When you accepted a position on the graveyard shift at Doll & Penny’s, you did so knowing you might never be promoted.
None of the graveyard staff would admit it, but we secretly hoped a senior waiter would die of anything but AIDS. It was a credit to the graveyard’s fortitude that a senior waiter didn’t accidently slide down the green wooden stairs from the crow’s nest.
The phone rang, as it often did, while I was in the middle of writing a letter home. I muted gayblevision on the TV I was renting from Granada and rolled across the floor with a cigarette burning between my fingers.
“You’ll never guess what’s happening,” Dan hissed into the phone.
“Why are you whispering?”
“I’m in the crow’s nest.”
“Is the café being robbed?”
“Listen! Who do we hate the most?”
“That bitch Sheila! We hate that bitch Sheila!”
“You didn’t specify which shift.”
“Well, that bitch Sheila just had a nervous breakdown by the shake machine and is being wheeled out of here on a gurney as we speak!”
“What have I done to make you tease me this way?”
“This is no tease.”
And then I heard the sirens through my bay window.
“This is how the Munchkins must have felt when Dorothy landed on the Wicked Witch,” I said. “It’s Tuesday — why are you even there?”
“I was picking up my tips to go dancing at Graceland.”
I butted out my smoke during the lull in the conversation. Then, without warning, Dan and I erupted into bitchy, evil laugher.
My Catholic guilt quickly reared its ugly head and I was plunged into repressive shame.
“Listen to us. We’re horrible,” I said. “I feel responsible. It’s like I willed this to happen.”
“Don’t you dare go taking all the credit for this. Shit! Donna is coming towards the crow’s nest. I’m going to sneak out the back before she asks me to work. Come dancing! It’s Bad Boys’ Night!”
“Okay. Come get me.”
I rolled back to where I had left my cigarettes and lit another. It wasn’t like me to take pleasure from another person’s misery, but here I was, blowing smoke in the air like I’d just had sex.
I hadn’t felt this happy since I was hired at Doll & Penny’s and got an apartment in The Holly Lodge all in the same day. A great weight was lifted from my chest knowing I never had to work with that snarling bitch Sheila ever again.
I filled my lungs with another drag from my cigarette.
If I was confident of anything it was my ability as a waiter. Back at the 4D’s Diner I was famous for carrying seven plates of food at once or six cups of coffee. Kitchen staff and managers alike loved working with me because I was fast and self-sufficient. “Prepare to be dazzled,” I thought when I showed up with Dan for waiter training.
Scooter was the official Doll & Penny’s trainer since his was the nicest disposition of the wait staff. He pretended to dab his eyes with a paper napkin like a proud mother on commencement day when we arrived.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day you two made it to waiter training,” he said. “It’s been so long, I almost forget how to do it. Let’s start with the sections.”
These were not so much sections as they were archipelagos of tables that were constantly being rearranged. The café could be divided three ways: front to back, side to side and into quarters. The sections were mapped out on a laminated diagram the waiters argued over like the obscure rules of a board game.
“Look at the diagram,” they’d shout — Elsa usually. She knew the sections like the freckles on her hand and was expert at manipulating them to her advantage.
For the purposes of training, Dan and I split the non-smoking section — the smallest section in the café.
“So, before your shift you look at the 86’ed board to see what we’re out of. Then you check what the soup of the day is and the specials. After that you pick which colour you want to be on the traffic light and write your name beside it. That’s so the cook knows which light to turn on when your food is up.”
“I always wondered who controlled the traffic light,” I said.
“Me too,” said Dan.
“That’s one of the café’s worst kept secrets,” Scooter said.
Scooter pulled a numbered check from his apron and showed it to us like it was a gun and he was Angie Dickinson in Police Woman.
“Now this is how you take an order…”
My head started spinning two minutes into orientation. The bill had two sides: one for food and one for liquor. Orders were written by hand then entered into an electronic cash register before they were walked back to the kitchen. Carbon paper was involved, and you had to remember to add the liquor total to the food total or it came out of your pocket.
