Arts & Entertainment
8 min

Chapter 19: The polka-dot door

Foodsluts at Doll & Penny's Café

Credit: Ken Boesem illustration

The Dot Party was a polka-dot-themed event that had evolved from an annual house party for gay hospitality workers into a bona fide AIDS fundraiser in 1986. Since then, a “Dot” was appointed in a secret ballot at the end of every party and charged with the task of organizing the next year’s event. The tickets stated, “No dots, no entry.”

Back when Donna was still manager, she had contrived to buy us tickets on Papa Ed’s dime. “You can’t expect people to come to our fundraisers and not attend theirs,” she explained to him. “It’s uncouth!”

The truth was Donna loved a good party and she didn’t want to go alone. We were also going out of loyalty to Bill Monroe, who was that year’s Dot.

Donna hosted a pre-Dot cocktail party to show off the dresses Andrew had sewn for her and Elsa. I wore polka-dot boxers, a blazer and dress shoes. I looked like a philanderer who had been caught by his wife.

The five of us – Dan, Elsa, Donna, Andrew and me – drove down to Graceland by limo – also on Papa Ed’s dime – covered in various shades of dots, like measles. The last thing I remember from that evening was smashing empty shot glasses on the cement dancefloor, shards of glass spreading in a tide like pebbles of water.

There would be no comp tickets this year. Not with Francis running the show. Not with the boycott. The words “AIDS fundraiser” were strictly verboten.

“Remember how much fun we had at the Dot Party?” I asked Elsa, pointing to the poster on the bulletin board.

“Yeah,” she said, barely caring. Elsa was in mourning. Not only for the café, but for her father, who had recently passed away. She was like a dancer who made a career out of doing Cats on Broadway: where once the café was her stage, now it was just a paycheque.

“We should get tickets and go!”

“It doesn’t sound like as much fun when you have to pay.”

She looked at her watch. “Would you mind if I dumped the rest of my tables on Andrew? I got an hour left, it’s dead, and he needs the money. If I hurry I can catch LA Law.” 

“Sure thing.”

It bummed me out that I couldn’t get Elsa excited about the Dot Party. I watched her transfer her open bills to Andrew on the computer, cigarette in mouth, anticipating the flick of her Bic. She couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

“Remember when we needed three waiters for the dinner shift?” Andrew said on his way to the kitchen.

Andrew had seen the writing on the wall and had enrolled in design school to become a legitimate dressmaker. “It’s nice not designing something that covers an Adam’s apple,” he liked to brag.

Ever since Ted had taken over as manager, Doll & Penny’s had become decidedly stale. Gone were the theme nights. Thelma Houston was replaced with Kenny G. Only managers were allowed to read and write in the Manager’s Book, and we were only allowed to write about business. “No epiphanies!” Ted declared at a staff meeting.

“The Dot Party is coming up,” I told Ted.

“So?”

“We should consider doing something. Perhaps a post-Dot Party as a sort of olive branch to the community, you know?”

He appeared to actually consider it.

“We can decorate the café and the waiters in dots!” I said, sounding like Andy Hardy. “It’ll be fun! Get the blood flowing through this place again.”

“That might not be a bad idea.”

Getting the graveyard staff on board was a much harder sell.

“Are you out of your mind?” said Josie, the café’s token big-boned lesbian du jour. “Nuh-uh. Polka dots make me look like a circus performer.”

“For old time’s sake,” I said. “For me.”

Donna had taught me well.

“I’ll do it on one condition,” she said. “We all get high on mushrooms.”

“Are you out of your mind?”

“How many stories have I heard about Blair and Yolanda working on MDA in the 1980s?”

She had a point.

“It’s not like we have anything to lose,” I said, rationalizing the idea. “I swear the only reason Francis keeps me here is because I keep showing up.”

“I’ll tell everyone and buy the mushrooms!”

“Wait! Don’t tell everyone. One of us can’t be high in case something bad happens.”

“Chakra! Chakra is the last person who needs mushrooms.”

There was a mix of old and new staff working that evening. In the front half of the café were Chakra and Elvis. Josie and Ollie were in the back. Prudence filled in at the last minute for the busboy who had gone AWOL on the rumour there were ‘shrooms. I was managing – so to speak.

I wore the same pair of polka-dot boxer shorts that I wore to my first Dot Party and a pair of army boots. Everyone else pasted dots onto their clothes using stickers from the bead shop on Granville, with the exception of Chakra, who refused on account that she was Empress.

Of the five of us, I was the only one who had never done mushrooms before. They hit me like a glove in the face. I couldn’t carry a tray of water or keep a straight face when seating people. I was laughing so hard I expected to shit my boxers. Halfway through the evening, Chakra came tearing down the middle of the café cackling like a Stygian Witch. It was too wicked even for her.

“What did you do?” I asked Josie.

“I split my mushrooms with Chakra,” she confessed. “I had to! She saw me taking them and I felt bad. She’s Empress!”

The bar rush was dead, because of the boycott. The few people who came in had no idea what the Dot Party was and were puzzled by the dots on our clothes and the walls. Luckily nothing catastrophic happened, like a fight or a bomb threat. The universe protects babies and fools.

