Ah yes, legends live on.
Sorting through storage boxes this morning I discovered an ancient copy of the Capital News. The front-page headline read End of an Era and detailed the demolition of the infamous Willow Inn Hotel.
I was immediately teleported back in time.
My earliest memory of the Willow was as a 10-year old kid watching police and firemen running around the building after it had been attacked for a second time by bomb makers connected to the Sons of Freedom.
I also recall, as a youngster, routinely heading to the Willow to greet someone or watch them depart somewhere on the Greyhound Bus – the Willow playing bus depot at the time.
Father would occasionally take me to the Willow Inn restaurant for a hamburger and hot chocolate. Little did I know it would a precursor to other events in my world.
At 19 or 20, (and already fed up with a two years in the newspaper business) I decided I could make more money laying my life directly on the line. Good buddy Ralph and I decided to take a mixology (bartenders) course right after we left high school. Upon graduation from ‘learning to make drinks school’ Ralph and I went to work. He scored a job working in the classy Royal Anne Hotel lounge while I wound up slinging beer in the Willow Inn pub.
That scenario seemed unfair because Ralph, even at age 20, was a well built fellow with a second-degree black belt. I was simply the same short, skinny fellow I am today whose only martial arts experience at that point was being Ralph’s personal practice punching and kicking bag.
Undaunted I entered my new career with a brave step and a bundle of energy.
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 a great deal (which turned out sometimes to be even more dangerous than the pub). I also wound up serving food and occasionally cooking in the restaurant. We use to produce all the food for the RCMP lockup cells then.
Eventually I wound up living in the hotel for about half a year. At first this wide-eyed lad was taken aback by my exposure to the seedy world of the Willow. However I came to know well 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. 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 while pouring them coffee in the morning and serving them food – and suddenly understood in a way few men get to learn.
There were some odd ducks who were hotel customers in those days.
Like ‘Talking Tony’. TT would come into the lounge every Wednesday at 4 p.m. and order 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.
However, my favourite memory was the day when a regular customer we all knew offered to help one of the strippers with her heavy suitcases to her room. The helpful fellow 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 their 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. Ironically I had an eerie experience with the same girl and her slithery pal. Two days after the suitcase incident I ventured down from my hotel room to open the kitchen at 5:30 a.m. 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. If you hear or see anything just call.”
How about scream?
A month later I returned to the newspaper business.
The Willow Inn is nothing but a rubble parking lot now however there are lots of memories still buried in those bricks.
Fortunately, there are still enough ‘regulars’ and old timers still around to keep the legend alive.