I have a stack of journals that go back as far as 1969. I haven’t been steady about keeping a running inventory of my days, because there are gaps of more than 3 or 5 years in between some of the “volumes.” The first notebook is mostly in Hungarian, and it chronicles my first days in the brilliant north-slanted summer light of Vancouver, B.C. The words, however, are in the thick of the deep shade cast by homesickness. Much of that angst, and some of the actual meaning of those words, are now lost to me.
One of the notebooks covers the span of a year of my life in Vancouver, only I never bothered to mark which year. It had to have been one from the early 1970s, the year I rebelled against my respectable Canadian family and my long-standing old-fashioned European upbringing and went to work as a cocktail waitress in the most notorious nightclub of that bygone era. The place itself is bygone now, and has been replaced by one of those gleaming glass-walled buildings that forests the landscape of Vancouver theses days.
The club’s name was Oil Can Harry’s. In its heyday it hosted some of the biggest names in jazz and soul and rock. Ike and Tina Turner, Stan Getz, Tower of Power, Fats Domino, Heart (when they were just starting), and it all seemed just business as usual back then, some more business than others, when it came to making tips. Odd as this may sound, well maybe not, because our memories are selective for good reasons, the one constant memory I have of the place is one from my early weeks of work.
I can’t recall which band was playing in the big room, where I started. I do recall, though, that, according to my fellow cocktail waitresses, the contingency of the “popcorn” pimps, popped over from Seattle for the event, was unusually large that night. I was to wait on one of their tables. They were new to me, and I was new to them. I was not aware of any codes or rituals, or anything to do with the kind of exchange that would mark our places in the world of the night and draw the boundaries around interactions to come.
When they first hassled me, I suppose to test me, I went to the club’s bouncer for help, which seemed to me the natural step to take. He stood with his arms folded, saying nothing to me, as I went on complaining, until he cracked a smile. He might have said “so?” but if he did, I don’t remember. I only recall getting a strong sense in the pit of my stomach that this was my problem, and mine alone, and that unless I found a way to deal with it, my working life there would be miserable, not to say, unprofitable, because the waitresses that were making money, seemed to me to be the ones who held their heads high and walked with a steady gait. Also, their faces gave away nothing behind the smiles they wore. Yes, wore, because these smiles were neither natural nor exactly fake. More like the act of matching accessories, something that would speak more of an ability to combine disparate styles into a seamless look, or image.
But as I was saying…. So when one of the “popcorn” pimps whistled at me when I walked by their table and then said something along the lines of “Yo, mamma, get me a drink, now” and snapped his fingers in a way that looked menacing to me, I screwed up my courage, conjured an acting tricks from my years in the theater department at the University of British Columbia, and marched right over to the table and said: “I am not your mamma, I am your waitress. So, what is it that you would like to order?” I think they laughed, and I think eventually I too laughed, and if I recall correctly, it was that week that I really started making tips there too.
It wasn’t long before the “scholar” in me turned up to help me get through the nightly shifts. With my inner academic's help I learned to tell, almost from the get go who was going to be harassed, who respected, who shunned. But I learned mostly whom to ignore or give a wide berth too. And I learned whom to trust, though that was a tougher lesson.
Rereading some of the passages from that diary of the year that went unmarked in the book, I found out that I actually hung out, one night, with Led Zeppelin… How could I not remember this? (Maybe because Led Zeppelin meant next to nothing to me...) Even as I read the passage now, I can’t seem to bring to mind any of the faces from the party, except those of L. (the other waitress who was my friend) and K. (who was our boss):
March 21 – 6:00 am
The trouble at this hour of the morning is not the surrealistic light of dawn, but those damned birds. They are lovely, but a bit too excited at the start of another day. Another wasted day for me, in the terminology of the “day people,” for I am going to sleep away a good portion of it.
Earlier today, through the reign of darkness, I was upstairs at Oil Can Harry’s, where Led Zeppelin, the rock group [as if I had to clarify that!] rented the place and was partying. Well, it’s been a long time since I saw so many “beautiful” boring bunch of people. There was everything to be seen an heard, from girls making out to various roadies coming up to everybody and saying “hi, I travel with the band, do you want to fuck?”
L. and K. and I spent the night in a corner of the room, observing the show and discussing different levels of consciousness. K. told me that I had a beautiful spirit. That’s a line I never heard before….
Little did I know how ahead of the times K. was with that pickup line and that how many more times I would hear it in later years as an appeal to my vanity on route for access to my other parts. Seems that K. too was an avid student of sociology and communication, but more often than not, his purpose was beyond the academic. But that is another story, another post.
Links to info about Oil Can Harry's on the web:
Here is an interesting historic take on Oil Can Harry’s on a Vancouver Jazz Forum
A picture of the Accents at Oil Can Harry’s, along with a list of bands that played there.
A photo from The Vancouver Sun’s archive of Oil Can Harry’s from 1966, well before my time.