Club courtesy was written with invisible ink into the benefits package of every Doll & Penny’s employee next to extended health and dental.
The rule among the clubs was bar staff didn’t wait in line or pay cover. “I work at Doll & Penny’s,” I would tell the doormen and they’d let me in. I always hesitated to use it and was amazed when it worked.
Conversely, bar staff were allowed to cut the line at the height of the bar rush — coffee included. Every weekend at 3:30am, Dan or I would get a call from Graceland, Luvaffair or the Odyssey requesting a table for 10 or 12. Fifteen minutes later bartenders, bar backs and go-go dancers would saunter past the line of shivering disco minxes in their nylon shirts by Body Wear.
Doll & Penny’s was famous for seating large parties at a moment’s notice. Tables 34 and 41 accommodated 10 easily. Table 34 was on a riser guarded by a wood railing with four rickety stairs leading up to it. There are decaying farms in Saskatchewan that have sturdier foundations than Table 34. The degree of navigating the stairs with a tray of water glasses was an 8.5. Drag queens loved it for that very reason.
Drag queens, like bridesmaids, travelled in groups of five or more, and in the ’80s, you were lucky if you could raise 50 bucks between them. Most worked counter jobs or were on welfare, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s, determined to follow in the footsteps of Craig Russell, who had not one, but two movies under his belt.
After the bar rush, Dan would cut each waiter, one section at a time, until only the midnight waiter was left. With the back closed to customers, we’d rehash the night around Table 31 over cigarettes and beer smuggled from the bar in milkshake tins. It reminded me of my parents’ house when all eight of us kids descended on the kitchen after a day of school or work. Arms crisscrossed each other for condiments, cigarettes, lighters and food. The only time a hand was slapped was when it got too close to money.
“Christ, Dan,” Elsa said, blowing away cigarette smoke. “Were you going for the world record for most drag queens at one table?”
“They were only eight when I sat them.”
“Does anyone know how much weight that riser can actually support?” I asked. “The elevator at the Holly Lodge can’t handle that many people.”
“Only thing holding that table up is the shit crammed beneath the riser,” said Andrew, thumbing through a wad of two-dollar bills.
“One of these days, one queen too many is going to sit up there and kerplunk! That table is going to cave in,” Elsa slurred.
Elsa, Andrew, Chakra, Dan and I conjured this image simultaneously and broke into peals of laughter.
“I can see the feathers rising from the dust now!” I said, wiping away tears.
“I’d probably pour coffee on them like they were still there,” Elsa said, laughing so hard it dislodged the tar and nicotine in her lungs, causing her to gasp for breath.
“You two should do a play about that,” Dan said.
“Of what?” I asked.
“The table collapsing. Tony could write it and Elsa could star.”
Elsa and I looked at each other. We had become close and everything, but neither of us was prepared to make that sort of artistic commitment and admit we were friends.
“Where would we perform it?” I asked.
“Here, dummy!” Dan said. “On the stage.”
“Donna wouldn’t go for that,” Elsa pshawed. “This is a drag joint.”
“And you’re the biggest drag queen here,” Andrew said.
“Whatever,” said Dan. “You’re throwing away a perfectly good opportunity. Both of you already have a fan base with your customers.”
Our doubts aside, Elsa and I secretly entertained the idea of writing a play over coffee and cigarettes. The more we talked about it, the harder we laughed. We tingled with excitement, but then reality would quickly set in. Where would we get the money? Who would direct? Before long, any notion of putting on a play devolved into one more pipe dream, a feat that compared to climbing Everest in its execution.
It was the height of the bar rush. The kitchen had ground to a halt and we were short a busboy. Stella was on top of Table 41 doing “I Am What I Am” and humping the pepper grinder. The phone rang.
“Uh huh… uh huh,” Dan said into the receiver. “Okay then, I’ll be sure to let everyone know.” Dan hung up the phone and turned to me. “Apparently there’s a bomb in here and it’s going to detonate in an hour.”
“Should I call the cops?”
“Fuck that, let’s just leave.”
“That was my first impulse, but I’m sort of responsible for the place.” The phone rang again. Dan picked it up. “Uh huh… uh huh… Okay, I’ll make sure to let everyone know.” He hung up.
“He called back to say the first call was just a joke.”
“Call the cops.”
“When would someone have the time to plant a bomb in here? The place is never empty.”
“Excuse me?” said the person at the front of the line. “Are you seating us or not?”
“We just received a bomb threat,” Dan said. “Still want a table?”
