January 1983 was a good month to get out of New York. The NYPD wanted to interrogate me about a murder and police corruption at the Continental Club on West 25th Street. While the case was a year old and the killer’s trail had gone cold, Sgt.... Ferguson thought I knew more than I was saying. He was wrong, but the NYPD had their ways to get someone to say what they wanted them to say, so when a friend from Paris called my East Village apartment to offer a nightclub job, I booked an Air France flight that very day.
Benji gave me a ride to JFK. The Jamaican hulk and I had been partners at the door of the Continental. Internal Affairs weren’t interested in his testimony. His Trenchtown heritage excluded him from the ranks of ‘infamers’, but he knew that the NYPD loved a black fall guy.
"You not talk?"
"I held my sand."
“Them po-lice is seh evil.”
"You got that right." I got out of the Caddy, expecting Internal Affairs to arrest me, but only the cold winter wind touched by leather jacket.
"Good luck, mon, and don’t come back soon, maan.” New York wasn't my town for the moment.
An hour later I was on a 747.
Flight time to Paris was 6 hours.
I arrived at dawn. I handed the unshaven taxi driver the address. He glanced over his shoulder.
“Le Bains-Douches est fermee.”
"Je sais," I adopted Pepe Le Phew’s accent.
The driver shrugged and turned on the meter for the ride to Les Halles. A weak winter sun filled the Boulevard Sebastopol. Pedestrians wore light coats. Spring felt a few days away and I fought to keep from asking, “Ou est le bibliotechque?”
Thirty minutes after leaving the super-modern Charles De Gaulle Aeroport the taxi stopped on a small street close to the Musee Centre Pompidou.
BAINS-DOUCHES was carved into stone above the entrance of 7 Rue du Bourg l’Abbe. I grabbed my bag and tipped the driver 30 francs. He grunted out a 'merci' like a snake fart and drove around the corner. I climbed the stairs and pushed open the heavy glass and wood door.
The cleaning crew was preparing for the night. Tables set with forks, knives, spoons, and glasses atop paper sheets. In the kitchen a mustached cook chopped vegetables. The thin Italian’s name was Tony. He lifted his head in greeting, as if he had been expecting me, then returned to his task.
The boyishly young owner was counting money in the tiny office. Records were stacked on the floor and posters proclaimed upcoming concerts of punk, soul, funk, African, French, New Wave, and electronic bands. Fabrice noticed my admiration and smiled like he had found a long-lost toy boat.
“Ah, l’American.” He hadn’t used the pejorative ‘Amerlot.
“C’est moi.” The previous winter a counter-culture magazine had hired me to be the physionomiste of its eclectic boite de nuit on the Grand Boulevard. The publisher had introduced Fabrice and his rounder partner as VIP. I treated them like movie stars. I had been surprised and relieved by his telephone call. No one in Paris knew anything about the Continental.
“Do you speak French?”
“Un peu.” My French dated back to grammar school outside of Boston. My accent wasn’t going anywhere. “I learned from my girlfriend.”
“Le dictionaire couchant. No place better to learn a language than in bed, but we will speak English,” Fabrice swiftly explained the job. My schedule was Tuesday through Saturday. My shift started at 9. The doors closed at 4, but the bar shut when no one was buying a drink. The pay was 600 francs a night. A little better than $100. He said nothing about my difficulty with the NYPD.
“You get a meal a night, plus your drinks for free.”
“Even better.” As happy as I was to be out of New York, I was honor bound to tell Fabrice my shortcomings. “I am a total stranger to French culture.”
“Who are the best singers in France?” He asked without hesitation.
“Serge Gainsbourg and Francoise Hardy.” I loved the former’s concept LP BALLADE OF MELODIE NELSON and any man not in love with the original Yeh-Yeh Girl failed my cool test.
“Bien, very 60s. What about movies?”
“Gerard Depardieu.” The stocky actor had been riveting in Bertrand Blier’s GOING PLACES along with Patrick Dewaere and Miou-Miou, but stole the show in Barbet Schroder’s exploration of sadism MAITRESSE and that movie inspired my choice for an actress. “Catherine Denevue in BELLE DU JOUR.”
