Jewish Strippers on Heroin is based on true events but of the names have been changed.
Every one of us shares a mutual pride in our brand new Have-A-Java on the third floor in the Eaton Centre. The sun pours down on my face through the enormous glass sky-light ceiling. Having glass walls also works to my advantage, as I look out and people watch throughout my shift. The office towers and retail stores bring in a regular nine-to-five crowd, making me feel as if I am depended upon to prepare non-fat vanilla Lattes to the masses. My bosses are at an age where they could choose to retire, but instead chose to buy a piece of the lucrative Have-A-Java franchise. Sometimes I wish I was retired, which is crazy cause I’m only eighteen. My bosses are a married couple whose children are now having children. Tom and Georgina decide to take on the coffee shop enterprise that has a proven profit margin, and seem to be quite proud of themselves for doing so.
One of the ways they build group spirit is by celebrating staff birthdays in an upscale restaurant. They’ve taken us to the Thai Restaurant the Golden Hummingbird for Jenny’s birthday and the Singing Oyster for Taylor’s. Even though our relationships behind the counter are easy-going, there always seems to be some nervous tension during these birthday dinners. Maybe I’m the only one who senses it, but things seem to be closer to normal after we all finish dessert and drinks. For our first Christmas as a team they give us each an envelope holding a scratch and win Bingo Lottery ticket and a crisp fifty dollar bill. Looking at that bill, I promise myself that I’ll commit to working harder for the store. My thoughts change to wishing I could win the lottery as little silver shavings turn my fingertips grey.
If you were to walk into that Have-A-Java in the fall of 1996, you may have had your ice tea poured by a twenty-two year old who resembled the actor Gary Sinease – that would be Taylor, who I thought was cute before any of the other girls. A handsome East Indian guy probably got you a Rice Krispie Square and talked you into trying a cranberry muffin for later. Kevin is an expert on anything about movies which he refers to as ‘films’. Kevin is taking film studies at University of Toronto and Taylor goes to Ryerson’s Theatre program. Both possess a clever sense of humor that keeps them talking endlessly about their Blockbuster rentals. One time they listed all the movies starring Robert DeNiro and debated whether he was a psychopath or just a bad guy. They talk about school with such enthusiasm, that I yearn to be enrolled in classes other than the bartending course I’m finishing up.
Tonight I convert my disappointment into pure selling power as I work to push the desserts. Tom and Jenny step aside watching me schmooze up the customers.
“T-t-take a l-l-look at the cake trays Jenny, I can see my face in them. I th-think I may never gr-grow back my mustache.” Tom holds up the silver cake tray as if it were a hand mirror. Less than half an hour ago it held an entire chocolate banana cake. Tom waits for Jenny’s reaction. She lifts her eyebrows and blinks dramatically, “Wow Tom, who sold all that cake?”
“Who do you think? Annie did. Now I have to go all the way to g-g-get another from the back.”
Jenny is a year older than me an enrolled at University of Toronto for Psychology and Feminist Studies. She’s somewhat of a hero to me in how she can wear lipstick and be funny, flirty and at ease doing it around any guy. She seems more comfortable in her own skin around guys than I am. Instead of flirting with men to get them to like me, I flirt with them to buy whatever dessert or drink I’m pushing.
“You can take another piece up to the office for a friend, cause you’re such a generous guy.” I’ll convince them knowing that they’re helping me get my sales kudos. Sometimes I’ll catch one looking at Jenny’s chest and wonder why I’d want that kind of attention.
Most of the time I feel androgynous in my black corduroys and button up polo-style work shirt. I feel my legs are too chunky and an embarrassment even though my best friend Hilary always tells me they’re not fat, just muscular. The only time I allow myself the heavenly indulgence in our cakes is if I’m given the day-old leftovers. Once I’m on the subway, merely two stops away from work I pull out a morsel of lemon poppy seed cake, quickly shove it in my mouth, and abandon the greasy bag on the seat for someone who can afford to eat all those calories to find.
Along with the talent of selling up our desserts, each of us at work is also gifted in imitating customers and our boss Tom.
“D-d-do you w-w-want another Ca-ca-capachino?” Taylor or Jenny stutter and mime pushing up a pair of glasses on their noses. Tom is never around when we do our imitations of him, and we make sure that Georgina doesn’t see us imitate him, or even worse her.
When I look at Georgina , I don’t see a woman; rather a girl. I suppose it’s because she’s so skinny. With her flat chest and lack of curves she’s even bonier than Hilary was at the peak of her eating disorder. Georgina repeats “Okey-Dokey” obsessively. As she works alongside me for the morning shift I endure her forced conversations with the regulars: “Okey-Dokey! One Large Morning Majesty’s Blend for you. That ought to clear out the cobwebs, eh? Okey-Dokey! Ha, ha, ha…what’s that eh? Oh napkins? They’re right behind you on the condiment stand okay? Okey-Dokey!”
She chirps her responses through a strained smile I can sense causes her pain. Georgina didn’t foresee serving countless customers every morning and would much rather dust and arrange gift baskets made with Bodums and bags of ground beans from Guatemala. When she’s away from the customers her frozen grin turns into a thin line. Tom likes to tell us that he met Georgina while he was a sailor. He says that she got up on the table and started dancing topless. I believe it’s made-up: something a father would say, which makes sense as they’ve become parental figures for those of us moved on from home.
