The staff was crammed around Table 41, hiding their bedheads with baseball caps, arguing over side duties like they were the Meech Lake Accord. Donna had called the mandatory staff meeting first thing on a Tuesday morning — even for those who had worked the graveyard the night before.
“The shelves are never wiped down; the mustard and ketchup bottles aren’t full; not enough coffee is ground; the ratio of jam to peanut butter packets on the tables is atrocious,” Yolanda complained.
“What makes us beholden to you?” Elsa said, raising a cigarette-wielding hand. “I’ve got to prepare my section for the graveyard shift; why don’t you?”
“You want beholden?” Yolanda reached for his zipper. “I’ll give you beholden!”
“Yolanda! We have guests!” Donna turned in the direction of Table 46, where Papa and Mama Ed were seated with a dark-skinned man who looked like a relative who didn’t speak English. “Now if you’re done arguing, Papa Ed would like to say a few words.”
We applauded Papa Ed as he used his seatback and cane to get up from his chair. He smiled as he pulled his reading glasses and speech from his shirt pocket, then rested a wrist on his potbelly and read from the ruled paper in hand.
“Thank you for coming here at this early hour,” Papa read, gesturing woodenly like an actress who cannot recite lines and move at once. “Doll & Penny’s is a special place and your hard work is why.”
“As you know, the Gay Games are next year and we’re going to have to make some changes to prepare for them.”
“Changes?” Blair gasped. “What sort of changes?”
“I’ll let Donna explain,” Papa said, as though anticipating this sort of reaction, and shuffled back to his seat.
Donna stood at the head of Table 41 like a drunk girl on frosh week with a secret. “Okay kids, prepare yourselves!”
“I don’t want to,” Blair pouted, the brim of his cap pulled over his eyes.
“We’re getting a computer! No more handwritten orders!”
“No more adding the liquor to the food total!” I cheered. The others were not as enthused.
“Exactly. And Spike, you won’t have to balance the register tape to the cash in the till,” Donna said. Spike seemed somewhat intrigued but quickly regressed and showed solidarity with Yolanda and Blair.
“Amen to that!” Dan said.
“Thank you, Dan! We’re also getting an espresso machine.”
Everyone moaned. Thanks to a little chain called Starbucks, it was now the norm for people to order coffee in Italian using space-age measurements such as short, tall and grande. They were exactly why I didn’t want the café to get an espresso machine. I wanted us to take a stand and remain espresso-free to spite those bitches, like Streisand and her nose.
“That’s not all,” Donna said. “Two weeks from now we’re closing the café for a couple of days to renovate. We’ll be opening with a brand new chef and a brand new menu. Everyone, let me introduce to you Chef Raul!”
The man seated with Papa and Mama Ed rose from his chair and walked over to Table 41. Every generation of staff member was speechless.
“Are you out of your mind?” Yolanda complained. “You can’t change this! The reason people come here is it hasn’t changed!”
“All you guys do is complain about the cash register,” Donna said. “About people ordering lattes and how the decorations are starting to smell! The world is coming! We need a computer! We need espresso! And we can’t have racist cereal ads that say, ‘Sho am sweet’ decorating the wall!”
The table went silent with childlike shame. Donna could play us like a violin.
“I’ll let Chef Raul explain the new menu to you,” Donna said.
“Good morning. I’m Chef Raul. I come to you by way of Morocco.” None of us were impressed. “I’m sure you’re all anxious to see what I’ve done to the menu, so we’ll just get right to it.” He pulled the new menu from his briefcase and passed it around the table. It was a page long.
“Where’s the rest of it?” Spike asked.
“There isn’t any more,” said Chef Raul.
“What happened to the Magnum burger?” Andrew asked.
“That thing was disgusting. Who would eat that?”
“I do!” Andrew said.
“Why is there no gravy on this menu?” Elsa asked.
“Because it comes from a powder,” Raul said.
“And if you’re going to serve gravy it should be from scratch.”
“You got rid of mozzarella sticks?” Scooter noticed. “Those were the only things I liked.”
“They were frozen.”
“I can’t help but notice you kept milkshakes on the menu,” I said.
“And nachos,” said Donna. “We don’t want to shock the customers.”
“Too late,” Yolanda mumbled.
“I heard that,” Donna said. “All we’re doing is simplifying the menu — sticking with what works and getting rid of the rest.”
“And gravy didn’t make the cut?” Elsa asked.
