Saturday, September 21, 2002
If you've ever watched DaVinci's Inquest you've probably seen it: the grimy, black-tiled front with two big windows and a Baroque mass of neon up above, declaring the premises to be the Ovaltine Cafe, which it is and has been since this was a working-class neighborhood, back before Welfare.
Inside it hasn't changed since then. I don't even think it's been thoroughly scrubbed down since then. Took a friend there once, and she mentioned to the waitress that the last time she was there was in 1964. The waitress apologized for not recognizing her. Carinthia looked like the Queen, with silk scarf from Liberty of London, cashmere coat, and "nice" sweater and skirt combination. Pearls of course. It was like lunching with a costumed superhero; you are treated with a certain kind of awe in the neighborhood if you know, and wear, the real thing. I was wearing my sweats, if I recall, though I was not actually sweating, at least not after I realized that the stares didn't mean we were going to get mugged.
At the Ovaltine there are, natch, alot of those old-fashioned swivelling stools planted in front of the long counter, and all one side is booths, big enough for four if they have all had sex with one another already, but otherwise only big enough for two. Each booth features a largeish chipped and decaying mirror and a little sign telling you that, yes, they have beer and wine, but you have to pay for it when you order. Must be quite a few stories behind that little policy. My friend Carinthia says they only serve it because the heap-big-mucky-muck cops used to come in the back door and eat lunch there, and they wanted a drink or two to wash it down with.
Above the mirrors are several of the kind of paintings that are the very last thing left at the very worst garage sales; dreadful florals painted by slave labour in foreign lands that have never seen daisies anyway, seascapes that make one queasy, it wouldn't surprise me if they had a couple of Walter Keane orphans with big eyes and clown costumes. Or black velvet, but unironic black velvet. And given the state of the walls I'd hate to imagine the state of the velvet.
The walls used to be that pastel green colour that all dentist's offices were, the colour that, above all others, was supposed to soothe people. And I'm sure it did, right up until it got associated with people who stick big needles and drills in your mouth and then lecture you about flossing. So it has all those layers of uncomfortable association, despite having been on the walls so long that the oil is seeping out of the paint itself, forming a faint orange coating in varying thicknesses, dribbling in super slo-mo down the walls that ripple with age. Carinthia tells me it was this way when the Beatles were still playing Hamburg dives.
I will not discuss the ceiling; the memory is just too painful.
The counters are clean, at least, and you never stick to the booths so they must get wiped down though I am in no hurry to wear short-shorts there any time before Ragnarok. They let people smoke there, at least people do, and I've never heard them tell people to butt out. If you ask, though, they tell you no. There is a No Smoking Section sign in the booth where I usually sit.
The salt and pepper really set the tone for the place. The sugar is innocent enough, in a big juice bottle with a hole hammered in the top. The salt is sometimes in a salt shaker, but more often it is in a tiny airline-sized liquor bottle, as is the pepper.
If God is in the details I wonder what this says about their gods.
Once, a largish Native fellow came in and gave a very complicated order, convoluted enough that the waitress would have to stand at the kitchen door and go over it with the cook. She got a look in her eye that said she'd been down this road before and had no intention of getting taken for this ride again; instead of putting in the order she just went to the back of the place and watched. Soon enough he got up from his booth and moved to a different one. Then he got up from there and went to a stool at the counter. Then he walked quickly out the front door.
The whole restaurant was riveted. The waitress walked over to each of the places he'd sat and looked them over with a puzzled expression. Suddenly, she burst out laughing. We all looked at her like a class whose teacher has suddenly flipped out.
"He stole all the salt and peppers!"
Of course. Value isn't constant on the street; the closer you get to Welfare Wednesday, the cheaper everything gets. Anything that can be turned into money becomes more valuable, especially if the value is fixed. If you return an airline-sized Seagram's bottle to a depot you get 5 cents, regardless of the date. If you sell it to a binner you'll get a different price depending on how close he is to his next cheque. The less he has, the less he gives you. Same with hookers: $10 on Tuesday, or even just a few beers. $50 on Wednesday.