I recently met a former co-worker from the mid 1970’s and our brief conversation inspired a flood of fun memories. We had both briefly slung beer at the infamous Willow Inn Hotel, which to veteran Kelowna residents needs little introduction. For newcomers the Willow Inn was a two story facility tucked behind what is now Kelly O’Bryan’s along the bottom end of Queensway.
The Willow housed the Greyhound Bus terminal for years in addition to being a popular restaurant and working guys’ pub. It was also a strip bar and not exactly the tamest place in town.
But it sure was an interesting place to work.
At age 20 and already frustrated with life as a journalist I decided to take a bartending course. The job was no safer but the pay much better. I entered my new career with a brave step and a bundle of energy. I had teeth then. Oh man, what an education in life.
In no time the Willow Inn became a huge part of my world. Not only did I sling in the bar but wound up working in the lounge (which turned out to be even more dangerous sometimes than the pub). As well I wound up serving food and occasionally cooking in the restaurant (we used to produce all the food for the RCMP lockup cells) and eventually lived in the hotel for half a year.
At first this wide-eyed lad was taken aback by my exposure to the seedy side of the Willow. However I came to know the many patrons: Real bikers, wanna-be bikers, First Nations, regular blue collar boys, the lunchtime pop-in workers in suits and ties, and the strippers.
I was soon the toast of my friends as they somehow envied my working relationship with the dancing girls, but I quickly learned to view the young women in a different light after getting to know a few and understand their sordid world. Many dancers over the next year became friends, people I came to feel protective of and somewhat sorry for. After a brief time I no longer really watched the girls, it felt too odd: Like I was watching a sister or friend who I’d come to know as a person and not just a piece of meat. I listened to their stories and heartbreaks and suddenly understood in a way that few men get to learn.
There were some odd duck customers in those days. One client I called Talking Tony visited the lounge every Wednesday at 4 p.m. and ordered two Scotch and water, one for him and one for his friend. His invisible friend.
TT would sip his drink and carry on a silent but very animated conversation with his invisible buddy, then raise his glass in a toast at the end, drain his glass, and leave. He never touched the other drink and always left a dime tip.
I’ll likewise never forget a drunken idiot and his table buddies who decided to make me a human pincushion. The busted beer bottle he attempted to put in my stomach wound up in my hand.
However, my favourite memory was the day a fellow worker offered to help one of the newly arrived strippers with her heavy suitcases to her room. He lugged a huge heavy suitcase all the way upstairs only to be told it was to be sent back down to the bar.
“Good God girl that is one heavy suitcase. What do you have in there, bricks?” he asked.
“No sir, she replied with a smirk, “it’s my snake.”
Sure enough the girl had a giant Boa Constrictor in the luggage.
Two days after the suitcase incident I ventured down from my hotel room at 5:30 a.m. to open the kitchen. On the way past the front desk the desk clerk said, “Oh by the way Charlie – you may want to keep an eye out and your ears open. Seems our dancer has lost her snake. She thinks it may be hiding in the kitchen because of the food scent. If you hear or see anything just call.”
Call? How about scream!
Suddenly, returning to the newspaper business started to look attractive again.