The Boathouse is in the park, on the shore of a big lake. The lake is in the middle of St. Louis’ beating green heart: Forest Park. They ingeniously named the lake after The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They call it Post-Dispatch Lake. Canals creep in all over, flowing into the golf course, and the zoo that’s nearby, and thinning to rivulets that go underground and wind up in the Mississippi.
The city believes that the Boathouse is iconic. It is designed that way, dressed up as such with a fleet of paddle boats. There are ducks that bob up to tables near the water and cherp for crumbs. The workers wear calm pastel uniforms. Pastel uniforms are classy.
In the spring, there are tan yellow ducklings. Some people people don’t want to feed them. They don’t want the ducks to become dependent on scraps. Bare restaurant walls are interrupted by buoys and paddles that are nailed up high. These things were never intended to touch the water. They are colorful. They are distressed in a chic sort of way. Below water, mossy snapping turtles—big ones—paddle through muck at the bottom of the lake.
In the zoo, they let the peacocks stroll around and mingle with the crowd. They never getting too close, but sometimes, they end up outside the zoo walls. Beyond the zoo is JFK Forest, where the trees are left alone to try, yet again, to grow tall and close, but they are always cut back, slashed, and burned to return nutrients to the soil. A pack of stray dogs live back there. They follow anything that wanderers, and they’re never caught in the flames.
In the summer, the restaurant hires white high school kids to work the boat rentals. They also drive a golf cart that carries customers where they want to go which is mostly to the musical theater nearby, or the zoo. The kids are fun to talk to. There’s a tip jar. They make more in an hour than the dishwasher does all night. The golf car is put away at seven. There’s a bridge over a creek you have to cross in order to get to the big lot. Sometimes a guy is there. Sometimes he’ll ask if you want to buy a watch.
There’s a cook named Wild Bill, and a dishwasher who cut his own LP. There was a round, black manager named Lowel who wore color coordinated outfits everyday. For example: Red shorts, red shirt, red basketball shoes, and a straw hat with a red ribbon around it. He left to manage a casino. There’s a waiter named Gunther, a tall skinny white guy, who works at a different restaurant every month for nine months out of the year. Then he takes three months off to go rock climbing. He’s in his forties. Sometimes he invites the girls renting boats to pick up a six pack and play sand volleyball after work. Once, he snuck up behind Katie, picked her up by the hips, and twirled her around. Like it was a joke.
No one says it out loud, but sometimes it’s agreed that there really are too many ducks living off the restaurant food. A guy gets a call. He comes out, and herds them up a ramp into the back of a white van and the van just drives away.
The Beer Garden is separate but also part of the restaurant. Lawrence runs it. He had to kick a guy out because the guy was giving the busboys his business card. Again. The card says he’s Daniel Keef, an ATTORNEY AT LAW , and 1-605-475-6961. He says to the bus boys, “I can help you into college,” all they have to do is call.
At midnight, tips are divided. They say the waiters get the biggest cut. Waiters walk in pairs to the far lot across the bridge to their cars. The cooks, the bus boys, the dishwasher, have to walk past the History Museum, past the patch of grass where the Confederate memorial use to be, across Lindell Avenue, past the mansions that line that street, and head down into the MetroLink’s station lights, with the smallest cut of the tips in their pockets.
Managers park in the small lot out front of the restaurant. You’ll have to trust they’ve counted the money with clear eyes and pure hearts. At the end of the night, the dockworkers lounge around in empty paddleboats waiting on the last paddlers to return before leaving for the night. The waiters hate that. They tell the dockworkers to go light the Tiki torches that checker the dock, to keep mosquitoes away. Sometimes the kerosene soaks the bamboo and the whole thing goes up.
It’s no one’s job, but the dockworkers monitor the water. Kids love the ducks and they’ll lean, stretching far over the green water, to scatter cracker crumbs like a buckshot, aiming especially for the ducklings who gather up in a big fuzzy swarm. And sometimes a turtle pulls a duckling under.