The couple in front of me was whisked away by a short man with a mustache, his hair permanently pressed to one side. He returned for me, holding up his index and pinky fingers like I was to go fuck myself.
“For two?” he asked. That’s when I saw that his middle fingers were missing at the knuckles.
“I’m Tony. The new bartender.”
“Donna,” he shouted, like a kid calling his mom to the phone. “The new bartender is here!”
“Spike, you don’t have to yell, I’m right here,” Donna said from behind the bar. Donna had one hand on the beer tap and a pair of frosted mugs in the other. She had an inch or two on me, but from where I was standing I felt like I came to her waist.
Donna pushed the tap shut and plopped the foaming mugs of beer on the bar. “Do we know each other from somewhere?”
“Ever live in Toronto?”
“I’ve never been to Toronto,” she said with a smile. “Must have been a past life. Don’t you hate it when you see someone from a previous life and they pretend they don’t know you?”
“I’m not sure. I’m Catholic.”
“Poor you.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Donna, the general manager.”
Donna escorted me to the back of the café. I still felt like I was on a tour of a museum. I nearly walked into a red Roman column with a plumed rocking horse on top.
One corner of the café was decorated like a monarchist’s living room with a chintz couch, matching wing-backed armchairs and coffee table. Legion Hall portraits of the British monarchy filled the wall, from George and Elizabeth to Charles and Diana.
The bookcase next to it had a fish tank fashioned out of an old television. We continued past a flashing traffic light, under a small balcony and then up some rickety green stairs.
“We call this the crow’s nest because you can see the entire café from up here,” Donna said. A desk made of an old door and filing cabinets was covered with adding machine slips and plastic ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts.
“And this is the nerve centre of the café,” she said, opening the door with a flourish. “My office.”
We paused the tour long enough to fill out some paperwork. Donna pointed to a padlocked wooden door hidden above the stairs. “Over there is the liquor cabinet. You have to pull down this little wooden gangplank to get to it,” she said, demonstrating for me.
“And see this plastic Hawaiian lei tacked to the bottom? It’s to warn people to duck their heads when they’re coming up the stairs. That was my idea,” she added with pride.
“Ouch!” said a waiter, banging his head on the bottom of the gangplank.
“People don’t always see it,” she admitted. “You’ll come to learn this place is held together with electric tape and mascara.”
At the bottom of the stairs was a small ledge with more ashtrays on it. “This is where the waiters smoke between tables,” Donna explained, extinguishing a simmering cigarette.
Donna ushered me down a narrow hall lined with safe-sex posters. There was a hole in the wall at the end to slide bus pans through. Above the hole was a sign: “Don’t feed the dish pigs.”
The door to the kitchen was a swinging metal sheet and an accident waiting to happen. The kitchen smelled like old grease and detergent, the white tiled walls and ultra-bright fluorescent lights projected the illusion of cleanliness. The floor did not suffer Doc Martens lightly.
Donna introduced me to a couple of cooks, and then we walked around to the other side of the kitchen where a tall man with a saggy ass was bent over a stainless steel sink spraying cheese off plates.
“Daphne,” Donna said. He was drenched in water and looked like he had just rolled out of bed. “This is Tony, our new bartender.”
Daphne offered me his limp rubber glove to shake. “This is our dishwasher,” Donna said, “Daphne DuPont St Claire.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Daphne said.
I had an anxiety attack as we walked back to the bar. “I’ve never done this before,” I said. “The only drinks I know by heart are a Screwdriver and a Fuzzy Navel.”
“No one knows what they’re doing when they start, silly,” Donna laughed. “Remember: when in doubt add vodka. Everything else is in the Rolodex behind you.”
I shadowed Donna behind the bar, familiarizing myself with my duties. Not only did I mix drinks, I cut cake from the display case on the bar, sold cigarettes and made change from the Fabergé egg of a cash register. If there was time in between, I seated people and bussed tables.
Donna left me to my own devices once it slowed down. Most of the drinks were pretty simple: Bloody Caesars, Bloody Marys and Salty Dogs. Then a waitress, Sheila, ordered a Kokanee. When I couldn’t find it in the Rolodex, I asked her what was in it.
“It’s a beer,” she snarled.
“We don’t have that in Toronto,” I said in my defence.
“Pardon me,” she said, feigning deference. “I didn’t realize you were from Toronto.”
Sheila was short, with a mound of black hair held together with enough pins to point her north. “I’ve been waiting 10 seconds for that drink!” she said through gritted teeth. I thought she was kidding, but she was serious.
