Still Waters

     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.

 

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21 thoughts on “Still Waters

  1. Ahhh, Gene\’s! I still occasionally eat take out from there! I also remember Marg! At least, I remember the woman of that description! You may now be able to guess where I grew up… and still reside! Maybe, just maybe I have even ran into you! Coincidence, eh?As for your Christmas fiasco, I offer my sympathies to you! Fortunately, my wife gets along fabulously with her two step-sons, my oldest two (24 and 21). She has been their \’real Mom\’ for almost their entire lives. The first wife walked out abandoning us when Jr. was only 3! I have no advice of value to offer, sorry!All I can say is, I hope all works out well for your entire family!Take care!Poopdeck!

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  2. Ha ! Donna is still there ! No kidding , I went to pick up a food order before Christmas and she was shuffling along happily . My wife was a groupie back in her high school days and she used to eat those fries , sit in there and smoke on her lunch hour everyday for five years . Tis\’ a small world after all.

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  3. I ate there everyday for lunch in the late 80\’s when I was in highschool. But not always fries, sometimes eggrolls. I still eat there often as my Mom works in an office uptown and the girls there go to Gene\’s for lunch often.I remember Donna, unfortunately she passed away from cancer this past year."Dianne" retired. She worked there during the daytime too. I wonder if I ever saw you or met you? Your probably about the same age as me.

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  4. Very good blog…I worked in a place kinda like that. One of my first ever jobs. It was a night job as a machinest and the coworkers were pretty much like you just described only there were 9 of us…

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  5. What happened to Mr. Lee? Did you just stop drinking beer? What happened to Marg? You write so beautifully, you remember and include such detail. Awesome!!

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  6. workplace drama – how dull a job can be without it. I\’m still trying to get past the picture in mind of you doing the semi-goth costuming. Oh yes, I can see that you have MUCH hidden behind this blog doncha ? hehe

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  7. @P-R-dThanks, come back anytime.@Poopdecklol I had a vague idea where you were after your complaint about Perth county vandals. Gene\’s was 20 years ago for me so if I did wait on you I\’d be hard pressed to remember unless you had a food allergy or liked something crazy to eat. How are you with dairy and wheat? :PIn regards to the family. I\’m not overly concerned. I am joining a long line of the hated that has included at one time or another her mother, her stepfather, her 3 stepbrothers, 2 half brothers, a full brother, girls from school…basically anyone who does not worship at the altar of adolescent ego and entitlement (guess it was just my turn). So it\’s definitely a side issue meant to distract from the real problem. Lord love her. I do feel bad for the hubby though. He just wants to be treated with love and respect so I think it\’ll be a while. Kids eh?! We\’ll see how it goes. Thanks for the support ;)@ToadyIt is a small word indeed! I only lived in Stratford for around a year and a half but that time encompassed a huge period of growth for me. I miss Gene\’s sometimes. It was family in a way when what little family structure I\’d had up to that point had disintegrated.@Jennifer(P-N-Nurse)That is so sad about Donna. As I was writing this I was thinking that I should go back and see if anyone was still there and lastly if it was how I remember it being. There\’s been a lot of time and miles between then and now. I would have loved to see Donna again especially now with an adult\’s perception and experience. In my mind she remains a mystery. There was a story there and in hindsight I wish I\’d had taken better advantage of our time together to learn it. Now I don\’t remember a Diane but that doesn\’t mean she wasn\’t there. It\’s just that certain people strike the right chord and they become a part of the melody of your memories. They don\’t leave you and although I\’m sure there\’s a lot about the quartet I\’ve missed or gotten wrong they are what I remember most about my time at Gene\’s.@CherylI think we all end up working at a place like this when we\’re young. It\’s only by looking back and holding that experience up to the light that we can see it a little more clearly.@Lisa (peep)I think Mr. Lee must still be around but I would imagine that his son has taken over the running of the business. I cried when I left that job. Mr. Lee was the best boss ever. Up to the time I posted this I had no idea what ever happened to the "girls". It\’s been interesting and a little sad to find out through comments left that the quartet is gone for all time. @Brenda ( junquedujour)I do get the idea that most people would be surprised if they met me in RL. That\’s not always a bad thing is it? lolWhat are you hiding behind your blog hmmmmm? ;PLorna

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  8. Great story and well told. We have more in common than I would have imagined since a stint of work in the same type restaurant is also part of my history. LOL.

