The Bluebird Cafe
By W. P. Kinsella
Saturday mornings I would ride the streetcar downtown to the Center of Edmonton where the Edmonton Journal newspaper was located. I would buy thirty newspapers at five cents each, stash them in a dirty canvas bag with a strap that went over my shoulder, and head east on Jasper Avenue to sell my papers for ten cents each to pedestrians, and clients of the many cafes on both sides of Jasper Avenue, including one at 97 Street that posted a sign: OFF LIMITS TO MILITARY PERSONNEL. Sixty-five years later I can still feel the unpleasant weight of that canvas strap on my shoulder. I always imagined that I would someday work for the Edmonton Journal. I read each edition religiously, imagining my own byline on the more prominent stories.
The money for selling papers was good, considering me and my friends received twenty-five cents per week allowance. A dollar-fifty was a lot of money for a twelve year old. An ice cream cone cost five cents, donuts were two for a nickel, a chocolate bar was seven cents, recently raised from five. However, there were disadvantages. I was too proud to pack a lunch, so by mid-afternoon, when I had sold most of my papers, I was so ravenously hungry that I spent most of my profits on food. I could get a fried egg sandwich for twenty-five cents, or ham for thirty, but still it cut into my profits.
One afternoon I completely lost it and paid seventy-five cents at a place called the Bluebird Cafe, for the most delicious meal I had ever eaten: four plump pork sausages, each lying in a drift of mashed potato, covered in a savoury red gravy. There was sliced bread and butter, two vegetables, but it was the sausage and red gravy that won my heart.
The Bluebird Cafe was a new business in a very old building next to a furniture store. It had been created on a small budget. Instead of a false ceiling, a dozen white globes lit the room, each at the bottom of at least a twenty-foot pole, high above in the dimness a stained tin ceiling could be seen. There were a dozen stools with red leather seats in front of a greyish counter. Four tables of mismatched wooden and chrome chairs were scattered about, the whole place sat about thirty. The sign outside read CANADIAN AND JAPANESE FOOD.
The war was a recent memory to everyone; I couldn't imagine anyone wanting Japanese food. There was a Japanese girl in my sixth grade class, an anomaly in a class of white kids, the children of war veterans, a couple of whom had lost their fathers in the war. Masako was tall and straight as a flower stalk, she wore long pale dresses that were simply coverings for her body. She sat shyly in her seat, and kept to herself at recess.
I became obsessed with sausages and gravy. I dreamed of them while I hawked my papers, and no matter how thoroughly I promised myself to go straight home, my stomach led me straight to the Bluebird Cafe, where I squandered half my earnings. One week when I went to pay my bill, Masako was at the cash register. We exchanged shy greetings. She explained that her parents owned the cafe and she helped out after school and on weekends.
The next week, at the Bluebird Cafe, I observed something quite odd. As I sat at the counter, waiting for my order, occasionally spinning in a circle on the stool, a vey old Japanese man entered the cafe and took a seat two stools to my right. He was tiny and thin as broom, with pumpkin colored skin and a few squiggles of straight white hair. He wore a black overcoat that appeared to weigh as much as he did. He gave Masako his order in Japanese.
My order came and I dived in. A few moments later Masako delivered a bowl of hot vegetables and a pot of tea to the old man. He ate silently and deliberately, though I thought I detected restraint, it was as if his hunger was great, and he wanted to eat much faster. As I watched, the old man took from his overcoat pocket a small black-lidded jar and brush about eight inches long, wrapped in a cloth. He undid the lid of the jar and after dipping the brush in the ink, wrote vey slowly with a steady hand on the back of the check.
Masako was stacking plates behind the counter as I made my way to the register. As she passed she picked up the old man's check. She stared at it as I counted out my change.
I could see the delicate black characters he had inscribed on the back of the bill. “Is that his signature?” I asked.
“No. It's a poem. In Japan he was a renowned poet.” She turned the bill toward me. There were three lines of up and down writing, each character drawn in exquisite detail.
“What does it say?"
She stared at it for a long time.
“Do you read Japanese?”
“Of course,” she said, her eyes flashing. “In the camps there was nothing to do but learn Japanese.”
“I'm sorry,” I said. I knew only vaguely of the Japanese internment camps. “He lost everything because of the camps,” she said. “His home, much valuable land, all taken away. He has only his talent and his pride left. He pays for his meal with a poem. My father collects them. He says in Japan they are better than money.” She kept studying the poem. Finally, she read:
“In a dense thicket
Black rabbit huddles softly
Pink nose aquiver.”
The poem was as delicate as the drawn characters, but there was so much more. He paid for his meal with a poem. What a concept. I had written several stories, including one called “Diamond Doom” about a murder in a baseball stadium, that I entered in a YMCA contest, I failed to win a prize, but did get an Honorable Mention.
Electric eels seethed through my blood. He paid for his meal with a poem! I pictured myself plunking down a story in payment for a plate of savoury sausage. The possibilities were endless. How long could I eat in exchange for a novel. My future was decided.