“The Waitresses” by Garry Engkent13 min read

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Image by Petr Sevcovic

“Where’s the harm?” Gladys asks. “$20 for—it isn’t like you haven’t done it at all, Sheila.”

“That’s different. They were guys I liked,” Sheila says with a wistful smile.

“You don’t have to like ’em .You just sleep with ’em. Keep ’em happy.” Gladys’ eyes are on Sheila but she knows the rest of the girls on break are listening in. “Twenty dollars supplements your earnings. Two times a week and you can stop waitressing. Do it regular and you can buy a mink coat.”

Gladys is a big Scandinavian with a slight accent. She dyes her hair blonde, and reeks thickly with cologne and body heat if you sit close to her. She wears a lot of makeup to hide wrinkles about her blue eyes. Her breath is a mixture of alcohol and nicotine. Her lips are red as maraschino cherries in syrup. Her dress draws people, men generally, to look with interest. Gladys comes by the restaurant, usually about 10 just before the last rush when the Bijou and Odeon theatres close at 11. Most of the time, she leaves soon after the waitresses’ break.

“I have my rounds to make,” she would say jovially.

“What about self-respect?”

“What kinda respect you get waiting on tables? It’s a lousy job, Sheila. You work eight hour shifts for fifty cents an hour.”

“It’s an honest living.” Sheila looks to the other waitresses who are listening in for support.

None of the girls pays Hardy Ko much attention throughout this conversation. He is the boss’s son and he can do pretty much as he wants. The ten-year-old Chinese boy sits in the middle of the booth, often observes the young girls, and reads comic books. These belong to the waitresses, not his favourites. They are mushy stories about guys and gals, with titles like Heart Throb, Love Confidential, or Teen Romance Today. The characters, especially the girls, cry and make mistakes. After tears and heart-aches, there is a happy ending—always.

Some of the waitresses take their empty, lipstick-smeared coffee cups into the kitchen and then disappear in twosomes into the washroom. When they return, their lips are brighter and they smell of sweet perfume, instead of cigarettes. They smooth out their one-piece, white uniforms. It is 10:30 and their break is over. Sheila takes a last drag on her smoke and butts it out with force in an overflowing ashtray.

“I just can’t, Gladys,” Sheila says. “I have someone special now.”

Gladys used to work as head waitress at the Panama Cafe until six months ago. From Hardy’s occasional eavesdropping in on his father’s conversations, Gladys was really good at her job. She would train the wet-behind-the-ears 16 year olds who quit school and find work as waitresses. These raw girls know nothing of the trade: they don’t know how to set a table, write up the checks, or serve food properly to demanding customers. She was a den-mother to these young transients who want to make a few dollars to buy cosmetics or pick up some experience so they can run off to work at another restaurant. Some girls, of course, return to the Panama Cafe, and they usually stay for a few years until they get themselves married or leave for Toronto.

But something turned sour for Gladys. According to rumour, she met up with some sweet-talker. The guy gave her a whirlwind romance, took her savings, and then dumped her. He also left her with a baby in the belly, some broken bones, and bruises in the heart. At the hospital, she said she was all right, but after the baby was born, she went to pieces. She became unreliable as head waitress. She also started messing with the young waitresses who pass through the Panama Cafe. Finally, his father had to fire her.

“So, Hardy,” she asks, “shouldn’t you be in bed now? When does school start?”

“Not for another two weeks. I’m gonna stay up until one in the morning. Every night!”

“And what does your father say about this?”

“I can stay up as long as I want. All I have to do is finish my chores each day. I’m waiting for the cream pies to settle and cool before I decorate ’em.” Then he proceeds to tell her about all the work involved in whipping up the meringue and decorating the Boston cream pies and coconut creams.

Gladys smiles tiredly. “You’re a good boy, Hardy. Do you like reading these comics?”

“Nope. Too much smooching and crying. Yuck!”

She laughs. “Maybe you will like that better when you’re older. Smooching and all that. Not the crying.”

“Never! When I grow up, I don’t want to have anything to do with broads and dames!” These are the new words he learned from watching Saturday matinees at the Bijou and from listening to the teenage toughs who frequent the Panama.

“Why not?” She has a twinkle in her blue eyes.