“We’ll try Mary’s.”
Dan gathered Chakra, Andrew, Elvis and Elsa around the bar and told them about the bomb threat. “What do we do?” Dan asked.
“We used to get them twice a week when I started here,” said Andrew.
Chakra turned off the tape deck, cleared her throat and broadcast, “S’cuse me! S’cuse me!” Drunken chattering continued. “Shut up!” she shouted in her man voice. “Everyone, we just got a bomb threat.”
Either no one understood her Philippine accent or they didn’t care. “Is that why it’s taking so long for my fucking nachos?” someone shouted.
“That settles that,” Dan said. “I’ll guess I’ll just log it in the manager’s book then.”
One of the cooks came out of the back and asked Dan, “What’s this about a bomb?”
“It’s nothing,” Dan said.
“Why are we cooks always the last to know? This is just like the Titanic, man!” Then the cook thought of something. “Did you call the cops?”
“No.” A siren just happened to be coming up Davie St toward the café as Dan said this.
“Fuck,” the cook shouted, making haste to the kitchen. “The cops are coming! The cops are coming!” Cooks scurried about the kitchen faster than we had ever seen them move, rifling through pockets for drugs and consuming them before Dan could stop them.
“The cops aren’t coming!” Dan shrieked. “See, the sirens are gone. Everything’s fine.”
But it was not fine. The kitchen staff quickly melted before our eyes into pools of depression and laughter. Where the bomb threat failed in scaring people away, it succeeded in completely shutting down the café.
“That guy’s never getting his nachos now,” Elsa said, lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke into the heat lamps.
Table 31 was also where Donna did her paperwork.
“Tony? Could I talk to you for a second?” Donna asked as I breezed past on my way to start my shift.
“Of course,” I said. I loved talking with Donna. In my darkest moments when I thought Ivy would succeed in driving me out of the café, Donna somehow managed to massage my spirits and make everything okay.
“Do you remember serving an asshole in a mink coat a few days ago?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
It was around 11. Chakra and Andrew had decided the shake machine was broken. Since I hated making milkshakes as much as the next guy, I was all for it.
I had the front of the café. The window booths were full and I remember the man in question ignoring the “Wait To Be Seated” sign and plopping himself down at a dirty booth — a big no-no at Doll & Penny’s. I asked if he wanted anything to drink, as I cleared the table for him.
“Chocolate shake,” he grunted.
“Shake machine is broken.”
“Yeah, broken. It’s kind of old.”
“When do you plan on fixing it?”
“Soon,” I said, rolling my eyes at him.
“How long has it been broken?”
“It was broken when I got here.”
“Have you checked to make sure? Because if I was a waiter trying to increase sales, I wouldn’t take someone’s word on something as expensive as a milkshake.”
I was like, “Whatever, guy,” and backed away from the table like he was crazy.
He sent his burger back twice. Nothing was to his standard. He didn’t wait for his bill. Not only did he stiff me on a tip, he shorted me on the bill. Asshole.
“That asshole was Francis, Papa Ed’s oldest son. He complained about you to Papa Ed. He said he ordered a shake and you told him the shake machine was broken then gave him attitude.”
“I said the machine was broken, but I didn’t give him attitude.”
“He said you flitted about like you owned the place.”
“Subtle and an asshole.”
“Well?” Debra offered me a cigarette from her pack.
“I’m sorry for lying about the shake machine,” I said, taking a 100mm cigarette from her.
“I looked at the schedule,” she said. “If I know Chakra and Andrew, they probably talked you into it.”
“In my own defence, I was no ruder to him than he was to me.”
“He wants you fired.”
“Holy shit! Does he have that kind of pull?”
“No. Francis owns the Hotel California. He’s nothing likes his father where business is concerned; the mink coat says it all. But he’s still Papa Ed’s son, and he has his sights set on this place. I just wanted you to know I stuck up for you. You do too much around here.”
“And on that note, if we’re open, the shake machine is working.”
“Got it,” I said.
“Unless it’s broken,” she smiled.
In the ensuing weeks of my dress-down, I found a way into Ivy’s good favour. I was bartending one evening when she came behind the bar with a piña colada I had just made. “What does this taste like to you?” she asked nonchalantly, handing me the frozen brandy snifter.
I took a sip from the straw. The creamy slush barely made it to the back of my mouth before I started gagging. It tasted like soap instead of coconut.
Ivy reached under the bar and pulled out two identical condiment bottles; one was coconut syrup and the other dish soap. I held my breath.
