Yellow Mama Archives II

Abe Margel

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Bouncer Beware

by Abe Margel


I should have been more cautious and recognized that sometimes doing people a favour allows them to take advantage of you. As I learned, this holds true even for family.

My dad loved sports, especially baseball. The strategies and the statistics as much as the physical game appealed to him. Mind and body was also my approach. I got as much pleasure from throwing and pinning an opponent to the wrestling mat as developing a software application.

When I was graduating from North Toronto Collegiate Institute, I thought I’d be heading to a Canadian university. That’s not however the way it turned out. I received better offers from the U.S. The University of Saskatchewan had a good wrestling program, but it didn’t compare to what the American colleges offered. So I left Ontario for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on a full sports scholarship. It had a reputation as a good school for both sports and academics. I enrolled in their fine software engineering program.

Nebraska was great and perhaps I should have stayed in America but after completing my bachelor’s degree I returned home. It was rough at first, reconnecting with friends, looking for a job. I only found part-time employment as a software engineer, so I supplemented my income by working as a bouncer. It was mostly an easy gig, just standing around looking tough. Even after I’d settled into my full-time engineering career, I continued to work security occasionally.

Diana, my wife, and I first met in the gym we both trained at. She was cute. A capable woman, she supervised the social work department at Toronto Central Hospital.

The evenings I did security work never pleased her. My bouncer job ended abruptly after I came home one night black and blue.  

“Phil, you’re an idiot,” Diana said. “You’re going to get yourself killed for nothing. None of your barroom employers cares about you. Being a bouncer doesn’t even pay well. Besides, we don’t need the money. Becoming a widow or a caregiver to a man permanently in a wheelchair is not something I signed up for.”

I knew she was right, so I stopped my part-time job and concentrated on designing, developing, testing and maintaining software applications. I enjoyed solving the complex riddles the job threw at me and it more than paid the bills.


It was a Friday morning in July when Diana’s brother phoned me. I was working out of my basement home office.

“Hello,” I said turning my back on my dual computer monitors.

“Hi, Phil, it’s Mike. I have a small problem and I’m hoping you can help me out.”

His smooth, salesman tone made me suspicious. “I haven’t heard from you in a long time. What is it?” My back ached so I stood up and stretched.

“One of my bouncers, Jason, he’s sick and won’t be in tonight. Could you show up, take his place? Just for tonight. Please, I beg you.” 

“I don’t know. It would upset Diana and it’s been years since I did that type of thing. The last time you asked me for help it turned out to be for more than just a Friday. You were short-staffed on the Saturday and Sunday nights too.” My voice went up a notch. “Yeah, now that we’re talking I remember there was an ugly fight I had to break up.” I began to pace.

“Everything is different now, much better. The place has changed and so has the crowd. Things are quiet. It’s more like working in a library than a pub. The customers eat, drink, dance and then go home. We’ve got a great chef and we’re now known for our delicious food. There’s never any trouble.”

I wasn’t so sure. “You know trouble in Toronto these days often includes knives and guns. No matter how good you are with your fists a bullet will always win. Can’t you find somebody else?”

“Nothing like that has ever happened at the Campbell Lounge. We’ve expanded into what was the store next door, renovated, got this new chef, more upscale clientele. Our customers are safe, but they also want to feel safe. They need to see someone looking out for them. You’ll just be standing around. That’s all. I’ll pay of course.”

“So, you call it the Campbell Lounge now. Well, it sounds better than Mike’s Bar and Grill, I’ll give you that.”

“There won’t be much for you to do, just say hello to people as they come and go. What do you think?”

I didn’t owe him anything, but I was bored and feeling a little claustrophobic working in the basement. At least it would be a change from the routine of computer screens, wife and kids.

“Sure, what the hell,” I said.

“By the way, wear dark dress pants and a black or dark blue shirt, okay?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Thanks, Phil you’re a real friend.”

When I told Diana I had agreed to help Mike out she wasn’t happy. She hadn’t spoken to her brother much since he divorced his first wife, a woman she liked and had been close to.

