On the counter next to the cash register was a Plexiglas box with a sticker: “Please donate to PWA.” The box was half full with five, two and one-dollar bills.
Some people asked if PWA stood for Pacific Western Airlines; others just pretended to steal the box. Fortunately for the Persons with AIDS Coalition, it was a bantamweight Fort Knox built right into the counter.
Doll & Penny’s was a thief’s Xanadu. Money was lying around on tables, the staff was distracted, and the customers were too drunk to tell who was a waiter and who wasn’t.
Recognizing me as a 20-year-old transient gay boy, the graveyard waiters quickly grabbed their tips whenever I cleared a table for them. It stung that they wore their suspicions so brazenly on their sleeves, but it made me want them to like me even more.
Next to the PWA box was a glass cabinet that housed cigarettes (sold at a markup), video and cassette tapes, phone books, boxes of the house red, and tip jars for gratuities that were left at the register — which was most of them.
The week before I had confused Andrew’s tip jar with Elsa’s after Chakra started calling him by his drag name, Morgan. Now Chakra’s sequined-and-feathered tip jar was missing completely.
Chakra came to the bar to place a drink order, squeezing her boobs at me and moistening her lips with her tongue like a peepshow performer. “You didn’t grab your tip jar did you?” I asked.
“What happened to my tip jar?”
Chakra came behind the bar and foraged the cabinet for her missing tips. She took a drag from the cigarette I had burning in the ashtray next to the register and began massaging her temples, trying to hold back the tears. Her prized red leather jacket had been stolen from the crow’s nest a couple of nights ago. The tip-jar thief was likely dining on her tips at this very moment. Suddenly, I saw myself through Chakra’s eyes. I half suspected myself of stealing her tips.
“It wasn’t me, I promise,” I said.
“I know,” she said, French inhaling a sigh of smoke. No one said a word to me for the rest of the bar rush except Elvis.
“Don’t let the BS get to you. This place is a magnet for weird shit.”
“I wish that made me feel better.”
“I think I know what will.”
After the graveyard, Elvis took me down to Yaletown on an all-expenses paid tour of the after-hours boozecans, where the magic words “Can I get an orange juice?” granted you a screwdriver.
We sneaked between the abandoned warehouses like cat burglars, presenting ourselves at dimly lit doors to men who’d done too many steroids and wore sunglasses at night and leather jackets with chains.
Elvis was to doormen what Obi-Wan Kenobi is to Imperial Storm Troopers. “It’s cool, man,” he’d wink. “We work at D&P’s.” And the door would swing open as if by magic.
I asked Elvis how old he was as we danced under another mirror ball, this time next to a statue of Michelangelo’s David dressed in leather.
“Something like 18? How old do I need to be to serve alcohol, again?”
We were draped out my bay windows, hoping the December air would prevent us from puking when I heard the sound of horses clomping up the street. “Don’t tell me the Mounties are coming,” I said.
“No,” Elvis said with a pained smile. “It’s quitting time.”
What I thought were hooves were really heels clacking on pavement. For the next several minutes, Elvis and I listened to the rhythm of the hookers coming home from the salt mines, ushering in the dawn, the cherries from their cigarettes lighting the way.
“Ever worked the street?” he asked.
“I’d get a job at McDonald’s before I did that.”
“Don’t say that around Chakra and Andrew.”
“Ex-prostitutes,” Elvis said. “They went from turning tricks to washing dishes to waiting tables. The joke around the café is that Chakra is saving to get her box.”
“Box of what?”
“Her box… Vagina. Chakra has a dick.”
“Fuck off! Elsa too?”
“No. She just acts like she does.”
Elvis took me back to the run-up to Expo 86, when Premier Bill Bennett’s “New Deal” cut jobs, essential services and welfare.
“Single mothers couldn’t afford daycare,” Elvis explained. “Meanwhile transsexuals were being deported to Vancouver from the eastern provinces, and all these teens were getting kicked out by their parents for being gay. Prostitution wasn’t just sound business sense: it gave them a second chance at a family.”
Enter the Concerned Residents of the West End, or CROWE.
“CROWE shamed the hookers and their johns by photographing them and publishing their licence plates,” Elvis said. “Except they kept catching single women and their boyfriends in the crossfire. So the city enforced the bawdyhouse laws. Landlords couldn’t knowingly rent to prostitutes and cab drivers weren’t allowed to accept fares from them — which they took advantage of. Then the cops started going to the Fruit Loop and arresting gay guys for soliciting under the new noise ordinances aimed at the hookers.”
