his drag persona after Mama Cass Elliot, hiding his girth behind flower print muumuu sundresses like my immigrant mother used to wear.

His wigs looked like they had had been styled with steel wool. Rusty’s shtick was that he looked and behaved like an amateur when really he was a pro.

The other major change to the format was that there would be a show five nights a week for the entire month of May, instead of four consecutive Wednesdays, as the name of the fundraiser implied. This made the staff nervous.

As popular as these shows were, they were kind of a drag (pun intended). Waiters didn’t get the turnover of a regular dinner shift and we made less money. Francis just assumed that what he lost in food sales he’d make up in alcohol. Showed how little he knew about Doll & Penny’s.

If Bill Monroe was upset about being passed over to host the fundraiser, he never mentioned it, at least not during the breakfast. He did not boycott the café or write an angry letter to Angles. Instead, he kept calm and carried on. He was the Queen after all.

The Friday before the show started, an overweight man stopped me at the bar as we were about to shut down for the night. His long grey hair was stuck to his cheeks like he had just come from a sauna. He was accompanied by a man half his age and weight.

The man’s face gave me a flash of déjà vu. “Don’t you hate it when you see someone from a past life and they pretend not to recognize you?” I remembered Donna saying.

“Do you know where I can find fucking Francis?” he asked.

“Have you tried all the strip clubs?”

“I like you,” the man said. “I’m Rusty Ryan. I’m hosting the shows this month. My boyfriend Billy and I have been driving non-stop from Ter-ranah. We just came back from Francis’s hotel. There were more motorcycles out front than a dyke bar! He’s putting me up at The Dufferin or I’m not going on. Now get me Francis!”

“I can try, but I can’t make any promises.”

“Any way we can get a bit to eat?”

“Grab a table.”

Aside from his mink coat, Francis had another thing in common with hookers — Gina Hormone, particularly. Francis had a cellphone. It weighed five pounds and looked like something the military used but did in fact place and receive calls. The graveyard staff gathered around Rusty like Santa at the mall as I called Francis on his “mobile.”

“Yeah?” Francis said, his mouth full of food.

“It’s Tony at D&P’s. We’ve got a bit of a problem,” I said. “Rusty Ryan has an issue with his accommodations.”

“I see. Put him on the phone,” Francis said, like a man ready to take on the mob.

If Francis thought he was going to take care of Rusty he had another thing coming.

“Are you out of your fucking mind putting me up in that fucking hotel? I am a professional! I stayed in better places when I toured the Yukon! And those people sleep with their dogs!”

For the next 10 minutes all I heard Rusty say was, “No!” until he appeared to come to some sort of agreement with Francis.

“He wants to speak to you,” Rusty said, handing me the phone as he went back to his table.

“This should be interesting,” I said.

“Give him anything he wants. Don’t charge him a dime,” Francis said, and hung up without saying goodbye.

And that was just a preview of what was to come.

***

I was passed out on my couch when the phone rang. I ignored it, figuring it was the café. The caller didn’t leave a message. Whoever it was hung up and called back. Twice. Figuring it might be a family emergency, I picked up the phone.

It was a family emergency, just not the biological kind.

“It’s Spike,” Blair said. “He collapsed in the middle of the café. The paramedics just carried him out on a stretcher. Can you come in?”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

The ambulance was gone by the time I arrived. Blair, Yolanda and Elsa were with Spike at the hospital; Dex stayed behind to wait for me. The Waiter’s Co-op had been conducting a meeting when Spike collapsed. He had been doing double-duty, managing the café while sitting in on the meeting.

“He was about to seat someone at Table 31 when he did a face-plant into the carpet,” Dex said.

“Is he okay?”

“I don’t know. One minute he was conscious and the next he was having tubes run into him.”

“I thought he just fainted.”

“This was definitely not a fainting spell. I’m going to St Paul’s.”

“Call us when you know what’s happening.”

The Waiter’s Co-op returned from St Paul’s just after midnight. The café was closed and the graveyard staff was cleaning up when they unlocked the door. Blair, Yolanda, Dex and Elsa walked in, single file, shoulders sunken. If there was a bright light that night, it was seeing Donna’s face bringing up the rear. She had been gone only a couple of months, but it felt like years.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. “You’re supposed to be in Miami.”

“It’s not so easy for a woman my age to get a job under the table in the States,” she said. “Unless I was prepared to go deep under the table, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t know if I’m more surprised to see you or that Elsa kept a secret,” I told her. “How’s Spike doing?”

“They’ve got him in ICU,” Blair said. “He’s on a breathing machine.”

“Did they say what it is?”

“Spike has AIDS,” Yolanda said, thus marking only the second time I heard that word in relation to one of my colleagues.

 “Kitty’s a mess,” Blair added. “She’s already talking suicide.”

“He’s going to pull through, isn’t he?” I asked. “He just collapsed, right?”

“Put it this way,” Donna said. “Tomorrow Kitty is calling Spike’s parents to tell them to get here.”

And with that, I poured myself a stiff drink.