The key to my success as a waiter in Toronto was Remanco, which was a computer with a little LED screen that broke a menu down into numerical codes and sent them by telepathy to a printer in the kitchen. Not only did it print the bill over and over, it added it for you as well. What Scooter was describing was the Dark Ages where I was concerned. What was wrong with these people? It was the ’80s, man!
Sure enough, I forgot to add the liquor to the total of my first table. Scooter patted me on the shoulder. “It was just a beer. I’ll get Spike to void it.”
Dan took to his section like sequins on a drag queen. He waited circles around me; he even picked up tables for Scooter when he got too busy. I struggled with only three.
At the end of our shift, Dan walked out with a nice wad of bills, whereas I barely made 20 bucks. If it were a competition, Dan certainly would have won.
If I couldn’t wait tables, then what could I do? I had no other skill. I might as well take my place next to Daphne in the dish pit.
I left the café feeling defeated, beaten at my own game. Part of me couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t payback for laughing at Sheila’s misfortune.
Elsa was next in line to the throne we called the dinner shift. “So long, suckers,” she said on her first shift after Sheila’s breakdown. “Dinners, here I come!”
That’s why it gave us all such great pleasure to read this message from Donna in the manager’s book: “In an effort to keep up morale on the graveyard, I will be rotating waiters into Sheila’s old schedule instead of promoting by seniority as in the past.”
“I don’t know what makes me happier,” Andrew confided. “The fact that we’re all getting a dinner shift or the look on Elsa’s face when she read the manager’s book.”
“I’m having a hard time picturing Chakra Kahn serving dinner in fishnets and a miniskirt,” said Dan.
Now that I been promoted, my schedule was split evenly between bartending and waiting shifts. I hated it. Between the sections and the ordering system, waiting tables at D&P’s was high school gym all over again.
The customers didn’t help. Half were too drunk to know where they were, much less read a menu and pick something from it. It felt like I was waiting tables in a painting by Salvador Dali.
I was kept awake at night by nightmares about the place. In one dream my section was the entire length of Davie St. In another, I went home without giving a table their bill.
I looked forward to my bartending shifts the way an office clerk looks forward to the weekends — which were one and the same. I knew what I was doing behind the bar and I never had to walk very far, plus I got to work in close proximity with Dan. It didn’t take long for us to become the backbone of the graveyard.
The waiters relied on us more than Stan since he was preoccupied with trying to pick up all the single ladies. I knew Dan and I had come through the fire when Chakra nicknamed us “Uncle” and “Cousin” respectively.
“Why am I the cousin?” I asked Dan.
“You think I like being Chakra’s uncle?”
Although I had suffered my fair share of setbacks at Doll & Penny’s, I had never come so close to tears as I did my first dinner shift waiting tables with Ivy.
“Work with me, people! Work with me!” she’d yell, clapping her hands like Muffy Tepperman from Square Pegs to everyone’s annoyance.
Nothing I did was right. I was taking an order when I should have been delivering food. I didn’t clear ashtrays fast enough or sell enough desserts. If I went for a cigarette to compose myself, she would yell at me to get back on the floor.
“Do you know how many waiters would kill for your job?” she was fond of saying. “I could replace you before the end of the night with all the resumés I have upstairs!”
Sensing my frailty, Scooter and Dex pulled me aside at the end of my shift and said, “We know how to cheer you up.”
They took me to the Dover Arms on Denman, where the waitress’s eyes lit up when she saw us. “Don’t you guys work at Doll & Penny’s?” she asked.
I had never seen her in my life.
“See what I mean?” Scooter said, patting my hand. “This too shall pass.”
Scooter and Dex entertained me with horror stories from bygone years when Russell Harrington still owned the place. There was backstabbing and nepotism; it wasn’t unusual to lose shifts to whomever Russell was fucking. Scooter’s eyes beamed at the memory of it all. Here was a man who fought to live for each day and yet he was determined to make me smile. It helped put things in perspective, reminded me that however rotten I thought I had it, things could always be worse.
