I used to manage a disaster of a cafe in the east downtown of Toronto. It was an escape for me from Burrito Boyz, a desolate hellhole of drunks and assholes and two straight years of weekend ‘overnight’ shifts that ran from 6pm-5am. I used to get off the bus at Main and Gerrard at 5:45, or bicycle home in the early morning light, bleary eyed and reeking of refried beans and too exhausted to care about the slow erosion of my soul. Burrito Boyz was the kind of place where drunk girls would puke on the lobby floor and you had to clean up vomit after serving an endless cycle of hundreds of burritos an hour, hoarse and grumpy. Burrito Boyz was the kind of place where customers routinely abused the staff and the staff just became so belligerent and world weary that they started to be off-puttingly short and defensive with even the nice customers, after having food thrown at us, yelled at, spit at, threatened and sworn at. It was the worst kind of hell, and visiting for a quesadilla one drunk night, I had flashbacks so bad I almost had a panic attack.
The cafe was a welcome relief, despite the absolute shit-show of finances and poor business decisions and complete and utter lack of knowledge of the owner, who, daringly, called herself ‘chef’ and listed her culinary school stages on her resume as if they were positions she had been hired for and worked at for years, instead of the stages that they were. Checks bounced regularly. Poor quality produce sat out on the shelves to be sold, because we couldn’t afford to throw it away. Baked goods went stale, and were poorly made by a rotating cycle of belligerent, renegade bakers. Rats as large as cats lorded over the basement and our Sri Lankan dishwasher took them out back with his bare hands to drown them. I have no idea how we passed health inspections.
I’m embarrassed to have ‘managed’ the place, but I did everything in my power to improve it and was regularly rebuffed by our cheap owner. It quickly became another ‘just a pay check’ job, and I watched carefully for the signs to jump ship. I probably should have quit when one of my staff came in drunk, ordered dial-a-bottle, then disappeared to the back after I clocked her out to get finger banged by our chef. On another shift, my last before a five day vacation when I was frantically trying to leave everything in the shop in order for my disastrous staff, she took a two hour break to cash a paycheck. When I was upset upon her return (understandably) and told her I had clocked her out, she called me a variety of names that even I, a creative curser, can not repeat. I got a barrage of nasty texts about how I was insecure and projecting that upon my staff, how I was a control freak, and how she hoped I ‘enjoyed my vacation’, knowing that she was meant to cover several of my shifts while I was away.
None of these things are the point of this entry, though.
The cafe was at the juncture of several shelters and rehab programs in the downtown core, slowly pushed east by the gentrification rolling through the city. The brand new shelters were being surrounded by newer (absurdly expensive and ugly) condos where the alarmingly wealthy and stupid people who bought into them then started to protest the presence of the shelters. The area is notorious for junkies, hookers, muggings and its cast of questionable characters. A rotating slew of businesses have tried, and failed, to establish themselves in the area, giving in to the constant vandalism, threats, and police calls that yield absolutely no result. (Thanks a lot, 51 division, for having our back and showing up several hours after robberies and emergency calls! Not.)
One Thanksgiving morning as I was opening up the shop bright and early, an unusual sight outside the large store-front windows caught my eye. A woman wearing absolutely nothing but a fur coat was leaning into an electricians van and giving a man a handjob. The early morning design company employees and shelter workers and cafe patrons were streaming by on the sidewalk and as she bent over, her fur coat road up so that her entire ass was exposed to the air. As she finished up and accepted her payment, she strode off down the sidewalk with the cut coat still pushed up over her ass and her breasts spilling out of the front.
I used to bicycle by another woman every morning on my way to the cafe, early, after I had taken over the baking and the catering in an attempt to bump up the quality of what we were sending out. This meant arriving extra early to fire up the ovens and put fresh muffins and lemon loaves and banana bread and zucchini cakes in the oven, along with double chocolate cookies and biscotti and Earl Grey shortbreads. I cycled toward the west with the rising sun warming my back, through every neighborhood in the east. Upper Beach, Beach, Leslieville, Riverdale, and see her marching down the middle of the road on Shuter wearing absolutely nothing but a canary yellow string bikini.
Despite being a significant improvement from the dismal realm of three a.m fast food serving on College Street, it would not be the end of bodily fluids. We did not, for a multitude of reasons including the fact that the Ontario Accessibility Act hates small businesses, have a customer washroom, but also because of the proliferance of drug use and prostitution in our area. A woman who was found daily on the street in the neighborhood, violent and incoherent, came in one day perfectly coherent and pleasant and ordered a coffee, which she then paid for. She was a paying customer when she wandered to the front, and, to the disapproving glares of our condo-dwelling customers, took a seat and proceeded to immediately wet herself.