The second worst job I ever had was as a topless sea anemone at a strip club on Columbus and Broadway. It paid $25 for a one-and-a-half hour ‘set’ and, aside from the constant waving which is dizzying when you’re wrapped around a paper-seaweed covered scaffold, it was still better than the job I did after that — waitress at Big Al’s All Night Diner on Van Ness.
As you might imagine, there wasn’t a whole lot of business in the 12:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. shift but what there was, was pretty cherce. I often thought that if McTeague had still had his dental practice on Polk Street, two blocks away, he would have cleaned up. Most of Al’s very early morning customers had some kind of thing going on with tooth decay. I’m not judging, my artistic ambitions had, thus far, landed me as far as being a topless sea anemone, I couldn’t to pretend to judge other people’s career choices.
I was single in those years, not by choice but because of my, you know, career and the strenuous hours. When I wandered downhill to bed every night l didn’t even want to have a body, let alone share it with anyone else’s.
But life is strange. I’d like to say that I met my future husband, Ted, at Al’s Diner and I did but only because he was the EMT in the ambulance that got called when the cook accidentally (fingers crossed) set fire to the grill and the entire kitchen went up in flames. No one was killed, THANK GOD, but the plate glass window near the door I was trying to drag two homeless men and myself towards exploded and spewed slivers so big that one of them cut my thigh and missed my femoral artery by less than the space the word “the” is making on this page. Just about.
Ted put me in the ambulance. He talked to me until I passed out. He stayed with me in the ER until I got seen. I guess kitchens were being set on fire all over San Francisco that night and the room was fuller than a Hall and Oates Concert in 1976. Before I passed out, I told Ted my name, Deniece, and that I was not really a waitress, but instead was an actress/dancer.
Sometime late the next day, after surgery, when I was wheeled into a two bed room at SF General, there was a big vase of flowers on the stand next to my bed. The card said, “Get well, soon, Ted” and a phone number.
Big Al’s was pretty wrecked. I couldn’t see it opening up again any time soon. There were fire code violations, it was greasy and shabby and the menu was both limited and pretty bad but I sort of missed that place. I missed the silences. The staring outside. Watching the night time fade into the warm soft fog of day.
For what I think are obvious reasons, my sea anemone days were probably over as well. But I was young, I had dreams and I had saved, crinkled up and with smudgy ink, the telephone number of the most wonderful person I had ever even met.