I cringed every time she placed an order. I never got it right; it was either the wrong thing, or there were too many, or there weren’t enough. It didn’t help that she had the penmanship of a caveman.
It was Saturday brunch and the place was filled with gay bowlers, lesbian moms and leather daddies. Disco rocked the feet and hips of customer and waiter alike. Even with the hiccups of having to look up what was in a Chi-Chi or a Sea
Breeze, I found myself working to the beat of the music. Phyllis Nelson, Gloria Gaynor, The Bee Gees, Thelma Houston, KC and the Sunshine Band, Evelyn “Champagne” King — it was a K-tel record that never stopped.
Neither did the line to get in. Everyone seemed to know each other like it was a high school reunion. I had never been around so many happy gay people in all my life.
The butterflies in my stomach were soon replaced by pangs of hunger. The food looked and smelled so good as it whisked past me, burgers with teriyaki sauce and pineapple, heaping plates of nachos, eggs Benedicts swimming in hollandaise. I wanted to stick my face in the banana-split cake every time I cut a slice of it. I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into a big juicy burger at the end of my shift.
And then when I did, it was awful. The burger was drenched in barbecue sauce and the pasta salad tasted like chalk.
“Beer?” Donna asked, holding a pair of frosty ones above me as I choked down my food.
“Please.” I was exhausted. My toes were cold and wrinkled from the puddles behind the bar.
“Good job today,” Donna said.
“Really?” I thought for sure Sheila would have blackballed me.
“When are you available to work next?”
“How does eight sound?”
“It’s official then,” she said, clinking my mug to hers. “Welcome to the graveyard.”
The graveyard was managed by Dave, a hot-to-trot straight guy with dreads. Within minutes of meeting him it became clear why he was working at a gay café: single straight women and no competition. Dave made himself at home with the gussied-up girls on their way to the Luvaffair the moment Ivy left him in charge of the place. Who could blame him? I would have fucked him if I were straight and a girl.
“Has anyone shown you the manager’s book?” he asked.
The manager’s book was a spiral notebook kept under the cigarette cabinet, crammed between the Yellow Pages and boxes of wine. Liquor laws mandated bars and restaurants keep a record of any potentially litigious incidents — which happened on a daily basis at D&P’s.
In the hands of Doll & Penny’s staff the book read like Valley of the Dolls. Hair was pulled, tips were stolen, sex was had, names were called, and every now and then there was a note from Spike to Donna to order more grenadine. I couldn’t put it down until Elsa burst through the door.
The first time I saw her, I thought Elsa was a drag queen. She spun into the café on a tornado of makeup, hair dye and spandex. “What time is it? What time is it?” she panted, like a woman who’s realized she left her baby on the bus.
“Relax,” Dave told her. “You have 15 minutes.”
“Just enough time for a coffee and smoke.” Elsa extinguished half a Benson & Hedges 100 on a dirty plate and poured herself a cup of coffee. “The traffic from Whistler was miserable.”
“Elsa’s an actress,” Dave explained. “She moved back to Vancouver from New York about six months ago.”
“I’m doing a one-woman show up at Whistler,” Elsa said, as she upended a sugar dispenser over her coffee and doused it with rehydrated non-dairy creamer. Her teaspoon clanged against the inside of her cup until her coffee was the consistency of caramel. She took a long slurp, the teaspoon narrowly missing one eye.
“Ahhh,” she said. “Nectar of the gods.”
“Elsa, this is Tony, the new bartender,” Dave said.
“Oh,” Elsa said, her face narrowing. “What happened to the guy that started last week? I liked him.”
“I suppose you won’t be far behind,” Elsa said, a thin red smile creeping across her face like a vein.
She sat at the small table beneath the traffic light and smoked two cigarettes to her one cup of coffee until it was time for her to start.
“Great,” I thought. “Another Sheila.”
Andrew was just as pleasant. He was pointy nosed and redheaded with the air of a woman in a painting by Erté. His chin jutted out as he walked toe to heel, his sneakers like stilettos. “Don’t tell me your name until you’ve been here a week,” Andrew said, dismissing the hand I offered him to shake.
“I’ll do that,” I said.
The first graveyard waiter to actually engage me in a conversation was Elvis. Were it not for his waiter’s apron, Elvis could easily have been mistaken for an anarchist on Granville St. His hair was shellacked into a Mohawk, and his clothes were held together with clothespins. His skin was the colour of a well-worn paper bag, and his heavy-lidded eyes made you want to yawn in spite of yourself.
“Have you met the Dragon Lady yet?” he asked.
“You mean there’s another one?”