***

On May 8, 1991, legendary blues singer Long John Baldry opened the third Month of Wednesdays with “It Still Ain’t Easy” from his album of the same name.

The press was there to interview him and Francis and Rusty. It was the first time the café was on TV for something other than sticking its middle finger at city council.

The place was packed; people were watching from the sidewalk, clapping, dancing and donating money. Rusty was a hit; queens came in from out of town to see him perform. We raised close to a thousand dollars that first night.

The show went on while Spike was on life support. His family showed up on the doorstep of the café like the Beverly Hillbillies looking for Kitty. Spike had never come out to his family, and they weren’t the least bit suspicious. As far as they were concerned, Kitty was Spike’s roommate; they had no reason to believe otherwise. But the gravity of the situation left no room for lies.

“I always hoped it would be the other way around,” Kitty said, before Spike’s family arrived. “At least there would be nothing to explain.” Instead he had the dubious distinction of calling Spike’s family and telling them, “Your son is gay, I’m his lover, and he’s in the hospital dying of AIDS.”

Spike’s family took the news remarkably well. They piled onto a plane from Thunder Bay to see Spike one last time. Kitty put them up in their apartment, and for the first time in their lives, Spike’s parents got to learn who their son was.

“I don’t know why he didn’t tell us,” Spike’s mother said. “It wouldn’t have mattered.”

With Spike in the hospital, I was working morning, noon and night. I knew I had to go see him, but I was afraid of what I would see — afraid he would die on me while I was there in the room.

“Remember how you felt after Scooter died?” Dex said to me. “Do you really want to let Spike go without saying goodbye?”

“He’ll bounce back, won’t he?”

“He’s in intensive care. He’s not getting his tonsils out.”

St Paul’s hospital has always reminded me of St Eligius from the TV show St Elsewhere. I could hear the show’s theme song playing in my head as I followed the coloured lines to Spike’s room, half expecting Howie Mandel to come around the corner with a surgical glove inflated around his head.

There was no one in Spike’s room when I got there. I had been expecting a family member at least. The only sound was the whoosh of the respirators, big accordion tubes expanding and collapsing, inhaling and exhaling for Spike. His mouth and nose were covered with a mask; one eye was taped shut, the other bulged out of his head like a gag eyeball you find in novelty stores. It rolled around in his head looking about the room, never quite seeing me.

“Spike, it’s me — Tony. Can you hear me?” His eye did circles around the ceiling. I moved closer. The one eye stared straight at me, the pupil narrowing on my face. “Get me out of here!” it seemed to say, then darted around the room again. I touched Spike’s hand. It was cold, like he was already dead.

“I just want you to know I’m thinking about you,” I said. I stayed for another five minutes before running out of the hospital, stopping only to light a cigarette.

“Please don’t let that be me,” I chanted to myself. “If there’s a God in heaven, please don’t let that happen to me!”

Spike died a week later but not before coming out of his coma in what everyone expected was a full recovery. He was surprised to see his family around his bed and so happy that they had finally met Kitty. And then, quick as he came to, he fell back into a coma. He stayed that way until the doctors determined he could no longer survive without life support, and his family agreed to pull the plug.

We closed the café early that night and gathered around Table 41. The battle lines between the Waiter’s Co-op and the graveyard shift were erased as we drank freely from the bar, going through a keg of beer on our own. We were doing what we did best, drinking to forget.

I stared into Spike’s face in the “We don’t have attitude; we’re just cruel” poster as I sipped beer from a cold milkshake tin. I had been talking with my sister on the phone a couple of days earlier. I asked her how Mom and Dad were doing.

“They’re depressed,” she said. “All their friends are dying.”

So are mine, Sis, I wanted to tell her. So are mine.

***

The fundraiser became a welcome distraction from Spike’s passing. Rusty’s act was new and different compared to the drag queens we had seen over and over on the tiny black stage of Doll & Penny’s.

For the first couple of weeks you had to make reservations to get a seat near the stage, but just as the show was starting to get hot, it got tired.

Rusty rehashed his material to the point the staff was audibly droning along with him. Every lesbian folksinger with a guitar and a song in her broken heart made her way to the Doll & Penny’s stage and depressed the hell out of everyone. We knew the show was hitting rock bottom when a desperate comedian told an AIDS joke and Rusty escorted him off the stage. We were losing regular customers by week three and donations plummeted.

The final night of the fundraiser was the busiest. Suddenly, every minor celebrity in the city wanted to perform at our show. In the four weeks it ran, Bill Monroe did not appear once, even in the audience. The last show ran an hour over schedule. Everybody involved was drunk and relieved that it was finally over.

The third Month of Wednesdays raised $7,000, and, in a grand gesture, Francis donated another $1,000 of his own money. Most of the donations came out of the waiters’ pockets in the form of bids on prizes that were auctioned every night. It’s safe to say waiters’ tips counted for a good third of the money raised.

The night the proverbial curtain came down, on the third Month of Wednesdays, Tippy Ladders called, wanting to know if there was an afterparty. What she didn’t understand was that the party had ended long, long ago.