I was lucky to the get the job. At 17 I was on my own and needed to get enough cash together to support myself and pay tuition for the college I planned to attend in the next year. I wasn’t exactly the poster child for a conservative service industry. My red hair, short and spiky, Cleopatra eyeliner and safety pin accented black wardrobe worked against the traditional waitress image. The hair could be flattened out (though it clashed with the red polyester tunic of my uniform). The stovepipe black jeans and high top converse runners were allowable and so I became an employee of The House of Gene better known to all and sundry as Gene’s Chinese food restaurant.
Gene’s was the po’ boy cousin of the swanky Lee’s restaurant blocks situated around the corner and up the block in the CBD of the artistically blessed Stratford, Ontario. Located back to front across the street from an adult club and nestled between retail establishments Gene’s could always be counted on for a hot plate of steaming rice and Moo-shu pork from 12 in the afternoon until 1 am most weekdays, or 3 am on Friday and Saturday nights.
The restaurant itself was a long room, narrower at the front than the back, with the largest visual distinction being a set of swinging doors at the end that led to the kitchen. There was no real foyer. As you entered the restaurant there was a desk and a till where receipts and take out orders were processed. The small counter that followed housed glasses, ashtrays and cutlery. The front wall was completed by a refrigerated display case complete with see-through sliding doors so that you could pick the beer or dessert of your choice. Tables lined each side of the room.
White clad kitchen staff would gather at the back during the slow hours to smoke and eat family style. Melodic laughter would drift up mixed with soft and mysterious Asian syllables. Dinner for the kitchen staff was not listed on the regular menu. It wasn’t smothered in the MSG found in big wooden barrels in the basement storage room. The coarse crystals of chemical were ladled into buckets with laundry detergents scoops for transport to the kitchen upstairs to season the Canadian Chinese food. Steaming vegetables and bowls of meat and broth, "real" Chinese food, disappeared and reappeared as chopsticks dipped in and out drawing the contents into smaller individual bowls. The smell of whitefish would waft forward from the back of the restaurant mixing with the aroma of ginger and soy.
The waitresses would convene at the first table on the right hand side of the restaurant just behind the dessert cabinet that was filled with tapioca puddings and cubed Jell-O in parfait glasses. The Lee family who owned the restaurant were good employers and didn’t see the sense of "busy work". If the tables were clean and empty, the fridge and ketchup bottles were full we were left to our own devices which, given the company, was usually smoking and gossip.
I suppose we were an odd looking group but it never occurred to me. Attending high school full time and working until 1 am or 3 am pretty much every night didn’t leave me much time for reflection. I couldn’t have told you any of my co-workers last names though I spent hours in their company. There were 4 of us who waited tables. At 17 I was the youngest. Next in line was Tracy, red headed, Rubenesque and in her early twenties. Tracy would gain the dubious distinction of briefly dating my brother after they met on one of his rare visits to town. It was a relationship that went nowhere with the added bonus of me being left to try to clean up the mess he left behind (it wouldn’t be the last time).Tracy and I usually worked the bulk of the late and weekend shifts.
The oldest of the group was painfully gaunt and ever bitter Marg. Marg was always unhappy about something. Pale,slight and grey she would have been in her sixties at the time. Marked by heavy unplucked eyebrows, her face wore a perpetual frown having settled into that expression after so many years of irritation and dissatisfaction. The bane of Marg’s existence while at work, as far as I could tell, was Cynthia. Cynthia was the final member of our quartet.
Marg swore Cynthia wasn’t her real name. She said that her name was really Donna but Donna liked “Cynthia” better. It seemed to eat away at Marg and she’d always refer to Cynthia as Donna when she gossiped about her even occasionally throwing it in Donna’s face, accusing her of putting on airs with her fancy name.
Cynthia must have been in her late 30’s or early forties but it was hard to tell. She was full figured. Her round face was pancake makeup made up all in pinks and corals and her full lips were often chapped and peeling. She wore cat’s eye glasses that shaded unexpectedly beautiful blue-grey eyes. The whole look was topped off with a variety of mail order wigs from the Eva Gabor collection. Marg swore that Donna/Cynthia’s hair was hip long under those wigs but for some reason she preferred to wear the wigs. Marg also claimed that Donna/Cynthia’s wigs gained their somewhat frizzy look by being washed and dried with her clothes in the home washing machine and dryer. It never occurred to me to wonder how Marg could possible know any of this.
