It’s dark and it’s hot. Or maybe it’s cold. A draft might be draft blowing through the wall. The back doors might be open. They could be shut. But the front doors? The front doors are closed. It smells like weed and cigarettes. Guinness, Americanos, car-bombs. Red wine in a coffee cup. The lights are off and the music is up. La Hacienda is closed.
I’m not a big fan of nostalgia. I don’t often stroll down Memory Lane and, when I do, I don’t stroll so much as skulk. A fugitive in my own past, I find it hard to look back at anything. I have too many regrets. It’s probably just one of those terrible things about life — the more you learn, the more regrets you’ll have. Only people who don’t get better can view their past with confidence. Those most in need of regret, lack it. So, the good news is, I’m better person than I was. I’m pretty sure of that. The bad news is, knowing that doesn’t help when I’m laying sleepless in bed, listening to my brain rot inside my skull and feeling my heart withering in my chest. Not much helps then.
And, you know, it’s the little things that bother me the most. The big fuck-ups always have a certain glamour. It’s the little ones. The insensitive comment, the stupid remark, the ignorant point of view. That shit is what sticks with me. It’s a shameover.
La Hacienda is where I first learned that word. Shameover. If you haven’t heard it, it’s the part of the hangover where you feel like you should be put on trial for capital offences. It’s all the half-remembered stupidities from the night before, out of context, exaggerated beyond any possible importance, and presented as evidence by your own mind of what a total bag of shit you are. That’s how I usually feel about the past.
But when someone or something dies, the past is about all you can think about. I mean, shit, not like there’s a future left to consider. And La Hacienda isn’t just closed. It’s dead.
And not dead like there was some snow in the forecast on a Tuesday night. Dead like the Dodo. Dead like that dead fucking parrot. Like Jesus, the Toronto Star even wrote a fucking obituary for the place. That’s how dead La Ha is.
I worked there a long time. I started out as under the table casual labor, a dishwasher, while collecting welfare, and volunteering at Meals on Wheels. A friend, a really good friend at the time, got me the job. If she hadn’t, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I was thinking about joining the army. I did not want to go back to a fucking kitchen. I don’t know if I would have gone through with that army thing. I might have. Luckily, I didn’t have to find out. I got hired.
La Ha wasn’t like any place I’d ever worked before. The long and the short of it is that the workers were treated like adults. It was a job with all the bullshit cut out of it. They didn’t try to police your face, “SMILE!!!”, your attitude, or your sobriety. You just needed to do the job. And I know that the place has a reputation for bad service, the words “notorious” and “infamous” are always tossed around. I even like that legend.
But most of us were really fucking good at our jobs. Some of the finest servers and cooks I’ve ever seen in my life worked at that place. They usually did it alone in conditions that would just fucking murder a weaker server or cook. We did it that way for the money and because a lot of us had worked in other restaurants. That made most of us pretty anti-authoritarian. We’d all rather work hard than work with some douchebag manager making you apologize to abusive pricks for their errors. We had some “fuck-you” in us, sure. And some of that spilled out onto the customers. But, usually, onto the right ones. Assholes did not get much leeway. Were mistakes made? Sure.
But assholes got thrown out.
But La Ha wasn’t for everyone nor was it meant to be. The music would be loud and usually abrasive, the place was a certain way, all steak, no sizzle, and that was it.
But some people expect a place to change just because they walked into it. They’d want the lights and sound adjusted to their taste. They expect gratitude just for showing up. People like that hate the idea that they might just have to walk down the street to the Starbucks or some shit. Some people want to be the sort of people who go to a place like La Ha even if they aren’t the sort of people who like a place like La Ha. These people have a hard time with the basic concept that a place might just not be for them. They think that “customer” is some exalted position. That every place is for them.
La Ha said no.
That might be one of my favorite things about the place. We were allowed to say “no.”
And so many of those assholes would act like La Ha was about to go out of business because they heard “no.” But La Ha outlasted just about everyone on Queen West. It buried trendy restaurants and shops by the fucking dozen. It’s dead now but it lived for decades on a strip where lifespans are measured in one year leases.
So we were doing something right. As much shame as I might have about the past, I have very little about most of the people I tossed out of La Ha. Most of them were just fucking bullies. Some were entitled morons. A lot were both.
But, you know, the legend of La Ha and the reality of it was, of course, a bit different. The legend and the reality were tangled up in each other as long as I was there and trying to untangle one thing from the other is basically impossible. You might be able to kick someone out. You might get fired. La Ha could be a bit moody at times. I made some really good friends there. I also lost one of my best friends there.
The memories can be a bit of a mixed bag. God knows, I’m not always proud of how I acted there, things I said, or shit I found funny. La Ha gave me more second chances that a cat gets lives. And the cocaine and booze phase was probably not full of my proudest moments and I probably still owe people apologies about that. The place was like a family, and when you have a family, you have gossip and you have drama and you have some problems. People can get carried away. Things were sometimes quiet and they sometimes came in waves of chaos. It was Toronto’s Island of Misfit Toys. We were misfits. Some of us were, I think, pretty fucked up. And we did some pretty fucked up things. Regrets won’t change that. But I think a lot of us were improved by the spot.
The one thing I don’t regret is working there. I can’t even imagine my life without La Ha as a part of it. And I’m not alone in that. So many of us went to do other and better things and there’s no way that we would have been able to do any of it without a spot like La Ha behind us. It made a lot possible. The place isn’t the sort of thing that can just be replaced. It was more than just a job to me, it was part of who I was, and it’s part of who I still am. I’m a La Ha vet. There’s worse things to be. And without that place, I’m pretty sure that I’d be at least three of them.