Arts & Entertainment
9 min

CHAPTER 17: War of attrition

Foodsluts at Doll & Penny's Café

Credit: Ken Boesem illustration

The final curtain on the Month of Wednesdays fundraiser marked the end of two eras at Doll & Penny’s: its role as a neighbourhood stage to raise money for AIDS and the café’s attempt at socialism, the Waiter’s Co-op.

The staff was being spied on for the second time in their careers, but unlike Ivy, Francis covered his tracks. Granted, Francis had technology on his side. Every computer transaction was scrutinized for “voids,” and liquor sales were measured against inventory. Secret shoppers reported back to Francis on the service: Was the shake machine “broken”?  Was the staff fighting? Had anyone made any slanderous remarks about him? What the staff termed “Business as usual.”

Everything changed overnight.

Yolanda was the first to discover he had lost his superpowers when he tried to void something off a bill but couldn’t. Blair tried voiding it for him but with the same luck. That’s when I was called.

“What?” I said into the phone.

“Did you do something to our managers’ keys?” Blair asked.

“I can barely get the damn paper to line up in the printer,” I said.

“This isn’t some sort of graveyard prank is it?”

“What are you on about?”

“We can’t void!” Yolanda said, taking the phone from Blair.

“Mine was working fine when I left last night,” I said.

“The poster’s missing!” I heard Blair yell in the background. “Someone stole the We Don’t Have Attitude poster!”

There was a pause, and then Yolanda asked, “Did you take our poster?”

“Don’t you guys have tables to look after?”

“Wait,” Yolanda said. “Here comes Francis and he’s got his bitch Ted with him. This can’t be good.”

Click.

I got another call from work a couple of hours later. It was Dex.

“Francis has called an emergency staff meeting,” he said. “Attendance is mandatory.”

Chakra was the last to arrive. Francis sat in his spot at the head of Table 41 with his right-hand man, Ted, sitting literally to his right. Ted modelled himself after Tom Cruise in Top Gun; he wore aviator glasses and a flight jacket, his dark hair parted to one side. There were bets on whether it was his natural colour.

I had cruised him at the baths hundreds of times, but he pretended not to recognize me. Ted gave me the impression that if there were a cure for homosexuality he’d mortgage his house for it.

Ted managed the pub at the Hotel California for Francis. The few times that he had managed Doll & Penny’s, while Spike lay dying in St Paul’s, it had become very apparent that he wanted to get his hands on the café. Doll & Penny’s was a closet case’s wet dream: you could make money while cruising guys and play straight without lying about where you worked.

The bills of baseball caps shadowed our eyes as each of us secretly blamed each other for what was going down. This is it, I thought. He’s going to fire us all. The sound of Chakra stirring her coffee brought the meeting to order.

“It should go without saying the Waiter’s Co-op is over,” Francis said. “Believe it or not, I wanted this to work. I wanted to prove to you that I’m not the prick you say I am — not all dollars and cents. But the fact is, I am all dollars and cents. This is a business, and businesses make money. This business isn’t making money. At least not the money it should be making.

“Now that we’ve proved your way doesn’t work, we’re going to start doing things my way. As you may have already noticed, none of you have manager status anymore. I’m also getting rid of the staff discount since all of you drink more than you sell, and I’m implementing a dress code.”

“What kind of dress code?” Blair asked.

“From now on, you’ll all be required to wear button-down shirts and ties.”

“Even me?” Chakra said.

“Yes, even you.”

“It’s the beginning of summer,” Elsa said. “Do you know how hot it gets in here?”

“You can still wear shorts,” Francis said. “You just need to improve your appearance from the waist up. That includes shaving.”

I knew this last remark was directed at me since I shave only every other day.

“Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to hand the meeting over to your new general manager, Ted. I have to get a move on — this isn’t my only business in town.”

Francis excused himself from the table while we secretly plotted his death. Ted cleared his throat and said, “I would like to thank you for coming here on such short notice.”

“Like we had a choice,” Blair said.

Ted ignored him and continued. “I know this isn’t the best of circumstances to become general manager, but that doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward to working with you all. Despite the obvious changes, things will pretty much stay the same. This is still going to be a gay-friendly establishment, we still honour club courtesy and the entertainers will still get free coffee.”

“What entertainers?” Chakra asked.

“You know… the performers.”

“Say it, Ted,” she said. “Say the words. Drag. Queen.”

Ted wouldn’t — couldn’t. They were like shit in his mouth. Instead he went on to tell us about the new graveyard manager, who had been hired behind our backs and would be starting that very evening — and whom I had the pleasure of training.

That afternoon we gathered at Elsa’s place to drink, get stoned and grumble. It was the first time the entire staff had been united under an umbrella of unity since Donna had quit the café.

“Let’s start a union,” Elsa declared.

“Or just walk out,” Yolanda said. “What’s he going to do? He can’t fire us all at once.”

“People won’t show if Yolanda and I aren’t there,” Blair said. “We’re the only reason people go there for breakfast.”

“It sure as hell isn’t for the food,” said Yolanda.

“People will go there no matter what,” said Andrew. “In fact, they’ll be lining up to take our jobs. There’s a recession! You guys can do whatever you want, but there is no way, no how, that I’m quitting my job because you guys aren’t allowed to void anymore.”

Andrew was right. We all needed our jobs too much to walk out or strike; our only option was civil disobedience. As gay people we were used to psychological warfare, and publicly declared or not, it had been waged.
 

