Arts & Entertainment
8 min

CHAPTER 18: On the Rocks

Foodsluts at Doll & Penny's Café

Credit: Ken Boesem illustration

 

Chakra announced her candidacy for Empress of Vancouver in the summer of 1991, according to plan. Every rhinestone was falling into place: allegiances with drag queens had been made in exchange for a title, Chakra performed at shows, lent out dresses, gave dresses away — all in the name of a sash, tiara, sceptre and the privilege of being called Empress. 

 

But Chakra’s plans had not accounted for Francis owning Doll & Penny’s when her time came to run. Nor had she foreseen the wrench he was about to throw. None of us did.

 

A month had come and gone since the third Month of Wednesdays fundraiser. I was punching an order into the computer when Elsa slammed the fanny pack she used to make change on the counter beside me. The thud of coins knocked my plastic key out of the computer. Elsa was wearing the same exasperated look she’d had when she heard Francis was the new owner of the café. 

 

“We might as well lock the doors,” she said, “because this place is about to close.” 

 

“Hello!” I said cheerfully. “I’m fine, thank you for asking. How are you today?”

 

Being an actress, Elsa was prone to gravitas. She could make the 86 list sound like Schindler’s List if she wanted.

 

“You mock but you should be very, very afraid,” she said gravely.

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked. 

 

“I just came back from having a cigarette with Francis’s accountant,” she said, putting air quotes around “accountant.” “Remember that little fundraiser we had? The one that raised $8,000 and was to be divided between four AIDS charities?”

 

“Spike died opening night. How could I forget it?”

 

“Well it seems that after expenses, each of the four charities is going to receive just $250 apiece. Francis is deducting the expenses of the show from the donation.” 

 

“Wait a minute. Are you telling me they still haven’t donated that money? I thought that was done ages ago!”

 

“Not by a long shot.”

 

“I was wondering why I hadn’t seen anything about it in the paper. Do they know yet?” 

 

“The accountant was just on his way to put the cheques in the mail.”

 

The staff walked on bobby pins and barrettes for the next couple of weeks. Customers asked, “Who died?” in all seriousness since dropping dead was a common occurrence in our circles. 

 

“Doll & Penny’s,” I wanted to tell them. 

 

I’m not sure if it was a staff member that leaked the news or a volunteer from one of the charities, but word spread, and fast. 

 

“Is it true?” customers would ask. “About the money from the fundraiser?”

 

All we could say was, “Yes.” 

 

There were already threats of a boycott. The issue was finally addressed in a letter published in the August 1991 edition of the gay paper Angles.

 

The letter was written by Chris Sabean, the managing director of the Vancouver Persons with AIDS Society, on behalf of AIDS Vancouver, Vancouver Meals Society and McLaren Housing Society. In it, he said that as a result of a meeting the four organizations had had with management, they had “decided that Doll & Penny’s would no longer be a venue for raising money for them.”

 

He went on to say, “Our rule of thumb is that no more than 20 percent of funds raised should be used for fundraising expenses. The result of the Doll & Penny’s event was that over 80 percent of the funds raised was spent by management in the conduct of the event. We believe this to be an unacceptable disregard for the rights of those who donated at the event.”

 

“It’s over,” Elsa said, putting the paper down.

 

“You don’t know that,” Andrew said. “Drag queens still love a free cup of coffee.”

 

“It’s over,” Elsa repeated.

 

Not quite. There was another nail to be hammered into the coffin.

 

Within a week, the café went from Doll & Penny’s to Hamburger Mary’s, the place you went when you couldn’t get a table anywhere else. Tips dried up, shifts were cut, business hours were shortened. It was hard to believe this was once a place people lined up to get into.

 

***

 

I didn’t know what to do about my job. I could not, in all good conscience, work for Francis, but there wasn’t a lot of work to be had. Pride might get you a parade but it doesn’t buy you cigarettes.

 

The war of words continued the next month in Angles, when another letter was published with the prologue: “The following letter was received with a cover letter from the proprietor of Doll & Penny’s dated Aug 6, requesting that it be put in the Feedback section of Angles. There were no names signed to the letter and none of the staff we spoke to were willing to discuss it.”

 

Elsa read the letter to herself, her lips moving as her head went back and forth across the column like it was a tennis match.

 

“Jesus Christ,” she said, pushing the paper across the table to me. “Does that man never know when to stop?”

 

The letter was pompous and patronizing. Far worse, it was tacky, and not in a tough drag sort of way. 

 

“The passing of one of our dearest friends early on in the benefit committed us to the charity, emotionally and passionately,” the letter said. “We are very sorry the event failed to raise more money, but to hold us responsible for the results of the benefit would be like saying that we are also to blame for the existence of AIDS.”

 

The letter was signed “Staff of Doll & Penny’s Café.”

 

“I’m going to kill him,” Blair said when he read the letter. “How dare he invoke Spike’s memory when he wouldn’t even throw him a wake!”

 

“Kitty can never see this,” said Yolanda.

 

The same day the letter was published, The Centre served Doll & Penny’s with a “Pink Slip,” the official notice that we were being boycotted by the gay community. It was nothing but a flimsy pink piece of paper, typewritten with spelling errors. It would have been funny if it weren’t such a slap in the face.

