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Booking a Room at the Memory Palace, part 1: The Determined Wee Man

I got my first job as a busboy at the Captain's Palace Restaurant when I was 14, back in 1981. I started waiting tables when I was 17, a couple of years too early to serve liquor, but I looked a bit older than I was when I was a teenager. Working there was pivotal in my development as an adult and an employee, and it's probably significant that drinking and partying was a big part of the culture there and also that the restaurant embodied a complete lie. The Palace's owners, Floss and Helen, liked to project a facade of fine, linen-service dining while actually being a complete tourist trap that none of the locals would be caught dead in. That being said, I also have a lot of great memories from working there and hanging out with the friends I made among the staff, some of them very good friends that I spent social time with outside of work. As I say, very formative, and on the whole a positive part of some very important years.

By way of introduction, here are a couple quick stories that capture some of the flavour of the place. Please feel free to populate these stories in your imagination with fake antiques, overpriced food, wait staff in black and white (males with vests, females with aprons), and a seemingly endless summer supply of tour buses full of Americans, Germans, and Japanese.

One of the long-standing traditions at the Palace was Sunday brunch buffet, a late-morning to early-evening affair featuring an assortment of hot (well, warm) and cold dishes, and always capped by a big roast beef carved to order by a dude (always a guy) from the kitchen in a paper chef's hat and a red napkin tied around the neck. In all honesty, as far as buffets that are heated in chafing dishes by the sullen blue flames of Sterno canisters go, it wasn't bad, just too expensive. I worked it frequently, and one of the perks was that you could help yourself for your meal break. I was always partial to the eggs bennie and roast beef with a couple of muffin-sized Yorkshire puddings on the side. Don't forget the gravy (from a five gallon bucket)!

Because the restaurant used to be a private home, it was divided into rooms that were I'm sure considered very spacious at the time the house was built (1895ish) but now would be considered on the small side. They were given names like the Chart Room, the Captain's Room, and the Parlour. The buffet took place in the Captain's Room, closest to the kitchen, and part of the set up involved taking all the tables and forming them into a big horseshoe that lined three walls and left a big open space in the middle.

I was about to go on my meal break late one Sunday afternoon and had been hovering about the buffet, waiting for a break in the action so I could scoot in and grab a plate. There were a few customers quietly grazing, including a young American couple and their undeniably cute son, perhaps two and a half. Mom and dad were filling plates and had their backs to the boy, who had drifted away behind them and stood near the room's centre. There was something about the furtive way he looked around that caught my attention, so I was looking directly at him when he swiftly dropped his pants and started peeing on the fake vintage carpet.

I lived up to the waiter stereotype by coughing loudly into the back of my hand in a "Hey, excuse me!" kind of way. The parents turned, saw their boy in mid-stream, and reacted like one would expect - surprise, alarm, intervention, admonishments, apologies, retreat. They hustled him out of there, leaving a trail of "We're so sorry!" and "What were you thinking?" behind them. Bryn, the guy working the roast beef and a good friend of mine at the time, shook his head with a wry smile and redirected a busser to fetch cleaning supplies. I took advantage of the lull in activity to swoop in and load up my plate.

As I was debating adding a third eggs bennie, I heard a strangled snigger from the carving station; Bryn was trying hard not to laugh out loud and not doing a very good job. I turned to see that the young man had returned on his own, having successfully ditched his parents (quite a feat, considering), returned to the same spot on the carpet, and finished the job. It only took about ten seconds or so for him to do what he had to do, pull up his pants, and trot out of there. I couldn't help but be impressed.

As you can see, the Palace enjoyed just about the best location imaginable on Victoria's Inner Harbour, an advantage totally squandered by "The Ladies." The Parliament Buildings and what was the Wax Museum are notable landmarks, of course. Less of a landmark but certainly notable is the Swiftsure Lounge, where the staff and I spent many hours drinking. I started getting served there when I was 16 (the legal age is 19) until they figured it out. I managed to get back in on the regular about a year later, once I became a waiter.


Part two to come.

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