As the evening wore on, the café started to melt around me. Dots started peeling off the walls like fruit roll-ups. It was like being inside a Salvador Dali painting.

“This was a horrible idea,” I moaned to Josie, desperate to be sober again. “Why did I ever agree to this?”

But I knew why: it felt like the end of the world.

There was only one table left at closing time, an old guy with a really ugly drag queen in a cat suit. They were sharing a basket of fries. We tried to clean up around them, but they were taking too long. In my altered state I went over to them and whispered, “You have to go now. It’s nothing personal, but you have to go.”

We had just enough of our faculties intact to close the place. The cash counted and everything wiped down, we sat down at Table 31 to drink beer from milkshake tins, listen to music and trip. It wasn’t long before we got bored and started exploring the café like it was the Bat Cave, crawling into every nook and cranny.

Maybe it was the mushrooms, but the café seemed magical again, like she was experiencing a contact high. The chandelier had a halo and the mermaid was playing “Misty.” Disco rocked the house. I kept expecting Scooter, Spike and Dan to come out of the bathroom. I felt 20 again. Which is kind of depressing, considering I was only 22.

Elvis found an old mannequin hand and we took turns using it as our own. It looked bionic on Chakra. She stood atop Table 31, one hand over her heart, the mannequin hand pointed at the skylight. “O Canada…” she started singing.

We went for a walk to try to sober up and ended up on Robson St, window-shopping at four in the morning. We were the only people there except for a woman sweeping the sidewalk.

“Look, it’s the girl from the Les Miz poster,” Elvis said.

A bitter wind blew through us.

“This street is cold,” said Chakra, through chattering teeth.

The street-sweeper took one look at Chakra and said, “Well, your working it ain’t making it any warmer.”

    

***


Josie and I went back to her place
to watch The Sound of Music as we came off the mushrooms. I burst into tears when Maria married the Captain.

“I don’t want to manage the café anymore,” I said, sobbing through my epiphany.

“What are you going to do?” Josie asked, handing me a tissue for my nose. “You can’t quit. You don’t have another job.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Ted was surprisingly compromising when I told him and gave me what used to be Blair’s breakfast shifts.

“You’re belligerent, you break the rules, and you’re sort of an asshole,” Ted said. “But you’re always on time.”

Mornings and lunches were the only peaceful hours at the café. The day regulars were creatures of habit and chose not to get involved with the drama. It was comforting. It was the Doll & Penny’s I knew and remembered, the one where time stood still.

Every now and then a just-off-the bus Prairie Fairy would show up looking for a job. I would be standing behind the bar, where Ivy stood the day I arrived in my gingham coat, Morrissey playing on my Walkman.

“We’re not really looking right now,” I would say. “Come back in a week. You never know, things change around here pretty quick.”

A woman named Bobbi replaced me as manager. Bobbi was a recent transplant from Toronto with long brown hair, perfect skin and boobs like a Hooters waitress. She was cool at first. She had done a lot of work in the service industry and had a bawdy sense of humour like the rest of us. But Francis got to her.

He must have made her an offer she couldn’t refuse because it became clear that she was drinking from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid as Ted. As for Ted, he was transferred back to the Hotel California with the motorcycle gangs and their molls. He who lives by the sword…

One morning I came in to open the café and the first phone call I got was from a reporter at Angles.

“Do you know why the management has decided not to distribute Angles in Doll & Penny’s anymore?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Then I looked where the fliers were. There was the Westender and the Georgia Straight, but Angles was noticeably absent. And not only Angles, but all the AIDS-prevention posters on the bulletin board by the bathrooms.

“You fucking prick,” I shouted at the blank wall.

Bobbi’s official spin on the absent literature was that it was sexually explicit and there were complaints from parents about their children accidentally looking at it. From Francis’s lips to her mouth.

“The only parents that come in here are lesbians,” Yolanda told her.

For months I had pretended that the boycott would blow over and everything would go back to normal, but there was no way I could possibly work for this man anymore.

And then, just as quickly as it had been turned out, the light came on at the end of the tunnel.

Donna and Elsa used some of their inheritances to open La Brocca on the corner of Thurlow and Robson streets – formerly the Monte Cristo, the restaurant Donna managed before accepting a job at Doll & Penny’s. Thankfully, they offered Yolanda, Dex, Prudence and me jobs.

My last shift at Doll & Penny’s was a breakfast shift. It was slow and there were hardly any regulars. It was sunny outside and I sat in one of the booths looking up at the window of my apartment in the Holly Lodge. I was about to move into a new apartment, a one bedroom near the water that cost $700 a month. It was the most I had ever paid in rent. I could only hope La Brocca would allow me to keep it.

I left Doll & Penny’s without the traditional dousing of whipped cream or a farewell drink. I cashed out, said goodbye to Bobbi and the Pasha, the crossdressing dominatrix, and leaned my shoulder into the glass door one last time.

“When you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go,” I sang to myself, “…downtown.”

I would not cross the threshold of Doll & Penny’s Café again until 1999.