I was not the only target of Ivy’s criticism, but I took it the hardest. Every member of the graveyard staff started their shift with the question, “Is Ivy here?” But there was no definitive answer since she might suddenly appear from a cloud of smoke and demand your attention.
“She’s spying on us,” Chakra said, counting her tips.
“I know,” Elsa said, lighting a cigarette even though she had one going in the ashtray. “I once let her in through the back door so she could sneak up to the crow’s nest.”
“I caught her watching us from across the street with binoculars,” Andrew said.
“You did not!” said Dan.
“Okay, she didn’t have binoculars, but she was watching from in front of the Princess Dry Cleaners.”
“I don’t understand why we get the brunt of her shit when we’re the ones selling the most food!” Elsa complained. “Do you know what they sell on the breakfast shift? Three hundred dollars! If they’re lucky! I sold 800 tonight!”
“So did I,” said Andrew. “That’s a lot of burgers and fries.”
“Now Elsa, however bad you think you may have it on graveyards now,” I scolded her — Dan, Chakra and Andrew helped me finish Donna’s familiar refrain — “the senior staff had it worse.”
“Fuck off,” Elsa said.
“Ivy doesn’t pick on the senior staff because she’s afraid of them,” Andrew explained.
“No shit, Sherlock,” said Chakra.
“There has to be something we can do,” I pleaded, hoping to start a rebellion.
“No one gives a shit about us,” Elsa said. “Ivy’s right. For every one of us there are 20 people waiting to take our place. Let’s face it — there aren’t a lot of good waiting jobs in this town.”
“There aren’t that many jobs, period,” Andrew said. “And I don’t have the stamina to go back to working the street.”
“Ivy might be able to replace us with someone else, but that doesn’t mean they have the stomach for it,” Dan told her.
“It can get pretty ugly,” Elsa said, putting her cigarette out in the ketchup for her fries.
Our fears were not unfounded, just misguided. Ivy was out to fire someone, but it wasn’t the serving staff. She had been observing how Dan and I seated the customers, bussed the tables and helped the waiters out while Stan table-hopped like the captain of the high school football team.
Dan and I often joked that they should change the name of the place to “D&T’s.” We never took ourselves seriously, which was probably why we worked so well together. It was gruelling, exhausting work, but we always found a way to make it fun.
The three months we had worked there was the longest the graveyard shift had gone without someone quitting. We were a family and Stan was the deadbeat brother who lived rent-free in the basement.
“What are you doing?” Dan asked on the phone.
“Writing a letter.”
“Want to go for a walk?”
Dan got us high on Sunset Beach as we walked along the shore toward the inukshuk. The tide was out, leaving a killing field of clams for the seagulls to break open upon the barnacled rocks.
“I love stepping on the empty shells,” I said, grinding one into the sand. “It sounds like bones crunching under my feet, like I’m Godzilla — raah!”
“They fired Stan,” Dan blurted out.
“Donna fired Stan. They haven’t been happy with him for a long time, apparently.”
“First I heard of it.”
“Donna offered me his job.”
“Did you take it?”
“I said she should offer it to you. You would be better at it; you love the café so much. I can take it or leave it.”
“What did she say?”
“That you’re too young.”
“So did you take it?”
“Yeah. But I wanted to make sure you were cool with it.”
“Of course I am. Wow, Dan! D&T’s!”
“D&T’s,” he said, smiling crookedly.
His first shift managing the graveyard, we all stood back and let Dan do his thing. He experimented with seating two parties of two at one of the larger tables and was man enough to admit it didn’t work.
The straight girls who came into the café after last call were sad to see Stan gone, but there was plenty of other eye-candy to keep them occupied. For his part, Stan could have filed a wrongful dismissal suit on the basis of his sexual orientation, but luckily for Ivy, Donna and the café, there were no such laws on the books in Canada.
None of us knew it at the time, but a torch had been passed to us. It was the beginning of a new Golden Age and in many respects, the beginning of the end of Doll & Penny’s Café.