And it worked. The hookers that were left moved to Yaletown, and the rest were slinging hash. The West End remained gay in spite of Expo 86, and Doll & Penny’s, with its outrageous awning and décor, became a destination for tourists and tour buses because of it.
“They’re good people, Chakra and Andrew,” Elvis said. “During the week, Chakra lets me crash on her couch between my graveyard shifts and business school — breakfast included. And Andrew wouldn’t give you the shirt off his back — he’d make you one.”
“I wasn’t judging,” I lied.
“Yes, you were. But it’s okay. I understand why,” Elvis said, lighting a cigarette. “I don’t believe you stole Chakra’s tips tonight, but I’ll bet you broke the law to get to Vancouver.”
He was right.
“I bought the return portion of a round-trip ticket to Vancouver for $150 from an ad I found in the Toronto Star,” I said. “But only because a co-worker said I should.”
The grey-faced man selling the ticket did so on his sister’s behalf. His apartment was cluttered with newspapers and old TV Guides; the nicotine-stained television looked like a fish tank covered in algae. I thought he was reaching for a knife when he went to get the ticket from a kitchen drawer.
“The name on the ticket is gender neutral,” I told Elvis, showing it to him as evidence.
“J Payment?” Elvis asked.
“Pay-mon?” I said. “It’s French.”
“Congratulations.” Elvis clinked his china teacup of instant coffee against mine. “That makes you an impostor and a transsexual!” He took a sip of the tepid coffee and then threw up over the side of The Holly Lodge.
The last thing I remember seeing was Chakra coming out of Doll & Penny’s after her graveyard shift. She stopped to light a cigarette, cruising the quiet street before heading home. The distant clicking of her heels counted me off to sleep like the gentle ticking of a clock.
I was drooling into the carpet when the ringing phone rattled the fillings in my molars.
“Helluw?” I snored into the mouthpiece. I looked around for Elvis. He was gone — probably to business school.
“Rise and shine!” Scooter beamed into the phone.
“I haven’t even changed out of my clothes.”
“Then you’ll be ready to meet me outside The Holly Lodge in five minutes.”
It required a couple of attempts to contort myself into the passenger seat of Scooter’s red TR6, which rattled and hummed with Donna Summer feeling love. Click went my seatbelt and down went Scooter’s Converse onto the gas petal. We catapulted past the Do Not Enter sign on Jervis St. A geriatric with a walker shook her frail fist at us in the rearview mirror.
We flew like the Dukes of Hazzard down Jervis and over Robson St, screeching to a stop on a 45-degree hill in front of an old stone building. “I give you… The Elbow Room,” Scooter said, opening my door for me.
“I’m going to need a hand here,” I said, stuck inside the car. “Or the Jaws of Life.”
Whereas D&P’s was a bordello, The Elbow Room was an abbey tucked into the side of the hill. The café’s aroma was a mixture of butter, syrup and coffee; it was a logjam of tables, chairs and autographed 8×10 photos of satisfied customers, celebrity or otherwise.
“Anywhere you like, dears,” said a grey-haired waitress with an English accent like tea and crumpets. We both ordered pancakes. My head felt like the inside of Scooter’s mug as his teaspoon clanged off the ceramic sides as he stirred cream into his coffee.
“How long have you been working at D&P’s?” I croaked.
“Feels like forever.” Scooter counted back the years on his fingers. “I started as a busboy when it was Benjamin’s in ’83.”
“There’s one on Denman. It’s like D&P’s but with a bamboo theme and baby-bottle creamers.”
“Never heard of it.”
“That’s funny. Doll & Penny’s was sort of made from Benjamin’s rib. Without Benjamin there’d be no D&P’s.”
Scooter told me the origins of Doll & Penny’s Café like it was the Book of Genesis. In the beginning, there was a Jewish deli named Au Petit Bou that was run by Papa and Mama Ed and their three sons: Leo, the attractive gay one; Levi, who was good with his hands; and Francis, the oldest and most like his father where money was concerned. Papa Ed cooked and Mama Ed waited tables; the boys did everything else.
“Even in the early ’80s, Au Petit Bou still looked like it did in the ’50s,” Scooter said. “Turquoise vinyl booths ran down both sides of the café and straight down the middle. There was a deli counter where the bar is now — but no counter service. The place thrived on the sex trade, out for cheap drinks and liver and onions.
