It was said that the Grove Café was so cheap that the Health Department had to bring its own cockroaches. It occupied an abandoned Bank of BC storefront on Denman Street in the west end of Vancouver, a mixed neighbourhood of the snotty middle class and the grubby poor. The café is gone now. The lease ran out, the landlord raised the rent and the Grove ceased to exist. The storefront sits empty now, and though he’d never admit it, the greedy landlord laments the loss.
But once upon a time, the Grove’s price point drew them in. The burgers and breakfasts were cheap, cheap, cheap. And that appealed to Ruben Karsh, though never to his friend Dwayne Radkov. Radkov would sit in the Grove and listen to Karsh’s stories because that’s what friends do. They endure.
“So,” said Karsh, “whatever happened to toothpicks?”
“What?” Radkov said.
“Toothpicks. Used to be that no matter how bad a grease toilet like this was, there were always toothpicks. Right there next to the napkin dispenser and the ketchup, which I notice doesn’t come in actual ketchup bottles anymore, just these crappy plastic squeezey containers.”
“We could go to Denny’s.”
“No way,” said Karsh. “Denny’s food makes you obese.”
“And the Grove’s food doesn’t?”
“Denny’s food is different,” said Karsh. “It stimulates dopamine secretion. Their food makes you feel good even though it contains no nutrients or fibre. It’s like taking crack, only more expensive when you figure in the tip. Artificial dopamine stimulation leads to disproportionate food cravings and food addiction, baby. That’s why all Denny’s customers are obese.”
“They are not,” said Radkov.
“The ones that aren’t physically obese yet, will be soon. If they’re slim now, then they’re just going through a stage called pre-obesity, a psychological phase in which a person is not physically obese, but mentally obese.”
“I heard it on all night talk radio,” said Karsh. “It’s righteous. It’s this show that comes out of LA between midnight and 4:00 a.m. You should listen. It’ll wake you up and set you free, man.”
“You listen until 4:00 a.m.?”
“Then what?” Radkov said. “What do you do at 4:01 a.m.?”
“Surf the net. There’s some good stuff there. It’s righteous. It’ll wake you up.”
Fei Yen, or Fay as the clientèle called her, was one of the Grove’s owners. She’d been in Vancouver for thirty years, but had never lost her Honk Kong street twang. Fay waited tables to keep labour costs down, and she arrived at the Karsh and Radkov table with the resigned composure of a soon to be martyred saint.
“What you have?” she said.
“Peanut butter and bacon on sour dough,” Karsh said, “with fries and a vanilla shake.”
“Cook don’t like that,” Fay said. “Peanut butter and bacon not on menu. You order from the menu.”
“Oh c’mon, Fay,” Karsh said. “We do this every time. I say, peanut butter and bacon. You say, cook don’t like that. Then I say, peanut butter and bacon. And then we do it a couple of more times, and then you say, okay just this once, and you take my order. Why don’t you just put a peanut butter and bacon sandwich on the menu?”
“Can’t. Cook don’t like that.”
“Well,” said Karsh. “Let’s try this, then: Can I have a peanut butter and bacon sandwich on sour dough, with fries and a vanilla shake?”
“Okay, just this once.” Fay wrote it down. Then, looking at Radkov, she said, “And you? Just coffee, right?”
“Yeah,” said Radkov. “Just coffee.”
Fay shook her head, wrote it down and walked away.
“Hey, hey, look,” said Karsh. He pointed at a group of dark suited young men who’d just entered the café. Each had a name tag on his lapel. Karsh leaned forward, toward Radkov and said, “Mormons, man.”
Radkov looked and said, “So?”
The young Mormons sat at a booth and perused their menus.
“They’re missionaries,” Karsh said, whispering loud enough for the entire café to hear. “They’re here to convert us.”
“Good luck,” Radkov said, as Fay put his coffee down. Half slopped over the side of the cup.
“You remember Raza Jamali?” Karsh said. “That Pakistani kid from grade ten, had that weird way of walking. Anyway, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints converted him. From Islam, man. That must have really pissed off Allah.”
“Allah can take it. He’s got big shoulders.”
“Whatever,” said Karsh. “Anyway, Raza gets all converted, goes and buys this black bargain basement suit and a pair of bad shoes, and starts walking the streets of Vancouver proselytising. He’s even got one of those clip-on name tags that sort of completes the costume.”
“Was he happy?” said Radkov.
“Sure, I guess.”
“Then who cares?”
“No no, wait,” Karsh said. “There’s more. Because one day on one of his Mormon missionary strolls, Raza meets Christopher Walken.”
“That’s right” said Karsh, “and for sure. The Walken, himself. He’s in town on some movie business, and he’s walking down Granville Street with his entourage. But Raza, God love him, doesn’t know who Christopher Walken is. He’s never seen Deer Hunter or Seven Psychopaths. His Moslem parents and Mormon proclivities would never have allowed it. He just sees this group of people walking together down one of the dirtiest streets in the city, and decides he’s going to perform a wholesale conversion.
“So, Raza walks up to Christopher Walken and he says, ‘Hello, I’m Elder Jamali of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Would you like to talk about Jesus?’
“And Christopher Walken just looks at Raza like Raza’s outta his mind. And Walken, I mean he doesn’t miss a beat, and he says, ‘I met Jesus once, while I was picking up my luggage at the Fort Gary, Indiana airport.’
“And you know how Christopher Walken talks. He delivers each sentence like it’s walking up stairs, and when it gets to the top, it has no place to go. So, his words have a certain inflection that either confuses people or intimidates them.
“But Raza is neither of those things. He just says, ‘Jesus? While you were picking up your luggage? In the Fort Gary airport?’
“And Christopher Walken says, ‘Damn straight,’ like his words are walking up the stairs with no place to go. ‘And Jesus is just standing there,’ Walken says, ‘in a white suit and a Panama hat. Which, if you read your Kurt Vonnegut, you’ll know Panama hats aren’t made in Panama. They’re made in Ecuador. And Jesus is all calm and there’s this radiance about him.’
“So, Raza says, ‘Was Jesus flying to Salt Lake City?’
“And Christopher Walken says, ‘No. What the hell’s in Salt Lake, other than Mormons? He was flying to Tampa.’
“And Raza says, ‘Why Tampa?’
“And Christopher Walken says, ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways, my poorly dressed friend.’ And then he says to Raza, ‘Would you like to come back to the Westin with us, and do some blow? I can set you up with a date.’
“And Raza says, ‘No, I need to be home by 9:00 pm.’
“And Christopher Walken says, ‘Well, that’s too bad because I think Jesus will be there. I think the two of you should meet.’
“And Raza says, ‘No thanks.’
“I mean, Raza blows his chance to meet Jesus and hang out with Christopher Walken at the Westin because he has to be in by nine. Can you believe it? He just walks away with that funny little walk of his.”
“That sounds like bullshit to me,” Radkov said.
“Swear to God,” said Karsh. “But the thing is, after that, Raza Jamali converts back to Islam.”
When Fay arrived, she dropped Karsh’s peanut butter and bacon sandwich on the table and said, “Cook don’t like it.”
“Well,” Karsh said, “cook don’t have to eat it.”
“Where’s Raza Jamali now?” said Radkov.
“He sells vacuum cleaners at Sears in Burnaby,” said Karsh.
“Same bad suit?”
Header photograph: By Thom Quine [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons