If a staff Christmas party is the mark of a good employer, then Papa and Mama Ed were among the best.
He wore discount glasses and sale-rack suits and she looked like she belonged on a spaghetti sauce label, yet every Christmas they managed to put on a pretty spectacular drag show.
It was my first Christmas away from home after moving to Vancouver using a return plane ticket I found in the Toronto Star. My only friends were my co-workers on the graveyard shift at Doll & Penny’s Café, and our interactions were limited to the drink orders they placed at the bar.
Doll & Penny’s was baroque on a good day, gauche on a bad one. The décor was American pop culture meets British monarchy, strung together with Tiffany lamps and feather boas. But that Christmas of 1988 the café was transformed into something resembling tasteful. That was the Christmas Papa and Mama Ed hired Delrita Deluxe to decorate the café.
Wherever there was a space between the props and memorabilia, Delrita stuck a tree mummified in blue lights and ribbons. Everything else was covered in a blanket of white cotton batten with glitter in it.
You could almost hear the reflection of the blue lights tinkling in the sequined cotton snow like the sound of ice crystals forming. If you were drunk enough, you could almost see your breath. It was like an enchanted forest-or Lee’s Trail in the winter.
The rule at D& P’s was the last hired works the Christmas party. That meant Dan and myself.
Dan, another Ontarian, was on the lam from an ex-boyfriend and his student loan. At least that was what I was able to glean from him in the week or so we had worked together.
At precisely 6 pm, the café was closed and the windows covered with The Province. Tables were moved outside and the stage was set up. A few minutes before the staff was to arrive, Donna, the general manager, took Dan and I aside.
“This is how the staff party works,” she said in the same tone of voice she used to describe the mechanics of Pride Day, Halloween, and the Coronation Ball. “It’s an open bar, there’s a tip jar. The party is over when we run out of booze.”
People who don’t show up on time for work tend to show up early for an open bar. The “ahhs” got louder with each entrance, as everyone admired each other’s outfits.
In her cocktail dress, Ilsa (the only real woman working graveyards) shimmered like Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas. Andrew was dressed as Jessica Rabbit, taking every step like he was entering through a curtain. Spike looked the same except for the bow tie accessorizing his leather vest.
Once the communal buzz was on, Donna stepped up to the microphone to start the talent show.
Donna was the daughter Papa and Mama Ed never had, and den mother to the rest of us. However good we had it at Doll & Penny’s, it was all because of Donna.
“Before we bring out the entertainment,” she said, subtly using the microphone stand to balance herself, “Papa Ed would like to say a few words.”
It would take Papa and Mama Ed longer to make their way to the stage than it would for him to thank the staff for all our hard work. From my place at the bar, I was struck by how much they reminded me of my own immigrant parents, who were not much older than they were.
I wondered how different my life would have been if, instead of pushing a broom in a Southern Ontario high school, my father had opened a deli on Davie St. I would probably never have left home.
At 19, drag was a taste I had not yet acquired. Our dishwasher’s rendition of “Snowbird” only served as a reason why.
Daphne could barely keep his eyes open from the weight of his lashes. His dress looked like it was made out of Glad bags and his wig had the body of teased pubic hair, yet his performance harkened back to a time when someone lip-synching in front of a TV camera was considered entertainment.
“Spread your tiny wings and fly away,” Daphne pretended to sing, oblivious to the “boos,” lost in the song like a teenager in his room pretending to be Anne Murray on The Tommy Hunter Show.
Scooter took Daphne’s place on stage. He looked as if there were something seriously wrong with him. His mini-dress had a hoop skirt that made him look like a bell. His cheeks were dimpled with two red dots; his lipstick a little heart in the middle of his lips.
Despite this, the Shirley Temple curls almost made him pass for a real woman. A real woman who had made herself up without ever having seen a cosmetics commercial or a fashion magazine.