“Then Leo, the gay son, was killed in a plane crash. The grief was too much to bear, so Papa Ed leased the space to Benjamin, who was looking to expand.”
Scooter looked around The Elbow Room to make certain the eyes on the headshots weren’t moving.
“Now this is where it gets tricky,” he said, leaning over the table. “Benjamin says he’s the one who broke the contract with Papa Ed, but the rumour is Russell Harrington, Benjamin’s general manager, pulled the rug out from under him.”
“Beats me. But next thing you know, Russell and Papa Ed are in business together.”
“Does that make Mama and Papa Ed Doll & Penny?”
“No. Russell named the café after his favourite drag cabaret in Portland, Oregon: Dahl & Penny’s. Those are real people.”
Russell installed Del Rita Deluxe as the general manager of Doll & Penny’s. Del Rita looked like a Colt model on the outside but was all girl on the inside. He managed the café the way he managed his life: with his dick.
A customer couldn’t pay? No worries; a blowjob would do.
Papa Ed had been in business long enough to know the café’s profits in no way resembled the volume of customers, which warranted being open 24/7, so Russell agreed to bring a manager in off the street.
“Ironically it was Del Rita who replaced himself,” Scooter said. “He was dating this guy Bill, whose best friend had just gotten divorced and was looking for a job.”
“That’s what we said. Blair and Yolanda wouldn’t hear of it at first, but she won us over.”
“What happened to Russell Harrington?”
“He didn’t feel like he was getting his fair share of the profits, so Papa Ed bought him out. Now he manages the Odyssey.”
Breakfast gave me my second wind. It had grown warmer since we entered the café, so Scooter pulled the roof back. He let the car coast down the hill toward Georgia St before turning on the ignition, saving us from the busy intersection at the last second like a bungee cord. Then he aimed the car toward Stanley Park, and we zigzagged silently between the trees like we were in a car commercial.
Scooter walked me back to my apartment. I unlocked the door and stood with my back against it, our faces inches apart. There was a look in his eyes, something unspoken that he was desperate to reveal but feared the consequences of, like coming out for the first time.
“Want to come in?” I asked.
My heart was pounding. There was no missing the elephant in the room. I couldn’t stop thinking about his fibrous muscles and the clefts where his cheeks should have been. But then there was that smile. I decided I wouldn’t stop him if he made the first move.
“No,” he said, and kissed me abruptly on the forehead before flying down the stairs like a masked crusader.
I breathed a sigh of relief like I had dodged a bullet, and hated myself for it.
I was convinced Donna was going to fire me after Chakra’s tips were stolen. My first shift back, I beelined for the schedule to see if I was still on it. My name was still there, but I was convinced it was a trick. Then I went behind the bar to scan the manager’s book to see if anyone had written anything mean about me.
“Tony!” Ivy said, startling me like I’d been reading my sister’s journal. “I want you to meet Dan, the new busboy.”
So they did hire someone! And they were going to make me train him! Or worse yet, pit us against each other.
“How’s it going?” I asked, my hand going cold as I shook Dan’s.
Dan had thick black hair that hung over one eye in a Dorothy Hamill bob, endearing me to him despite my paranoia. His smile exposed a crooked chip in his front tooth. He was wearing a second-hand suit vest over his T-shirt, his mile-wide black belt doing little in the way of keeping his jeans above his boxers, the cuffs rolled neatly above his buckled Docs. A chain dangled between his wallet and a belt loop.
“Dan’s replacing Kenny,” Ivy said.
“He moved back to Edmonton.”
“Just like that?”
“His welfare ran out,” Ivy said, adding to Dan, “We lose more busboys that way.”
Dan struck me as harmless enough — too harmless. Then I saw him work. You would have never known it was his first day. He was suspiciously efficient, bussing tables within an inch of their lives. This did not bode well for me. And it only got worse.
“You are doing such a good job,” that bitch Sheila said, holding Dan’s wrist like he might fly away. “Isn’t Dan doing such a good job Tony?”
“He’s doing great.”
“You’re the best new hire so far!” she said, shooting daggers at me before going back to her section.
Once Sheila was safely out of earshot, Dan turned to me and said, “Who is that fucking bitch, and why won’t she leave me alone?”
We were thick as thieves from then on.