“It gets even better!” said Donna. “To celebrate our grand reopening, we’re going to host a month-long fundraiser in May called the Month of Wednesdays. It’s going to be fantastic! Every Wednesday we’re going to have a live act with real performers, not just drag queens.”
“S’cuse me!” Chakra said.
“Relax! You know what I mean. There’s going to be a silent auction as well as a performance by our very own Elsa, written by Tony.”
“I beg your pardon?” Elsa said.
“You heard me,” Donna told her. “Dan is always telling me how you guys keep threatening to write a play about this place. Now’s your chance.”
“We haven’t prepared anything,” I said.
“You have a month.”
“Can we at least think about it?” Elsa asked.
“You’re already on the posters.”
Blair’s arms were still crossed. “I’m not convinced this is a good idea.”
“I know you’re nervous,” Donna said. “You’re probably thinking, What if we fuck it up? What if we ruin it? But make no mistake: Doll & Penny’s must evolve if it’s going to survive.”
“How do we know you guys aren’t trying to turn this into a family-style diner?” Blair asked.
“Look where we are. The only family-style restaurant is Black Angus on Thurlow and it’s empty,” Donna said. “Pay attention everybody because I’m going to say this once: Doll & Penny’s enters the ’90s as of today!”
The rest of us weren’t so sure. We were all well aware that The Gandydancer had not returned to its former glory after its grand reopening. It was a ghost town during the week, unable to compete with Russell Harrington’s cheap-drink nights at The Odyssey. The only reason people went there anymore was for strippers. Donna would not hear of it. So to shut us up, we all went back to my apartment at the Holly Lodge and she got us drunk on Papa Ed’s dime.
Dan would show up at my door unannounced with something he had found in a thrift shop on Commercial Dr. “I got you a present,” he’d say, grunting as he dragged a steamer chest through my door. “I thought it would make a great coffee table. It was $10, so feel free to throw it out if you hate it.”
“It was a bitch getting it here on the bus.”
“Now all I need is a place to sit.”
Dan took care of that as well.
“Look what I found!” he said, holding a handwritten “Moving Sale” sign he had ripped off the tenant bulletin board. “Everything must go!” was written in blue ballpoint pen. “Everything priced to sell” was underlined.
“She’s got a love seat for sale. Let’s check it out.”
The Holly Lodge had been sold after the holidays to a faceless property management company. The new landlords rolled their own cigarettes and put them out in cups of instant coffee. The author of the “Sale” sign had received a $150 rent increase and decided it was time to move back to Calgary where it was more affordable. News of her rent hike gave me a lump in my throat. I couldn’t afford another $150 a month!
“I got you present,” Dan said, angling a wooden desk through the door. It had strong black legs with a soft golden surface that reflected the light from the bay window. “For you to write your little play!”
“Now if I just had a chair and a typewriter.”
“It never ends with you, does it?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“I made you this tape for inspiration,” Dan said, handing me a Maxell cassette.
I read the play list aloud: “Waitress” by Jane Siberry, the theme from Bagdad Café, “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega.
“They’re songs about restaurants,” Dan said. “Now let’s go take pictures!”
Dan and I fancied ourselves as black-and-white photographers in the mould of Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts. We cycled around the city on days off, taking pictures of ourselves looking sad and away from the camera. Our photo sessions were of no comfort to Elsa, who would be starring in my so-called little play.
“Where were you?” she said when I showed up for my shift. “I called you three times.”
“Don’t you dare fuck off on me,” Elsa said. “We have a month to write and rehearse this sucker. This is no time to be getting stoned with Dan. Fuck it. I’ll just do a monologue from my one-woman show.”
“Wait a minute! This means as much to me as it does to you. This is the first thing I’ve ever had performed!”
Elsa lit a cigarette and stared deep into my eyes.
“All right. But tomorrow I’m taking you to A&B Sound and we’re getting you an answering machine. You can’t call yourself a writer unless you have an answering machine.”
The answering machine was the most expensive thing in my apartment, and since no one ever called, I used it to listen to music. It erased anything I was listening to if I didn’t get to it fast enough when the phone rang. I fucked up my copy of The Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs that way.
The alley would supply me with an office chair, and Donna donated her old electric typewriter. “Boy, does that thing bring back bad memories,” she said, handing it over. “Keep it.”
“Hey, Rhoda,” I said.