“Let me ask you Phil, when was the last time Mike ever did you a favour? Let me answer. Never! Why deal with angry drunks? And his wife Penny, she’s nuts, you know that. She could snap at any moment, lose control. You don’t want to be around if it happens. So why are you doing this?”

“It’s just the one night. I’ll be fine.”

My shift ran from seven in the evening to three in the morning.

Campbell Lounge was located in Toronto’s Queen Street West district, an area that had recently become gentrified.

Mike’s business was more restaurant than tavern. It looked nothing like the dump it replaced. The eatery occupied the first floor of an old three-storey yellow brick building. What had originally been two stores was now one large room. The tables were set with fine China on stiff white tablecloths. Aromas of French cuisine wafted through the air. On a stage in the corner of the room four musicians played blues tunes made popular by Cedric Burnside, Alabama Slim and Adia Victoria. The atmosphere was relaxed, comfortable and calm, exactly what Mike said it would be.

I said hello to the bartender, an attractive Caribbean woman, then went to the back of the hall into Mike’s office. It was cluttered with cartons containing bottles of wine and liquor, an old filing cabinet and a mahogany desk supporting a laptop. A window faced the blank wall of the building across the alleyway.

Although we were never all that close Mike and I got along. His life revolved around earning a living and the wellbeing of his wife and kids. He was a man of average height, was prematurely bald and had a round, friendly face. He’d put on some weight since I’d last seen him. When he noticed me in the doorway he grinned and stood up from his desk. “Hi Phil, you’re early. Good to see you.”

We spoke for a couple of minutes. When I left him, I picked up a stool standing next to the bar and carried it to just inside the front entrance where the air-conditioning reached. A minute later a young man with a pockmarked face, tall and very thin joined me.

“I’m Dwayne, your assistant, or maybe you’re my assistant,” he laughed. “My main job is helping the bartender, but I’ll come out here when it gets busy.”

We shook hands and he left for the bar.

There was nothing to do so I took out my cell phone and read news reports. A few minutes passed before a few customers showed up. I helped a man in a walking cast through the restaurant doors before sitting back down on my stool.

A woman’s voice behind me shouted, “Hey Jason, what are you doing here?”

I turned around and discovered Mike’s wife, Penny, looking at me.

“Oh, sorry Phil, I thought you were Jason. With your red hair you look like him at least from the back.” She blushed and broke into a soft chuckle. “Nice to see you again. I told Mike not to bother you, but he didn’t want some agency security guard to replace Jason. I don’t understand why. Anyway, I hope you don’t get bored standing around. I’ll come by when I can.” She was a short energetic woman of thirty-eight and the mother of two boys. Usually a calm woman, she could without warning become irritable and sometimes very nasty.

“Nice haircut,” I said. It was best to stay on her good side.

Her hair was cut in a pixie style. She had taken time to carefully apply makeup to her pretty face. Penny was well-dressed in a blue jacket over a white top and a short indigo skirt.

“Thanks,” she said, and gave me a half smile before hurrying off.

I looked behind me. About thirty of the hundred chairs in the place were occupied. The servers were moving between the kitchen and the tables at a leisurely pace. Just after eight o’clock a stream of diners appeared, and the hall was all at once three-quarters full. It was quite the transformation. The noise level shot up. Staff rushed to and fro taking orders, bringing food and drinks to the tables.

The next hour and a half was routine as people calmly came and went. About then Little Fela Olson, a well-known local rapper, showed up with his entourage, two men and three women.

Olson turned to me and said, “Jason I thought...sorry you’re not Jason.” He smiled, reddened and handed me a twenty-dollar bill. “You know you could pass for Jason’s twin brother. Have a drink on me.”

He had on the usual rapper uniform; black baggy pants, earrings, thick gold chain around his neck and a tattoo of a dragon crawling up his neck.

The women in his party were skimpily dressed, giggling lovelies and the two large men serious and watchful. The women ignored me while the two men gave me doubtful looks.

These were not the type of customers I expected would be attracted to this part of town or to an eatery like the sleepy Campbell Lounge. Seeing them made me uneasy. I worried there might be trouble, that Olson’s bodyguards, if that’s what they were, might be carrying guns. That would be illegal in Canada but not unknown. Shootings seemed to make the news every day of the week in Toronto. I only had my hands if there was trouble.

