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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch. 29: Further Dances

Apr 6, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

Brian from Home Savings and Loan came by one afternoon to tell us that he was confident the building had been sold. He expected Donna to be pleased. They had developed a friendly rapport – he, sharing his frustration with managing the building and trying to find a buyer, and she, suggesting improvements that would boost the selling price. He would listen, chuckle and shake his head. “We can’t put any money into the building,” he’d say, “You’ll have to wait for a new owner.

This day he was anxious to talk to Donna and give her the news, “You’ll be pleased with this,” he told her, “The buyer is the Helga Modeling Agency. Helga has some big plans for the place – a modeling school, a venue for fashion shows, maybe studios for designers. It’ll be great for your business.”

Helga arrived in her white Mercedes the following Friday. She certainly looked the part of a modeling school doyenne, slender in a dark business suit accented with chunky jewelry, her dark hair in a loose upsweep. Introducing herself, she explained that she would be using the vacant studio next to us as a base, while she worked out  plans for the building and finished getting the financing in place.

“I am so pleast to have zees delightful restaurant in zee building. We vill be your best customers” she said with a heavy German accent.

Donna wasn’t entirely sold on Helga, “There’s something of the scam artist about her. She’s moving in and she hasn’t got her financing in place? What’s Brian smoking?” 

We knew Brian was desperate to get rid of the building and we were hopeful that we might get a serious landlord. I shared Donna’s doubts but I tried to be optimistic. “Hey, I’m sure he’s done his homework. We’ll get a new landlord, with grand ideas for the building. What’s not to like?”

When we arrived the next afternoon, the odor of paint fumes was overwhelming in the restaurant and the restaurant was hot; we were still holding out for a  landlord who would fix the air conditioning for us. Donna went to investigate and found Helga, a bright yellow chiffon scarf tied around her head,  on her hands and knees painting the floor black. 

“I wish you’d told us you were planning to paint,” said Donna, “The smell is so strong in the restaurant, we may not be able to open for dinner.”

“I vanted to get it done on the veekend” Helga said cheerily.

“Ah, but the weekend is our busy time, and we are losing business. Could you please stop for now?” said Donna.

Shaking her head, Donna came back to the restaurant,

“She’s buying the building and she can’t pay someone to paint the floor for her? Sounds sketchy to me. We’ll see how long she lasts. We are going to have to get that AC fixed ourselves.”

For the next few weeks, Helga flitted to and fro, occasionally bringing a guest in for lunch. More often she would appear on the patio, flutter a hand towards a table,

“We sit just here, only coffee for me, thank you” she would beam at me.

Other than the painting of the floor, Helga made no noticeable improvements to her studio. An easel with a sign announcing “The Helga Modeling Agency” appeared outside her door, and from time to time young women clutching what appeared to be portfolios would come by and be given a grand tour by Helga, smiling and vivacious, her bracelets jangling.

She never lunched or had coffee with these young women; her lunch dates were invariably older men, causing us to wonder about the true nature of her modeling agency. The waiters assured us from overheard snatches of conversation that these were prospective investors and that her pitch wasn’t meeting with much success. Sometimes, her guest would pay for lunch, shake her hand and go. At other times, he might rise, give her a tight smile and with an abrupt nod, wish her a good afternoon. She would often follow to the parking lot, chatting amiably and placing a hand on an arm, wish him “Auf Wiedersehen ” before returning to her studio, leaving the lunch tab unpaid.

Once, in frustration at Helga’s frequent payment dodges,  Donna followed her to collect. Holding the bill tightly, her arms folded, she made no attempt to find the money, instead launching into an attempt to charm Donna.

“Ve are alike, Donna, you and I. Two vimen struggling to keep our businesses afloat”

Donna was fuming when she came back with the payment, “Alike? I felt like putting a bucket over her head and banging it with a ladle!”

“She’s living in there, you know.” Mirro said to me one day. It had not occurred to me that she might be. There was no water service to her unit, but on the other hand, no matter how early we came in, or how late we left, the white Mercedes was always parked outside. As if to confirm Mirro’s statement, a late diner returning from the women’s washroom a few days later said, 

“There’s a woman in there who appears to be getting ready for bed.”

“Really?” I said, “Are you sure?”

“Well, she was wearing a robe and slippers with a towel wrapped around her head and she was putting cream on her face.”

Shortly after, an early lunch guest took Donna aside to tell her that there was a woman colouring her hair in the washroom.

“She was quite friendly – wished me a good morning.”

Resolutely cheerful, Helga would choose a table on the patio and sit facing the entrance to the parking lot to be ready to greet her guests when they arrived. She was having lunch on the patio with a guest one afternoon when a burly figure, holding a manila envelope came to the front desk.

“I’m looking for Helga. I have something for her,” he said.

“She’s having lunch on the patio,” I said, but when I pointed out her table, her seat was vacant.

“Maybe she’s next door in her unit, or in the washroom.”

“The door is locked and no one answered when I knocked. “

Looking at him, I imagined his knock could be quite forceful.

“I think you could probably slide it under the door”, I said pointing to the envelope.

“I have to deliver it to her personally.”

He waited a short while, pacing, tried the doors again then got into his car and drove off. As the car pulled away, Helga reappeared just as her guest was rising to leave. He pointed at his watch raising his hands in a gesture of helplessness. She sighed dramatically, threw up her hands and with a sardonic laugh shook his hand and retreated to her studio, locked the door.

Before long, Helga would just not answer her door. The waiters had to keep watch to catch her scuttling to the washroom if they wanted to collect their outstanding tabs. Brian came and knocked, then frustrated, would come to ask us about sightings. 

One afternoon, the white Mercedes was towed away.

Then, not unexpectedly, one Monday Helga was gone, her studio space open and vacant. At the same time, we were instructed to make our rent payable to a new numbered company. Again we were hopeful that we had a landlord who was interested in investing in the building, but it soon became obvious  that the intention was to flip it. So we remained in month-to-month limbo for another year; replacing the air conditioning, paying our rent, tending to the landscaping and waiting to see whether Mildred Pierce would survive. The CEO of the new company, who rarely came by, had no interest in engaging with us, and seemed to expect us to be grateful to be there.

We were growing used to prospective buyers marching through unannounced, but I was still irritated to meet a big man poking into corners in the kitchen during lunch service one day. A gruff, Eastern European who bore a remarkable resemblance to Leonid Brezhnev, the late General Secretary of the U.S.S.R. , he introduced himself and announced that he now owned the building.

While he had lunch, he told me that his son, Michael, would be setting up his fledgling film company in the building.  

“You will have a lot of young people coming to your restaurant and they will be okay to pay your prices” he said with a dry laugh, “You charge a lot of money for a little bit of soup.”

Michael would also be managing and living in the building. The fact that he renovated a studio and installed a bathroom and a kitchen before he moved in seemed to bode well. He was expansive in sharing his grandiose plans for the building with us. 

Sunday morning brunch, shortly after he had moved in, a huge dog came running in from the hallway and made a circuit of the dining room, tongue lolling, tail wagging before running back to the door to meeting Michael, who appeared in rumpled pajamas, robe untied, sloppily eating a bowl of breakfast cereal.

“Can I get a coffee?” he said.

I was not feeling optimistic.

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