***

The graveyard manager Francis hired to replace Chakra and me was a wispy queen with a pencil mustache named Roddy. He had previously managed the White Spot on Georgia St. Roddy had lofty aspirations of turning the place around with his grand ideas. For instance, he suggested the waiters pool their tips.

“Are you out of your fucking mind?” Josie said. “My tips aren’t going to cover the weaker waiters’ asses. What incentive do I have to turn my tables over if the person next to me is serving half as many people?”

Roddy also resuscitated Ivy’s age-old policy of reserving the booths in the front window for attractive people only.

“We’ve tried that,” I warned him. “We nearly got boycotted.”

“Of all the people here, I thought you had the most common sense,” he said.

“I get that a lot. It couldn’t be further from the truth.”

“Why don’t you guys just give my ideas a chance to work?”

“Because we’ve been around here long enough to know they won’t. We couldn’t even get gravy off the menu.”

Sure enough, Roddy tried to deter a butch lesbian couple from sitting at an empty table in the window and nearly had his head put through the plate glass.

“Told you so,” I said.

It took the staff less than a week to chew Roddy up and spit him out on Davie St. He literally fled the café in the middle of his shift. We smacked our hands together and said, “Next.”

Roddy was replaced by Danny, a straight boy who worked at the Two Parrots, the other 24-hour diner on the corner of Davie and Granville. Danny couldn’t have been more than 23 and thought he was hot to trot. The first thing he did when he came in to work was run his fingers through his feathered hair and ask how it looked.

“You’re asking a guy about your hair?” I would tease.

Danny was also consumed with keeping his shirt straight in the back. He was always going up to the waiters and asking, “Is my shirt straight in the back?” Then he would turn around and tug on the bottom. None of us knew what the hell he was talking about, and we would just answer, “Yeah.”

Danny required constant reassurance nonetheless. One of us might be carrying 50 plates to a table, and he would stop us and ask, “Is my shirt straight in the back?”

“What is this fucking obsession with the back of your shirt?” I finally asked him.

“I want it to look nice when people see my ass.”

“Honey, you have no ass!”

Danny never said it out loud, but we could tell he felt superior to the clientele. We were convinced he was telling his hoser friends in the ‘burbs that all the fags were hitting on him. But what Danny thought was a joke turned out to be a real job. He wasn’t prepared for the late nights of running reports, counting waiters’ banks or waiting for night cleaners. He was unreliable, late and got in the way. He lasted a couple of weeks before Ted fired him.

That same week, Blair came running into the café waving a videotape over his head.

“You’re never going to believe what I just taped off the local news!” Blair said, scooting in behind the bar. He stopped the music videos that were playing on the  screen and inserted his tape into the machine. The screen filled with a ménage à trois of muscle boys with eyeliner.

“Fuck,” Blair said. “That was my favourite part of that porn.”

There was some static and then the anchorwoman came on the screen mid-sentence.

“And something unusual from an unusual part of Vancouver. A man claims he was fired from working at a gay café because he is a heterosexual.” The story cut to Danny in his bare apartment, smoking a cigarette and squinting in the spotlight. “They kept inviting me to gay bars and getting me to check out guys,” he told the reporter.

According to Danny, he was a model employee, and the only reason he could think of for his dismissal was because he wasn’t gay.

“Is my shirt straight in the back?” Andrew shouted at the screen.

“I’ve talked to a lawyer,” he said to the camera. “I think I have a case.”

The reporter cut to an interview with Ted standing in front of the bar, his aviator glasses hanging from his white T-shirt, his thumbs hooked in his belt loops.

“Doll & Penny’s is a family-style restaurant,” Ted said into the microphone. “It always has been. It just so happens that most of the customers and the staff are gay.”

“We’ve come a long way from fighting the city to keep the drag queens on the awning,” Blair sighed.

We played the tape over and over again, despite Ted’s commentary. It was the first bona fide laugh we’d had since Spike died. And the closest we had felt to the neighbourhood.

 

***

Ted gave up finding another manager and eventually reinstated my manager status, without actually calling me a manager. The tie policy went out the front window, as well, thanks to Ted. I had the privilege of watching sweat drip off his nose while steam from the mug washer rose into his face.

“Fuck this goddamned tie!” he said, ripping it off his neck and throwing it on the ground. The rest of the staff was quick to follow suit.

In less than a month it seemed like things were on their way back to normal, until Francis started selling $2 cocktails between five and seven. More and more straight people — most of them scary and homophobic — started coming in, scaring off the regular customers. It got so that we didn’t recognize the faces or know the names of anyone we were serving anymore.

Francis printed up a big banner that ran the length of the front window, blocking the afternoon light. The place was busy with $2 drunks who could slug back $20 faster than you could open a bottle. Some of the guys coming in for cheap beer looked like they were just out of prison.

“If I didn’t know better, I would swear that Francis is paying people to come here,” Elsa said, taking a long drag from her cigarette.

“Do ya think?”

“Look at them! They all look like extras from Easy Rider with 20s in their hands. I mean, have you seen any of these people in the neighbourhood before?”

“You know what? I haven’t!” I looked around the café like Katharine Ross coming to her senses in The Stepford Wives. “Do you know what this place looks like?”

“The Hotel California!” Elsa said.

Had the Liquor Licensing Board not told Francis to take down the sign, under threat of citation, the café might have become a blight on Davie St, the kind of place you would cross the street to avoid. But although we had won the battle, we had not won the war, for the worst was just around the corner.

 

This is a work of creative non-fiction inspired by real people and events but altered and embellished by artistic licence.