Margie Christoffersen didn't make it very far into our conversation before she cracked. Chest heaving, tears streaming, she reached for her husband Wayne's hand and then mine, squeezing as if she'd never let go.
"I've almost had a nervous breakdown. It's been the worst thing that's ever happened to me," she sobbed as curious patrons at a Farmers Market coffee shop looked on, wondering what calamity had visited this poor woman who's an honest 6 feet tall, with hair as blond as the sun.
Well, Christoffersen was a manager at El Coyote, the Beverly Boulevard landmark restaurant that's always had throngs of customers waiting to get inside. Many of them were gay, and Christoffersen, a devout Mormon, donated $100 in support of Proposition 8, the successful November ballot initiative that banned gay marriage.
She never advertised her politics or religion in the restaurant, but last month her donation showed up on lists of "for" and "against" donors. And El Coyote became a target.
A boycott was organized on the Internet, with activists trashing El Coyote on restaurant review sites. Then came throngs of protesters, some of them shouting "shame on you" at customers. The police arrived in riot gear one night to quell the angry mob.
The mob left, but so did the customers.
Sections of the restaurant have been closed, a manager told me Friday during a very quiet lunch hour. Some of the 89 employees, many of them gay, have had their hours cut, and layoffs are looming. And Christoffersen, who has taken a voluntary leave of absence, is wondering whether she'll ever again be able to work at the restaurant, which opened in 1931 (at 1st and La Brea) and is owned by her 92-year-old mother.
"It's been so hard," she said, breaking down again.
A lot of customers saw Christoffersen as the face of the restaurant. She was the hostess who roamed from table to table with a pitcher of water, refilling glasses and schmoozing with friends.
Christoffersen, raised Mormon by her late father, told me she has no problem with gay people.
"I love them like everybody else."
But she supports her church's position that marriage is between a man and a woman.
I, on the other hand, opposed Prop. 8. And as I wrote more than once, I think organized Christian religion reached new levels of hypocrisy in using the Bible to preach discrimination and promote the initiative.
As for the Mormons, I have trouble taking any cues on social mores from a group whose founder and early leaders believed they were acting on directives from on high when they took enough wives -- many in their teens -- to fill every booth in the cavernous El Coyote.
But I didn't like what I was hearing about the vilification of Margie Christoffersen and others in California being targeted for the crime of voting their conscience.
"I agree with you on this," said Fred Karger. On his Californians Against Hate website, Karger has been outing Prop. 8 supporters, but he thinks Christoffersen's small personal donation didn't warrant such a backlash against El Coyote. Karger also spoke out against the resignation of a Sacramento theater director who gave $1,000 to Yes on 8 and happens to be Mormon.
The focus should be on the Mormon Church, Karger said, and on people and businesses that gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Yes on 8. Wayne Christoffersen, who is also a manager at El Coyote, is not a Mormon, and he said he doesn't care who marries whom. But he doesn't think it's right that he and other employees at the restaurant are seeing their livelihoods threatened. Should Apple be boycotted by Yes on 8 people, he asked, simply because the computer company donated $100,000 to the No on 8 campaign?
El Coyote has never been known for gourmet cuisine. But the warm, kitschy vibe and cool patio scene have always been a hit with customers willing to wait in long lines under the distinctive neon sign.
Now business is off about 30%, Wayne said. Margie wants to blame it on the economy, because she can't deal with the alternative. But Wayne insisted the low-priced restaurant is largely recession-proof, and it's the controversy that has stemmed the flow of margaritas.
Margie tried to smooth things over last month by inviting gay clients to a free lunch to talk it over, but she left in tears when asked if she would write a check to the group challenging Prop. 8.
She blubbered all over again as she thought back on the last month. She has been a nightly fixture at El Coyote for two decades, walking to work from her home just a few doors away. It's been her life, she said. And she can't stand that it's been taken away.
On the other side, thousands of gay people can't stand that their recent marriages could be taken away, and thousands more feel as though their civil rights have been violated.
So even if Margie returns to work at El Coyote, her husband said, "she will never, ever be back here on a Thursday night."
Thursdays, as tradition had it, the place was mobbed with gay customers.
I had lunch at El Coyote on Thursday, and most of the tables were empty.
Margie was off in a dark corner of the restaurant -- at the table where Sharon Tate had her last meal -- exchanging Christmas presents with friends and her mother.
I sat on the patio with Wayne and two other El Coyote managers -- Arnoldo Archila and Bill Schoeppner -- who happen to be gay.
"We always joked around with Margie," said Schoepp- ner, who's been on the job 26 years. "I'm a Democrat and voted for Obama; she probably voted for McCain -- so what? If she were a bigot or a homophobe, you wouldn't have had all these gay people" working at the restaurant or eating at it.
Besides, the donation was personal.
"She didn't cut a check from the restaurant," added Archila, a 28-year employee. "The restaurant didn't have anything to do with it."
Archila said he and other employees voted no on Prop. 8 and gave money to the legal challenge. As someone who came to the U.S. 30 years ago from El Salvador, Archila said, he's always cherished this country's right of free speech and the diversity of opinion.
"You can express yourself as a citizen," said Archila. "Not everyone has to believe the same things."