Hardy realizes quickly enough that the older woman is having a little fun with him. She doesn’t ignore him entirely. And he likes that. Gladys is just trying to be nice, he decides.

On weekends during the school year and now the summer holidays, he sits with the waitresses in the back booth—the one reserved for them on breaks—because the girls give him their comic books. Sometimes, Hardy listens in.
Their talks fall into categories: work, trouble at home, money problems, and boyfriends. Boys and men seem to top the list. The ages of these waitresses range from 16 to 22. They constantly talk about their past, present, and future men. You can’t trust them; they’re all the same. They just sweet talk you until you give in, and then they don’t respect you anymore. They grab, grab, grab. Or, he’s the sweetest. I’ve got him wrapped around my baby finger. I don’t put out until he spends a lot of money on me first. He makes my heart flutter.

These waitresses’ tales of woe repeat. One girl falls for a complete jerk, dumps him when she discovers he was fooling around, and then within a week either makes up with him or picks up another like the last one. After hearing the way they talk, the young boy decides he does not want to get mixed up with girls when he grows up. Broads and dames talk behind your back.

At other times, when these girls get riled up with their own problems, they start saying things to him. They would say: “I hope you’re not going to grow up and be a son-of-a-bitch like Mitch;” or “Hardy, cover your ears! You shouldn’t be listening to all this, you’re too young!” Then, he’d get mad, stick his tongue out at them, and stomp into the kitchen.
Most of the girls stay away from the waiters and cooks—all fresh immigrants. The girls would get uppity and turn their noses when the younger Chinese cooks and waiters try to be friendly. Some even complain to Hardy’s father that the Chinese guys stare at them, undressing them with their eyes, and trying to be “smart” with them. Sometimes they speak true; sometimes they stretch the truth.

On occasion his father, Joe Ko, would speak sternly: “Leave the waitresses alone. Big trouble if you mess with white women. Think about the wives you want to bring over to gum san, Canada.”
But many of these new, young immigrants working as waiters and cooks are unmarried, and even Hardy can see the longing in their eyes and faces. The waitresses with their red lips, soft curves, and sweet perfumes are like chocolate candies in a store that they cannot have.

“Can’t afford to send for a wife. It’s not a wife I want right now,” some would mutter amongst themselves. “A person can only work so much or distract himself for so long.” They make hand gestures that later Hardy learns are rude.

“I sit with the waitresses all the time,” he tells them. “What’s the big deal?”

They laugh. “When you get older, you’ll know!”

Then they talk about the prettiest waitress, Sheila. She is like Marilyn Monroe, except that Sheila is a strawberry blonde. The waiters in the evening shift envy the morning guys when she changed shifts. She says she wants to spend more time with her boyfriend in the evenings. As he recalls none of the waiters made a move on her. They hope from afar. Her boyfriend, Bruce, is six feet tall, wears a black leather jack with silver studs, and has a tattoo on his right forearm. He works at the Thibeault Falls Hotel lounge as a bouncer.

The woman that the Chinese boys do sit with in the back booth is Gladys. She always has a friendly smile ready. Sometimes she teaches the young cooks on break bits of English. Wing, in particular, can’t wait to slip into the booth beside her with his second-hand English text. He says he wants to improve his command of the fan gwei language. Hardy observes that Wing sits really close to her and his attention is often on her ample bosom rather than the book. On those evenings, instead of making her rounds, Gladys stays until closing time.

Not many of the waitresses are invited to the midnight supper at the Panama Cafe, a tradition set by Hardy’s great uncle during the Second World War. Most of the girls just want to jump out of their white uniforms and into their regular dresses and leave. Even though Gladys no longer works for Joe, Hardy’s father does not object when Wing or one of the other guys invites her to stay for the feast. She seems to enjoy herself.

The food is not the restaurant’s eWesternized variety but authentic Chinese cooking. Sometimes the menu consists of rice congee with pickerel fillets; other times, noodle soup with barbecued pork and Chinese greens. In the summer evenings, the entire staff sits at the rear of the Panama Cafe, looking at the stars, listening for the 12:30 express train that rushes by, and chatting about everything and nothing.

“Wing, are you going to walk me home?” Gladys sounds a bit tipsy from too many rounds of beer and rum. She even belches politely.