Around eight-thirty we start our closing ritual by putting on Beck’s Mellow Gold CD, and cranking the volume.
“I’m a looser bay-bee so why don’t you kill me?” We sing along as Jenny writes Tom’s name besidethe closing time checklist duty for cleaning the bathroom.
“Okay Tom, you clean the bathroom tonight.” No matter how many times we play that joke we laugh so hard because we don’t have a bathroom.
“Okay J-J-Jenny, and I’ll mop,” Tom responds holding a crate of Styrofoam tower-of-Pizza stacked cups. I spill out the carafes of Lucky Irish Cream coffee, smelling its sickly sweet odor while the drain gulps down the liquid favored by the majority of our customers. It reminds me of the saleslady who works across the way at Harry Winston. We nick named her ‘Honey’ as she always calls Jenny or me honey before we get her coffee. “Honey, Gimmie an Irish, my God-Damn back is killing me! Hurry up Honey; I’m not supposed to be on break!” After that I start imitating her to Jenny who imitates her to Taylor, who in turn does an imitation of her and pretty soon even Tom is imitating her. This is why it’s fun to come to work some days.
The best days are when Hilary comes to visit me after work. We share a passion for all things pertaining to music. We obsess over alternative bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney. Famous biographies of people who died too young like Nancy Spungeon, Edie Sedgewick and Janis Joplin are also shared, passed back and forth dog-eared and underlined. We even got ourselves all the way to the front row at Lollapalooza that past summer so we could be as close to Elastica and Hole as possible. When we aren’t fantasizing what our lives would be like in our own band, or living somewhere else, we’re watching movies about Jim Morrison and The Sex Pistols or listening to the soundtrack for Natural Born Killers. We imagine ourselves living in New York City when we get older because that’s where Patty Smith and Blondie are from.
After my Saturday shift ends Hilary meets me to check out a movie. We pick a spot behind the theatre entrance on Dundas. There are big rocks to sit on and a marble fountain surrounded by trees. It’s an unusually warm night for the first week of November. We’re both wearing out vintage leather jackets with wide collars. She sits on the concrete steps and I let the wall support my back as I half crouch on my back pack. She smokes her Du Maurier Ultra Lights with a savvy sense of how to look. She taps off her ashes like some people twirl spaghetti. I watch the filter develop a raspberry coloured imprint from her lipstick.
“I want money – but I can’t just get a job like you. For one, there’s no way I’d be on time, or could actually care enough to.” She exhales her words with smoke.
“Yeah, well I’m not saving a lot of money from my job,” I answer her, “although I just got a raise from eight bucks an hour to eight fifty, but I still totally want more money. You know buying our vodka almost every time we go out is getting expensive, and so is travelling downtown by bus and subway from the burbs. I also think I should be saving up to live on my own downtown, don’t you?” I need to hear her confirmation on my next step of action.
“Yeah, but what else would you do?” she asks me tying her reddish brown hair back in a scrunchie while her cigarette hangs out of the side of her mouth. She ties her hair back to stop her from picking at the split ends, but it eventually becomes unfurled and she ties it back up again after a quick indulgence.
“At least in a few days I’ll have my bartending license. That course was totally worth it.” I brag to her, still amazed at how quickly two months fly by. Hilary smirks, “I could never bartend and be nice to a bunch of drunk loosers for a lousy fifty cent tip.” She says smashing her cigarette against the pavement with her converse.
“We can think about ways to get more money, you know?”
“Yeah, I’m getting pretty tired of going into Darlene’s purse all the time.” It kills me how Hilary calls her mother by her first name.
“Darlene noticed that a few twenties were gone yesterday, but I just asked her: ‘Are you sure that you took out that much?’ And she said: ‘Yeah, are you stealing from me?’ So I go: ‘Yeah, that’s’ it, you caught me.’ So I’m okay for a while, but I totally need some money.” Hilary is an insanely good liar and her sarcasm is unbeatable coming from a completely calm detachment to anyone’s reaction.
“I’m just glad that she didn’t bust you,” I say in disbelief.
I reach into the front zipper of my bag to find pre-punched Have-A-Java cards for Hilary when we have time at work, Jenny and I punch up a few cards and give them to our friends. Each card guarantees four free regular sized coffees. I hand her the cards hoping that she’d take a hiatus on her split ends. She examines my work
“Sah-weeeeet! Thanks Annie, Good job; they’re even wrinkled and stained – very authentic.”
“Maybe we should start our own printing press and launder money,” I joke moving towards the propped open Emergency doors.
“Were there ever women gangs in the twenties that were considered part of the Mob?” She asks as we sneak into the back hall of the theatre. “Or was Bonnie the only one who rode with Clyde and no women ever tried that?” I kick the rusted Gingerale can back between the doors. Moving to the side I can see her breaking open the red screw top seal to our Smirnoff Vodka mickey.
“Hey Hill, wait until we buy Orange soda pop first okay?”
“Okay okay. For sure there’s women gangs out there from the past going wayyyy back but nobody ever says anything about it. For sure more in Europe or the U.S. anyway.” She tells me as we head to the pop-corn stand to get a large Orange Crush to share. We may never pay a dime to see a movie but we always have to shell out the five bucks for the soda. It all balances out I figure, cause sometimes we slip into another movie half way through.