Dan and I had become Mary and Rhoda overnight. One minute we were admiring Mary Tyler Moore on the cover of TV Guide and the next thing it was “Mary” this and “Rhoda” that. Bubbles, the DJ at The Odyssey, even played the Mary Tyler Moore theme for us at last call — which was where we were headed if the damn Victoria bus would hurry up.
“What’s the ruckus about?” I asked.
“Some drunk is eating a submarine sandwich in the handicapped seats and it’s working the bus driver’s nerves.” The driver was raising his voice now, insisting the drunk stop eating. The drunk just ignored him and continued to stuff the sub into his face like a meat grinder.
“I found a name for my fictional café,” I told Dan, over the argument. “The Mermaid Café.”
“A nod to Joni Mitchell… very good young grasshopper,” he said. “How’s the play coming?”
“You don’t sound very excited.”
“It’s starting to cross my mind this could suck.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’re naturally funny. I’m looking forward to it.”
The argument between the driver and the drunk crescendoed with the bus coming to a sudden stop and the driver kicking him off. The accordion doors slammed shut and the bus swerved back into traffic.
“Do you hear someone screaming?” Dan asked.
“Oh my God!” gasped a woman sitting near the front of the bus.
The yelling and screaming was accompanied by a pounding on the bus. We stopped so hard we had to brace ourselves against the seat in front of us. The doors flung open and a chill blew through the corridor of greyish-orange seats.
“Holy shit,” said the driver.
The drunk staggered back on looking like a firecracker had gone off in his hand. His clothes had been caught in the bus doors and he had been dragged down Hastings St for several feet. One side of him was shredded and bloody but he still managed to cling to the sandwich with his free hand.
“You saw this man harass me — you saw what he did to me!” the drunk screamed. “Who’s going to testify for me in court?”
“This is exactly why I don’t come to the east end,” I told Dan.
“I’m far too stoned for the police.” Dan grabbed my hand and said, “If we run, we can still make last call.” We nearly knocked the drunk back down the stairs as we jumped off the bus like we had just held it up.
Every Sunday the graveyard shift pulled the café apart and cleaned it. The ice cream freezer and dessert case were defrosted and wiped down; the tables were scoured with bleach, and the salt and pepper shakers were emptied and washed.
We closed at midnight on Sunday but were lucky if we got out of there by 3am — it took that long to put the place back together. It didn’t help that we were usually a little drunk and stoned while we cleaned.
“How’s my script coming?” Elsa yelled over the vacuum cleaner. Elsa always found a way to do the least possible work on Sunday cleanups.
“Done. Just needs proofreading,” I told her.
“Have you read it, Dan?” Elsa asked.
“Tony won’t let me. But I’ve seen it on his desk. He’s been working hard on it.”
“So Tony,” Andrew said, emptying the saltshakers, “what have you written besides this?”
“A couple of short stories.”
“Were they ever published?”
“So, technically, this is the first thing you’ve ever written.”
“Then what proof does Elsa have you’re even good at it?”
“Shit,” said Elsa. “I never thought to check for references.”
“Tony,” Dan said, “I need help changing a keg. Why don’t you put those display muscles of yours to use and help me drag one out of the white house.”
The “white house” was D&P speak for “beer cooler.” It was glued to the side of the café like a goiter, with a door that was alarmed and padlocked. Inside was a winter wonderland of beer and schnapps.
“Thanks for getting Andrew’s claws out of my shoulders,” I said, my voice like dry ice in the sub-zero cold.
“I was being serious. I really need a keg changed.”
“Oh!” I said, and set about getting one.
“You’re such a pushover,” he said, knocking my shoulder with an open fist.
“Andrew’s right, you know.”
“He’s just jealous your talent isn’t wearing women’s clothes.”
“At least he makes his own,” I said. “How are you so sure I don’t suck when I’m pretty sure that I do?”
Dan pressed his hand over my mouth and pushed my head up against the cold metal wall. “If you don’t stop talking about how much you suck, I’m going to make you prove it.”
Dan removed his hand from my mouth and kissed me tentatively on the lips. When I didn’t resist he pushed his body up against mine and we continued making out amongst the cake boxes and kegs of beer.
“This could be considered sexual harassment,” I said between breaths.
“So sue me,” Dan said, and continued kissing me. I don’t know how long we were gone, but the others were surprised to see us when we finally came back inside.
“We were about to call the Mounties,” Elsa said.
“Where’s the keg?” Andrew asked.
“We were making out and forgot,” Dan said.
“It’s about fucking time,” Andrew said. “Now get the damn thing so we can go the hell home.”