And that was when the café’s door swung open, ushering in a cold wind upon which Chakra Kahn glided, wearing a sequined gown the likes of which no real woman under 60 would be caught dead in.
“Sorry everybody!” Chakra apologized to the café through a thick Filipino accent. “My show at Dufferin was late.”
“More like your trick couldn’t cum,” Andrew shouted back.
Chakra left a trail of silver tails as she ran past the bar and upstairs to change in the crow’s nest. She was there for less than a minute before whoops and hollers echoed throughout the café. “Chakra, close the damn windows when you change!” Dave shouted up to her. “We’re not licensed for that! Nobody is.”
Between the hours of midnight and 1:30am, the graveyard staff prepared for the bar rush ahead. Little metal pitchers of rehydrated non-dairy creamer were put on each table; coffee was ground into filters and stacked in a plastic container; condiments were refilled and, most important, the candles were removed from the tables.
Dave looked at the neon clock above the bar and said, “If you need to go to the can and sit down, do it now, because all hell is going to break loose in 15 minutes.”
I was two-thirds into my cigarette when Dave asked for my help behind the bar.
“We’ve got incoming!” Elsa said, slamming a drink order down.
The waiters became different people once the bar rush hit. Elsa transformed herself into a truck-stop waitress while Andrew became robotic, focusing on his tables and avoiding any extra trips. Elvis managed his section like a 1960s playboy while Chakra did her Betty Boop routine. Different though their methods were, all four worked to the beat of the music.
The bar rush went in waves. First were the early birds who wanted to cruise the front of the line as people came into the café. Next came the people who got stuck in coat check or in a line at a bank machine. Then came those who had hung out at the bar until the very last second and cruised every inch of Davie getting here. They were followed by bar staff.
People were crammed into the vestibule to stay warm. The line was pushed up against the side of the bar until people were doubled over it.
“What if there’s a fire?” I thought, just as an Amazonian drag queen pushed through the line to the groans of protest from the people in front of her. She strutted through the café in a maid’s uniform and torn fishnets, grabbed the pepper grinder and climbed up on a table to cheers and applause.
“Isn’t that sort of dangerous?” I asked Elvis.
“That’s just Stella,” he said.
“Hit it!” Stella said, pointing at Dave, who rolled his eyes and put a tape in the deck. For the next five minutes the crowd was treated to Stella’s rendition of “I Am What I Am,” which involved her deepthroating the pepper mill and then rubbing it between her thighs.
“Remind me never to touch that pepper mill again,” I told Elvis.
There is something to be said about a chandelier-lit room and its ability to loosen people up. The chandelier was always on, but after dusk the nicotine-stained crystals cast a lunar glow that transformed the café into the Paris Opera. It lent an air of grandeur to the room that gave the customers licence to behave like exiled royalty. They were not merely waiters, secretaries and retail clerks; they were celebrities dodging the paparazzi, shielding their faces with their hands from the lightning claps of flashbulbs as though their lives were tabloid fodder. And in these small circles they were.
On it went until nearly four in the morning: gay people, straight people, drag queens, hookers and transsexuals, dying to get in like the next contestant on The Price Is Right. Were I not so nervous, not so afraid of fucking up and losing my job, I could have had 50 phone numbers and a couple of blowjobs on the basis that I was fresh meat, I looked like a man, and I was standing behind a bar.
Andrew made a point of letting me know he resented the attention I was receiving. “Keep your eyes on the orders,” he reprimanded after he caught me cruising. It was sweet revenge for his bitchy introduction.
Chakra couldn’t get enough of me. “Take a bite out of crime!” she kept saying, impersonating McGruff the crime dog.
“I’m going to take a bite out of you if you don’t stop saying that,” I told her. She responded by growling and chomping at the air.
“Don’t encourage her,” Elsa said. “Or you’ll be peeling her crotch off your face like an octopus.”
As the line trickled down to just a couple of people, the back half of the café was closed to customers, allowing the waiters to clean up, stock up, eat and count their tips.
“Good job tonight,” Dave said. “You get a staff meal at 50 percent if you want.”
“No, it’s okay,” I said. I was starving, but I was too afraid of the waiters to order food from them.
“I guess we’ll see you tomorrow then.”
Elsa, Andrew and Elvis were sitting at a large round table, smoking and sorting through piles of money, like dogs playing poker. Chakra grabbed a fry from Andrew’s plate as she served him his staff meal. He swatted her hand playfully. “I know where those have been,” he said. There was love there and I desperately wanted to be a part of it.
“Good night,” I said. “Nice meeting all of you.”
No one returned the salutation.