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  9. Hey Lorna, I\’ve been absent from your comments for some time. Please forgive as I have been somewhat self-absorbed over the past while. I have experienced what feels like a very great loss and this has made me quite melancholy. My stomach is in knots and I am sick from lack of sleep. What do you have that would be sadder than me so as to help me see what I am still fortunate after all. Surely, you have some words of sorrow and despair which will help me frame my predicament in a more positive perspective?Thanks Lorna.

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  10. Hey,Happy New Year. Sorry I havent checked in, but ive been busy. But, you writting is still as beautiful as it always has been. You have to love catty women lol.KissesAmanda

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  11. Wow – i was looking at your pictures – did you paint them? I was wondering specifically about the ones labeled "detail 1" and \’detail 2\’? I didn\’t have the time read your last blog – but i\’ll be back soon to read.

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  12. @SalIt doesn\’t surprise me that we have a number of common experiences…all of us that is. I think we\’re attracted to the sites on spaces that touch a little something of the familiar in each of us. @SimonDeus ex machina…, miracle or just hope?@LottiemaeThanks for stopping by Lottie. I\’m saying a little prayer for you and yours. Stay strong!@AmandaI have to agree with the you…a little bit of nasty always makes a person so much more interesting. ;P@ Momentheum Arghhh…Now my terrible secret is out! I am indeed, of the female persuasion. lol

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  13. @HollyHey Holly long time no see;PThose are my canvases. The pictures titled "detail 1" and "detail 2" are actually a light and colour study that\’s been in progress for a while. I lost the original imagery that I started with and it\’s taken some interesting turns since then. It is one of the canvases that I was planning on putting to "bed" over the holidays as I feel it\’s gone pretty much as far as it\’s going to go and I\’ve learned all I can from that particular project. Unfortunately life stepped in and I didn\’t get a chance to finish it up…maybe in the next week.How are your honeymooners?

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  14. Lorna, I came back to read this entry as I had not during my last visit. For some brief but priceless moment your account of Gene\’s has transported me from my self-imposed mental incarceration — trapped in perpetual questioning and doubt by a myriad unstoppable thoughts in melee with my feelings — and you have lifted my spirits with your beautiful writing here and your words of wisdom in the comment you recently left me.You have such a beautiful way with words. Ever since I had accidentally stumbled upon your space, I have come back here again and again to be inspired and uplifted by your words that never disappoint. You may not be consciously aware of it, but the gifts you present here and your generosity with truth and the transparency with which it is revealed provides a powerful inspiration and motivation for those of us who come often to sip from your well.On behalf of myself and all who appreciate this space, thank you dear Lorna. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.

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  15. Dang, I wish I had any interesting stories to tell. The most interesting thing that happened to me was about the time that the rotteweiler on my route didn\’t bark at me. I lead a fascinating life, can\’t you tell?

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  16. This is so damn well crafted/well written, I read it all in one gulp – I hadn\’t meant to–I was hurrying through because I have a short story in front of me, sitting half onthe calendar and half on my Van Gogh Starry night pad….I printed it out to read and critique–I\’m itchy to work on it……which is why I was going to just stop quickly by and maybe read just a bit — but I stayed, and read it all—and it read like a fiction short story–it read perfectly imaged – something I\’d love to open up and read in a collection – something that wouuld have me saying…write more.

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  17. @SimonSuch kind and generous words Simon… you do have the soul of a poet, I\’m sure. I don\’t know that I deserve them though. I feel that I\’ve gained so much more from this Spaces experience than I\’ve put into it. I hope that things are looking up for you. You\’re in my prayers,Take care,L@Jacklol I\’m sure you have plenty of interesting stories to tell. You just don\’t know it yet. The passage of time always adds a little something to an event. Wait and you\’ll see. =)@KathrynGene\’s was certainly an interesting place. This was a little difficult to write because there was so much more. I almost didn\’t post it because I was going to go back and see if it really even looked the way I remember it looking. I wanted to get it right and then I realized that memory is a subjective thing and even if it didn\’t look the same it didn\’t make the memory any less valid. I might revisit Gene\’s in the future or not…either way it will remain distinct in my memory full of everything it was and wasn\’t to me.

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