In Stephen King’s Joyland, Devon Jones mentions in passing, “…another summer mopping cafeteria floors and loading elderly Commons dishwashers with dirty plates didn’t hold much charm for me…”
In the summer of 1969 that prospect held all kinds of charm for me, though, because it meant I could have two months of complete independence for the very first time. My after-school job as busboy at the University of Manitoba would become full-time for the summer, and as a full-timer I was allowed to rent a bedsitter in the bowels of Mary Speechly Hall, the big hall of residence. There was a medium-security special wing for The Lifers: the full-time and somewhat damaged cafeteria staff who chose to live on-site. So for a summer I lived among the The Lifers. I came out of it unscathed and unsullied, possibly because I was utterly oblivious to what I now assume was going on down there.
Across the corridor was the self-nicknamed Fat Barry. “Howdy! Ah’m Fat Barry an’ ah’m from Texas,” he would say in a very high-pitched drawl from….well, if there’s a town called Kingston, Ontario in Texas then that’s where it was from. Occasionally Barry would slip out of character and lose the drawl, but the falsetto never failed him. When I became an opera fan years later, I wondered whether perhaps that wasn’t a falsetto at all, but actually his real voice, and how in demand he could have become had the baroque revival begun twenty years earlier. Of course he’d have needed to drop Texan in favour of a few European languages including English, and the ability to carry a tune—which he couldn’t—would have been a bonus too, on most if not all opera stages.
He spent most his spare cash on amazing satin cowboy shirts in mauve, sky blue and gold, festooned with embroidered lariats, spurs, guns and bullwhips. These billowed in shimmering rolls nearly down to his knees, so that no one including Fat Barry could see exactly where he hitched up his too-tight jeans with the rolled-up cuffs, or indeed whether that voice of his had been achieved surgically. Of course they hadn’t been performing that particular procedure down Texas way for, oh… decades!
The boots were absolutely real, really from Texas and glorious to behold. He didn’t need to tell me they were handmade, and I decided for myself that they had been custom fitted maybe a half-size too small, the better to facilitate a John Wayne-style pigeon-toed, mincing gait. I wondered how those beauties could be afforded on a busboy’s pay, but Barry confided to me that he did receive the occasional package of greenbacks from the family ranch. Oil, dontcha know…
I loved how Barry clearly got the joke that was his self-made persona. The occasional wink suggested that he knew I got it too, but that he was sure he had pretty much everyone else fooled, at least so long as he was the only Texan in town.
I could—won’t for now but will, soon—carry on about Fat Barry’s fellow Lifers, Crazy Albert and Little George Gage, but that would lead into a treatise on the mechanics of washing dishes for 1600 student diners in two hours, three times a day, and to a sidebar on the extended coffee break we all had one day that summer to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. And how much I loved to wheel steaming clean plates out to Sandy Schultz as she served up Salisbury steak on the servery line.