My anxiety evaporated as one peaceful minute followed the other. The band played on cheerfully. All the diners were engrossed in their food and conversations. Olson and his friends were ignored by the crowd.

I moved myself and the bar stool out-of-doors to the stoop in front of the entrance. The moon was out in the summer sky and traffic on Queen Street was light. An empty streetcar passed by, then another. With the sun gone the heat retreated but the humidity remained.

Just after ten Penny came up to me. I was holding the door open for a couple who were leaving. Many of the diners had left and the atmosphere now less exuberant. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, everything is fine,” I said to her.

She smiled, turned around, mumbled something to the headwaiter standing fifteen feet from the entrance then headed for the bar.

Shortly afterwards a second rush of customers appeared. This crowd was not overly interested in eating. They were loud, ordered beer and mixed drinks, asked the band to play familiar tunes and got up on the small dance floor. The mood brightened. People were having a good time.

The rush having slowed, the din at the front door soon quieted down again. Dwayne came over to give me a break. I sat down at an empty table in a dark corner and relaxed. Penny, seeing me, brought over a plate of roasted rack of lamb, salad and a beer. The food smelled delicious.

“So how are Diana and the kids?”

“Everyone’s doing fine.”

She nodded then hurried to the kitchen.

Little Fela Olson walked past me as he headed to the washroom. I noticed the people at his table were getting ready to leave. Just then three men dressed in black and wearing surgical masks pushed past Dwayne at the door and strode up to Olson’s table.

“Where is he?” screamed one of the unwelcome guests.

Fear took over, the band stopped playing and chairs scraped the floor as patrons prepared to flee.

I jumped to my feet, picked up a steak knife from my table and moved cautiously in the direction of the three thugs. One of the intruders turned to me and said, “Jason you’d better stay out of it this time.”

The two large men at Olson’s table began to stand up when the goons drew guns. Just then Olson emerged from the washroom, saw the turmoil at his table and dropped to the floor. The thugs spotted him and began shooting.

A man’s husky voice commanded, “Run, run!”

Panic seized the diners. Women screamed, plates crashed to the floor when tables and chairs were tossed aside. It was mayhem as patrons rushed towards the exit.

Suddenly I was surrounded by frantic people pushing by me. Penny and Mike emerged from the kitchen into the chaotic dining room.

Penny dropped to one knee. “You sons of bitches,” she yelled. Rage distorted her face as she reached into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a Glock G19. “You bastards, you bastards,” she said pulling the trigger again and again.

“Stop,” Mike screamed. He appeared terrified as he tried to get the gun away from her. “Stop!”

“No, I’m not letting them get away with it this time. No.” She turned her back on him and again began shooting wildly, hitting walls, windows and the ceiling.

Tightly gripping the steak knife I took a couple of steps in the criminals’ direction. Just then a woman holding a large handbag darted in front of me forcing me to stop in my tracks.

As the three armed thugs ran for the exit the shortest one turned toward me and bellowed, “Jason, this one’s for you.” My eyes were drawn to his gun. I was sure I was about to die but I stood there frozen, horrified. I heard three shots, felt a sharp sting then collapsed on top of a pair of abandoned stiletto high-heeled shoes. My thigh was a bloody mess.

Dwayne rushed over with a dishtowel to tie a tourniquet around my leg.

“Where’s the ambulance, the police?” he said to Mike. “Why’s it taking so long?”

All the patrons had by now abandoned the Campbell Lounge leaving only the frightened staff.

While I lay on the ground my cell rang. I couldn’t think straight. Bleeding and in pain I automatically pulled the phone out of my pocket. It was my wife calling.


Abe Margel worked in rehabilitation and mental health for thirty years. He is the father of two adult children and lives in Thornhill, Ontario with his wife. His fiction has appeared in Half Hour to Kill, UPPAGUS, Ariel Chart, Fiction on the Web, Scarlet Leaf Review, Academy of the Heart and Mind, 2020 and 2021 BOULD Awards Anthology and the Spadina Literary Review.

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