Wing nods. He throws his apron into the wash bin and accompanies the big, blonde woman down the street. The rest of the young men, in silence, awkwardly try to ignore them as if their leaving together is not on their mind. On occasion, Gladys sways towards Wing and their bodies meet. He does not come back to the restaurant until morning.

“Shameful,” Hardy’s mother comments. “These Chinese boys have no self-control. They come back reeking of white women. Our son needs to know better! ”

“These young men have no wives,” Hardy father says. “Do you want me to stop human nature? I cannot control what they do outside the restaurant.”

Joe’s understanding for the young men’s plight only goes so far though. He fired one of the new waiters who tried to sneak a girl up to the bedrooms on the second floor of the Panama Cafe. If only the waiter and the girl remained quiet, probably nothing would have happened. But they made so much noise that no one in the other rooms could ignore it.

“This is a respectable establishment,” Joe roared angrily. “Not a common bawdy house!” He even wrote a notice in Chinese and English and tacked it on the wall near the staircase for all the employees who boarded upstairs to see and be warned. The piece of paper is now dog-eared and faded, but it still remains there years after the incident.

A week before Labour Day, Gladys comes into the Panama, sporting a full-length fur coat. The waitresses all ooh and aah, and want to try it on. Who wears a mink coat in this September heat? Even the air conditioning is working hard in the dining room. Gladys is beaming. She will not tell, when asked, who her sugar daddy is. But it is an open secret that Wing is grateful for Gladys’ many efforts in teaching him English.

Gladys gives Sheila, who has returned to the evening shift, a significant, smug look. Sheila is bleary-eyed and puffy-faced from bouts of tears she sheds in the washroom. Her lips tighten. Sheila glares back at Gladys.
“I’m no whore!” she says loudly. Several customers, startled, turn towards the commotion. Even Hardy stops reading the latest comic book.

Gladys is too happy to be angry at Sheila. In an instant she knows that showing off her fur coat has nothing to do with Sheila’s outburst. She becomes big sister to the distraught strawberry blonde.

“Hardy,” Gladys says, “don’t you have something better to do—in the kitchen?”

“No.” he replies defiantly. “This is my father’s restaurant. I can stay where I want, you know!”

Gladys can stare the young boy down but decides not to. “Maybe as young as you are, you can learn something.”
From the snatches of conversation over a period of a few hours, Hardy pieces together this story.
Sheila caught Bruce in bed with some other woman he picked up in the Thibeault Falls Hotel lounge. The couple had a dragged out fight but, in the end, Sheila forgives Bruce. Boys will be boys. He isn’t to do that ever again. But Bruce did something worse.

“He owes this guy a big, really big favour,” Sheila says between sobs. “To be evens-stevens, this guy says he’s taken a fancy to me. Just one night, y’know. Bruce the bastard left me with him!”
“Did this guy hurt you?”

Sheila nods and then shakes her head. “Afterwards… afterwards, he tossed a few twenties on me. That makes me a whore, doesn’t it, Gladys?”

“Not if you didn’t pocket the money, honey. You didn’t dump the twenties in the trash can, did you?”

“I gave it to Bruce,” Sheila says. She is finished with crying now. She looks a mess with make up splotched with tears. She manages a wry, crooked smile. “Bruce left me. Says he couldn’t respect a girl who gets paid for it.”
There is a moment of silence. The young boy thinks Gladys and Sheila are about to break into tears as they hug each other. Hardy is surprised. The two women burst into laughter. It is not a funny laugh. It is laughter that says they are beyond crying. The romance comic books don’t explain anything like this.

Hardy observes but is too young to understand. He remembers this occasion, though. In years to come, he draws on these moments and compares them with his own dealings with girls and women. Aah, times were simpler then.

During the first week at school, his Grade 5 teacher tells her pupils to write about what they did during the summer. Hardy’s classmates’ talk of vacations and cottages, of trailer camps and of boredom. He tells a different tale.
Upon reading, Hardy’s teacher is shocked and believes this impressionable ten-year-old child is being incredibly corrupted at the Panama Cafe. This is 1958; there is decency to maintain. She does not want this Chinese boy to read what he has learned to the rest of the class.


1 comment

Leonard E 21 February, 2021 - 7:24 pm

Aah! A reminder of the simple life having to negotiate things in a restaurant booth before the technology era took over. I…remember. Thanks Garry


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