They certainly weren’t friends. They would sit and smoke at the front table and Marg would pester and pick at Cynthia. Cynthia was for the most part placid and would do her best to ignore the carping. When Cynthia wasn’t around Marg would trot out tales of Donna’s shortcomings and sins which included frequent inebriation, gambling and prostitution. I didn’t set much store by it as I couldn’t imagine quiet, placid Cynthia doing any of those things and if she had or still was what business was it of mine? I liked her and she was easy to work with.
The boss was willing to spring for one complimentary meal a shift and it was usually the only thing I’d have to eat in a day. For the better part of a year and a bit I existed on the number 5 special, one egg roll, sweet and sour chicken, chicken chow mien and chicken fried rice…all the food groups as far as I was concerned. If business was good and the big boss was around once in a while he’d treat the staff to a beer after hours.
The restaurant would be clean. The tables would be ready for the next day, set with clean ashtrays and full condiment bowls. As we sat around after the bustle of work was through we’d chat a bit and wind down before going home. I didn’t much like beer but I was polite and would drink one when offered. I don’t think I ever actually finished a whole bottle. Usually it was OV (short for Old Vienna) which wasn’t really very popular but you had to stock a variety just in case.
Thursday night was one of those nights. On this particular occasion Marg had been prevailed to work an unusual late shift and we were busy right up to closing time. It was good to just sit around afterwards, sipping the tart beer and resting my feet before the walk home. It was well past two when we locked up and headed out.
It was the start of the new week before I knew there’d been any trouble. My regular Monday shift started right after school. Cynthia came up to tell me that someone had reported Mr. Lee for serving beer to a minor (obviously that minor was me). Mr. Lee had only been given a warning but still he was very upset. Cynthia was positive that the anonymous report had come from someone in the restaurant. As Marg and I were the only fluent English speaking employees working at the time and I wasn’t about to report myself she’d concluded the "rat" was Marg. I didn’t really know what to say. I felt bad for Mr. Lee especially since he was just trying to be so nice and I only drank the beer to be polite.
Cynthia was incensed. How could Marg do such a thing to Mr. Lee when he had treated her so well? He put up with all her complaining, gave her a job when no one else would. That was the first time I’d ever heard Cynthia say anything like that. I asked how she knew for sure, maybe someone was just passing by and had looked in and seen us. She just sighed and asked me who else would do something like that. The afternoon school crowd came in and we were kept busy serving fries, cokes and egg rolls (all the cheapest items on the menu). We were steady at it until after dinner.
Cynthia and I were bussing tables after the rush. I’d already ordered my number 5 special. Marg passed by and without even turning her head she delivered some biting comment to Cynthia. I don’t remember what was said but it was most likely nothing new, probably something about Cynthia’s appearance or history. Whatever it was, this time it hit a nerve. It was the only time I ever saw Cynthia take on Marg.
She stood up straight and raised her usually quiet voice. It was thick and gravelly as if out of practice and un-used to such an intense volume. She told Marg to shut up and mind her own business. There was something in her tone, contempt, knowledge…I couldn’t say what but I do know that it was hard and cold, like steel. Marg turned on her heel and headed back to the kitchen suddenly busy with a glass that she said had come out of the washer still dirty. Her grizzled hair was a grey halo around her head. Her neck seemed too slight for the weight of her head which was perched at a delicate angle as she walked away. Her shoulders were hunched like she was waiting for a blow from behind.
Speechless and with my mouth more than just a little open I’m sure I looked somewhat comical as I stood, dirty table rag in hand. I looked at Cynthia and she turned to me and with absolute venom dripping from each word she said, "I hate her. She should just shut up and mind her own business."
Marg stayed in the kitchen for as long as she could. When she came out Cynthia and I were sitting at the waitress table. Cynthia smoked while I ate my dinner. The white cigarette filter kept sticking to the peeled chapped skin of her lower lip. Marg sat down beside me and lit her own smoke and the three of us waited for the drinkers to come in for a bite to eat before they headed out to the bars.