 

***

 

The café was able to maintain a small breakfast crowd only because the regulars had been eating breakfast there for so long, they didn’t know anything else. Bill Monroe continued to eat his over-easy eggs and tomatoes, instead of potatoes. Pasha, the crossdressing dominatrix, still came around 10am to have coffee with her dominatrix friend at her usual table near the display case. The nurses from St Paul’s ate their lunches there and so, of course, did the staff. It was the only place we could afford on what we were making.

 

The evening and graveyard shifts did not elicit that kind of loyalty. Andrew and I stood behind the bar looking out across the empty café. The chandelier glowed like an August moon and the mermaid played the piano, but they were no longer enough to bring people in. It felt like I was working in some shitty haunted house in a travelling carnival.

 

“I’ll flip you to see who goes home first,” Andrew said.

 

“Heads,” I said, flipping a nickel into the air.

 

Tails.

 

“It’s sort of ironic when you think about it,” Andrew said.

 

“What?”

 

“You could almost say AIDS killed Doll & Penny’s,” he said, then unclipped his fanny pack from around his waist and called it a night.

 

***

 

The Black Angus was a deco-themed, family-style restaurant on the corner of Davie and Thurlow. It had twice the floor space of Doll & Penny’s with tall, plush booths and strips of neon accenting the walls. There were never more than a handful of people in there when I walked by to, and from Fitness World. It was one of those places that made you wonder how they stayed in business for so long.

 

And then it mysteriously went out of business.

 

According to Tippy Ladders, a pair of gay guys had bought the Black Angus with their hearts set on putting Doll & Penny’s out of business. Soon the windows of the Black Angus were papered over with the proclamation “Rocks! Opening soon!”

 

Rocks

 

What the hell kind of name was that for a gay café?

 

That didn’t stop the entire staff of Doll & Penny’s applying there when they started accepting applications. Only two of us were hired: Chakra and Blair.

 

Chakra managed to keep one foot in Doll & Penny’s by accepting only a part-time position at Rocks. She had her best interests at heart, but not in the name of job security. Chakra had already secured a sponsorship from Doll & Penny’s for her campaign for Empress. Nothing was going to get in the way of that crown — not Francis, not the boycott, not Rocks, nothing.

 

It was hard watching Blair go. One by one the original staff had fallen away like feathers from a boa: first Scooter, then Dan, then Donna, then Spike and now Blair. In one last act of preserving past traditions, Yolanda, Elsa, Dex and I sprayed Blair with whipped cream on his last shift. He hugged us all goodbye and I watched as Yolanda waved to him through the front window, like a girl being left at the port by her husband going off to war.

 

***

To become a candidate for Empress, each aspirant had to pass a screening test. Chakra was a mess on the day of hers. She tried to relax by drinking coffee and smoking. She prayed the jury wouldn’t ask her why she continued to work at Doll & Penny’s after the boycott. 

 

The truth was, Chakra needed Doll & Penny’s. It cost as much as $2,000 to run for Empress, and Francis had already donated $500 to her campaign on the condition she thank the café in her acceptance speech and celebrate her victory there afterward. 

 

Luckily for Chakra, Doll & Penny’s and the benefit didn’t come up in her interview and she was spared having to fast-talk her way out of anything, which, with her thick Filipino accent, was nearly impossible. From her screening with the Dogwood Monarchist Society, Chakra marched to her official campaign headquarters: Doll & Penny’s. 

 

For the next four weeks, the café was subjected to drag queens looking for Chakra, who was busy having publicity photos taken, making personal appearances and printing fliers. Chakra was going through her Janet Jackson “Rhythm Nation” phase. She knew the dance steps to all the videos, just not the words to the songs. They looked nothing alike, Ms Jackson being African American and Chakra being Asian and half a man. Their breasts were fake — they shared that in common. 

 

Chakra’s campaign slogan was “Let the friendship continue.” It was supposed to have something to do with how everyone in the community knew her, but most people assumed it was the literal translation of some Filipino proverb.

 

The only other candidate for Empress was Tippy Ladders. Tippy worked coat check at Celebrities, the dance club down the street. Her best impersonation was Carol Burnett in her cleaning lady costume — if you could call that drag. In any other year, Tippy wouldn’t have stood a chance, but the Doll & Penny’s boycott added a wildcard element to the campaign. 

 

For her entrance, Chakra performed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sung by Whitney Houston at the height of the first Gulf War. As Andrew later described it, “Chakra wiped the floor with Tippy’s ass.” 

 

Sometime around 3am, Chakra was crowned Empress of Vancouver, fulfilling one of two lifelong dreams — becoming a woman being the other. 

 

The name Doll & Penny’s was noticeably absent in the video of the acceptance speech Chakra showed Francis. Though she made an appearance at the café afterward, she ate her victory meal at Rocks.

 

“I thought we had a deal,” Francis said when the video was over. “What happened to thanking the café? What happened to the victory party?”

 

Chakra shrugged her shoulders, not able to answer. She may have been acting in her own best interests, but in some way, she had more or less flipped Francis the proverbial bird on behalf of the community. It would never get those four charities the money they were owed, but it was something.