Scooter, a dinner waiter, lampooned Melissa Etheridge’s “Somebody Bring Me Some Water.” Halfway through the first chorus, several audience members took it upon themselves to throw glasses of water at him. He did not know the words, nor did he choreograph a step, but it was still one of the best drag numbers I had seen in my life.
Until Yolanda and his boyfriend stepped up to the stage.
It was the first time I had seen drag queens with moustaches. They hung their heads solemnly; their bouffants pointed at the audience like cannons, holding hands under their velvet-hooded capes with white fur trim.
A choir began to sing and they raised their heads slowly heavenward-then boom! As if flares had gone off, the tempo revved up, and they whipped off their capes revealing these metallic green dresses and launched into a dance number that left them and the audience breathless.
“My act looks stupid next to that,” Scooter said to me.
“No, Scooter. Your act looked stupid, period,” I told him.
“Aw, thanks!” he said with all sincerity.
Donna’s contribution to the show was to read selections from the manager’s book. The book was required by law to record incidents where the police were involved, but at D&P’s it read more like the diary of Davie St in the late 1980s. Customers fought with each other and the staff; homeless people refused to leave; bomb threats were made. There were power outages, Welfare Wednesdays, counterfeit bills, and dines and dashes.
However serious the incident was at the time, in retrospect, it read like slapstick comedy.
The show ended with the chef dressed as Santa handing out stockings filled with an orange, some chocolate kisses, a couple of airplane bottles of liquor, and two joints.
Santa was Papa and Mama Ed’s cue to leave. There was always a pause after they left, one akin to a teen listening for the sound of his parents’ car leaving the driveway.
Once the coast was clear, the real party began. It started with people dancing on the tables, graduated to clothes coming off, and descended into passing out. We ran out of booze just as the first person was about to throw up.
Scooter and his escorts were the last people to leave. Donna tried locking the door behind them, but her keys spun in the lock like tires in the snow.
“No!” she said, kicking the door. Donna smiled at us. “I have to catch a plane in a couple of hours. You two wouldn’t mind hanging out here until Spike arrives?”
There was no saying no.
“I love you two!” Donna said, hugging us. “Help yourselves to anything you want. Food… booze… I’m sure there’s coke laying around here somewhere.”
“Can you hang out long enough for us to smoke a joint out back?” Dan asked.
“Sure!” Donna said brightly.
I followed Dan out back to the White House where we kept the beer kegs and desserts. We passed the joint back and forth, shivering, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.
We sauntered back inside the café, stopping to pour draft beer into milkshake containers, and then plopped ourselves at a booth in the front window.
We looked like a couple from a Hopper painting, drinking and smoking, bags under our eyes. Every now and then someone would poke their head through the unlocked door and ask, “Are you open?”
“No,” we’d groan, like it was obvious.
Shortly before 5 am the door burst open. “You would not believe my night,” Scooter said, falling onto the floor, his hoop skirt exposing his cock and balls through his red stockings.
“You didn’t go to the baths dressed like that, did you?” Dan asked.
“I went to the baths, then I went home and discovered I left my keys with my escort, so I went back to the baths, but he was already gone, and now I’m here until my landlord wakes up. What are you doing here?”
We told him about the lock and Donna’s plane. “Typical. Consider yourselves off-duty. I’m up anyway.”
Neither Dan nor I were ready to call it a night, grateful to have someone to talk to. We watched the sun come up on Davie St from my apartment in the Holly Lodge until it was impossible to keep our eyes open another minute longer.
“I have to go, or I won’t be able to ride my bike back to the East End,” Dan said.
At the door Dan stopped and said, “If you’re not doing anything for Christmas you’re more than welcome to spend it with me and my roommates. We don’t have a tree or anything and one of my roommates is in a cult, but… you know…”
“Sounds great,” I said. “I’d love to come.”
From my bay window I watched Dan ride his bike down Davie into the sun, feeling, for the first time, like I belonged.