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"I've changed the whole plan," my dad says about his 70th birthday party. "We'll do dinner and drinks at a restaurant near the Second City and then we'll all go over and watch the show. Where should we go? You know the spots downtown - you decide."
I choose Paese (333 King West, 416-599-6585) because it's just a parking lot away from the Second City. The food looks incredible, and the cross-section of folks inside tells me they're there for the food, not the scene.
It seems like a place worthy of my wonderful dad.
The party starts at 5:30 pm, but my mom insists I arrive at 4:15 "to put up the balloons." The balloons are already blown up and bundled; all we have to do is choose where to drop the bundles' weighted bottom. And there's a "Happy Birthday!" banner to be affixed to the most appropriate wall, for which my mom has purchased "the special sticky stuff they told me to get that doesn't leave a mark."
It's 4:10. My cab is late. I know my mother will be anxious, so I phone the restaurant.
"Hi," I say, "my name is Ashley Botting and we're throwing a party for my father at your restaurant tonight. Is my mother there by any chance?"
"Oh, yes," says the man. His tone is French, but his accent isn't. "She's been here for 40 minutes. She's at the bar having a drink. Hold for a moment."
Muffled conversation and an awkward hand-off.
"Oh, Ash, I was banging on the window because they weren't even open yet, but they let me in and the bartender made me a drink and they're not even open yet. I'm just sitting here."
"Why were you there two hours early?"
"I didn't know how long the cab would take."
My parents live at Yonge and Eglinton.
The plan is to have 30 of my dad's best and oldest friends for cocktails and assorted Italian nosh. At 7:30 we'd walk over to The Second City to see me perform in my show, Sixteen Scandals. As the guests arrive, I picture their faces watching me lumber around the stage in a baseball cap and basketball jersey playing a man-child baffled by how his most recent sexual conquest also had an orgasm.
"But she went to McGill," they'll think.
Jean, the main gentleman taking care of our group, kindly clicks an Ella Fitzgerald playlist on Songza and my father is instantly transported to his happy place: loved ones, distilled spirits and The Great American Songbook all at the same time.
"They've even got a guy taking coats!" he says, as if they've added basic hosting as a special perk just for him.
As perfect stuffed olives and pizzas get passed around, my brother and I trade names we remember of people we haven't seen in 20 years, and I field questions and concerns about my job like "What time are you supposed to be there?" and "Wow, I didn't realize you guys write all your material" and "Seriously, aren't you supposed to be there getting ready?"
My mother introduces my three-year-old nephew to every single person in the room. She tries to coax full sentences out of him because she's heard about a friend of a friend's three-year-old grandson who can engage in meaningful conversation.
My dad orders a third martini "burnt. That means just a whisper of scotch - no vermouth" and Connor, the bartender holds back from saying, "So, just like the first two, then" as he smiles and skillfully scotches the glass.
My dad takes a sip and grins, "That's my guy!"
Several trays of meatballs, countless drinks and two empty tables previously covered in antipasto later, it's time to walk to the theatre. I take off my host hat and grab my cattle prod to shuttle everyone across the parking lot.
When my dad is finally snug in the best seat in the house, surrounded by everyone who loves him, holding another burnt martini, I sit down backstage, take a breath and put on my jester hat.
Paese is now my parents' downtown spot. They pronounce it Pie-ee-zee or Pay-ee-suh or Payz, depending on the day. None of us actually knows which is right. They greet Connor and Jean by name and reminisce about the night the staff treated all the people they love like royalty. My dad orders his weird martini, and my mom her new favourite: Connor's First Time - a masterful concoction that lists rum and egg whites among its parts.
"Egg whites!" exclaim their guests as she throws it back like it ain't no thang.
The menu is replete with goodness, but do yourself a favour and order the unbelievable funghi pizza - or what my parents now just call "the usual, Jean."
Ashley Botting performs in Sixteen Scandals through August 10.