“I’ve done that so many times,” she laughed.
“If my father were here, he would have said, ‘I knew you were going to do that!’”
“Real slave driver, huh?”
“When it came to church and chores.”
Then Ivy smacked the back of my head and said in a bad Italian accent, “Get upah you lazy ass, you spaghetti-head.” Ivy’s coltishness caught me off guard. I started laughing in spite of my sore head.
“That’s funny,” I told her. “Except I’m Portuguese.”
A week later, she was still calling me Spaghetti-Head. Then she started doing it for friends, which wouldn’t have been so bad if she didn’t hit me upside the head every time.
“Why does she call you that?” Dan asked. I told him the story of the piña colada. “Well it’s not funny anymore. It’s sort of degrading.”
“Yeah, but she leaves me alone.”
“That doesn’t make it okay,” Dan said. “I should say something to Donna.”
Dan thought about it. “No. They’re too close.”
The joke did not get truly humiliating until Ivy summoned me to Table 31 to do the gag for Donna, Papa and Mama Ed. None of us saw it coming. And when they didn’t laugh, Ivy did it again.
“I thought Tony was Portuguese,” Donna said, trying to break the tension.
“If you don’t mind,” I said, rubbing my head. “I’m going to go back to work.”
I was convinced Ivy was going to give me an ulcer or cancer, so powerful was her grip on my anxieties. The only antidote was dancing at Graceland and getting drunk with Elvis. We had made the mistake of stopping by the café for breakfast on the way home from one of our benders when Ivy came barrelling down on us.
“Just the guys I was looking for,” she shouted from across the café.
“She better not be coming to call me Spaghetti-Head,” I told Elvis.
Ivy scooped a salt shaker from a table en route to the door and slammed it on the bar near where we were standing.
“What are these supposed to be?” she asked, pointing at the yellow flecks dotting the shaker. We had no fucking clue what she was talking about.
“How many times have I told you not to put rice in the salt shakers?” she demanded. “What do you think this is? A rice paddy?” Then she stormed off.
“Two for smoking?” Spike said, holding up the two remaining digits of his left hand and seating us at a table even though a booth was available.
“We didn’t even work last night!” I said to Elvis. “Who the hell puts rice in a salt shaker anyway?”
“Chakra does. It’s her thing. She refuses to stop.”
“It drives me crazy how no one says anything about Ivy. Yolanda, Blair, Spike… I’m sure if they said something, Donna would listen.”
“I know what we can do,” Elvis said. “We can go to the beach and smoke a joint.”
“That’s your solution for everything.”
We went down to English Bay after breakfast to scope out a secluded spot.
We turned to see Scooter and Dex getting high against a log. They too had been complaining about Ivy.
“She asked me what a Lumberjack was,” Dex explained. “And I said it’s a guy that cuts down trees, and then she got all pissy and said, ‘I meant what’s in a Lumberjack Breakfast, stupid!’”
Dex was a man of few words and every airline steward’s wet dream. Once a week, some Australian would come into the café looking for him. “Probably a space waitress from Qantas,” Yolanda would whisper into my ear with a wink and a nudge. “He’s slept with half the fleet.”
The four of us spent the next hour getting high and plotting to overthrow Doll & Penny’s. “Donna can’t keep ignoring this if all four of us complain,” Scooter said.
It was decided we would each take Donna aside before our shift and explain how miserable Ivy was making life for the waiters. I felt empowered as we clasped hands in solidarity, but I started having doubts as soon as the pot wore off.
My knees rattled as I opened the door to the café. Spike and Dex were all over me as soon as I crossed the threshold, bubbling over with excitement.
“Hear that yelling?” Dex said, jumping up and down like a little kid. “That’s Ivy getting fired!”
“Dex got Ivy fired!” Spike jumped in.
“I’ll admit, I chickened out when I got here,” Dex said. “But then she yelled at me for seating some homely person in the front window, so I marched right up to the crow’s nest and told Donna. Turns out there were rumours we weren’t seating AIDS patients in the front booths.”
“Next thing you know, Ivy’s in Donna’s office,” Spike butted into the story. “And Ivy is calling Donna a cunt and a whore.”
The café shuddered when Ivy slammed the green metal door closed behind her for the last time. We could hear her curses from the parking lot.
“Wow,” I said. “And all it took was one person.”
“Yup,” Dex said, proud as punch.
“It’s always the quiet ones,” Spike said, patting Dex on the back.