“Bunuel’s ode to humiliation. Cruelty is a good trait for a physionomiste," he tempered the term for someone who judges by appearance with mixture of wonder and derision. Friends considered us psychic. Our enemies i.e. those people refused entry used harsher expletives to describe our position. “It is not a problem that you don’t know anyone.”
“Is there a list?” Most clubs had regulars.
“Ouais.” Fabrice held up a sheet of paper with names scribbled in ink. He tore the list into shreds. “Now non. My friends, le clientele, have been treated like les petites princes et princesses. Time for to go to le re-education camp. Le Bains-Douches is the best club in Paris. I don’t count Le Palace. That is a disco. The people who come here want to come here. It is their home.”
“So I should ask the bouncers for help?”
“Pas de tout.” He shook his head, as he had a sudden fever. Owners had a low opinion of the muscle, until they were the only solution to a problem. “Les videurs let in their friends. Bums and clochards. Les voyos. This is a purge. You worked Studio 54, n’est pas?”
I had managed the faded glory of the velvet ropes for one month after it had been sold by the prison-bound founders. The reincarnation was dead from night one. The new owner had bought the legendary club, because he had been refused entry. Money was no guarantee of success in discos. I had nothing to gain by elaborating on the truth.”
“How shall I treat everyone?”
“Like shit.” Fabrice gave a good laugh like he was watching Jerry Lewis movie, however no Americans understood the froggies’ appreciation of Dean Martin’s ex-partner. My old girlfriend from Aix-En-Provence said it was because the subtitles in French were funnier than the American dialogue. I had tested her theory. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR was kooky, but unfunny in either language.
“Like shit?” I wasn’t sure if I heard him right and asked," Like le merde?"
“Are you sure?”
“The French like the rapport de force. You treat them like shit and they will love you.”
"Love or hate."
"Do you care?"
"Non." I was happy to be out of New York.
“Where are you staying?”
“There’s a hotel in the Marais.” The Hotel Des Ecouffes in the Jewish Quarter was a ten minute walk from the Bains-Douches. The top floor had a room with a view of Notre-Dame, which cost 500 francs a week with a petite dejeuner.
“Bien. Tout est regulee. Ce soir viens pour manger avec moi et mes amis.”
That evening I ate with Fabrice, Claudine, his impossibly beautiful girlfriend, models, musicians, and artists at the best table at the club and Keith Richard sat two away from me. Midway through dinner Jack Nicholson dragged the Rolling Stone to the downstairs dance floor.
After dessert I excused myself from the table and went to the entrance to introduce myself to the two videurs. Neither bouncer was a giant, but the warped knuckles and broken noses testified to their toughness. They refused no one entrance, but I stopped three men in sneakers.
“Pas ce soir.”
“Les tennis.” I pointed to their trainers. “Les Bains-Douches isn’t a gym.”
"We're friends of Fabrice."
"Pas de exception."
"Petit con," they snarled and the bouncers smiled with amusement. It hadn’t taken me long to make enemies.
Fabrice stood at the top of the restaurant steps, nodding with an approval.
I spent the rest of the night saying 'quais' or 'non'.
Scores of these Paris clubgoers were befuddled by an American at the door of Les Bains-Douches and they asked for my predecessor.
“Elle est en retrait.” Farida had gone to a better world of modeling for Azzedine Alaia.
"Pay at the cashier."
“Va te faire foutre.”
“Ras de Ped.” which was Verlain for pederast.
The French swears rolled off my skin. I had heard worse in New York.
I treated some people with deference. Beautiful women were granted immediate entry. Interesting faces were given carte blanche. Musicians were given a drink A little past 2am I call it a night and Fabrice slipped me 600 francs in red 100-franc notes.
“But one question."
"Why did you hire me?”
“You came recommended by the owner of that magazine. He said you had a good eye.”
“I never thought that." I was as blind as a stump.
“Now you know, have a good night’s sleep.”
I walked back to the Marais through narrow streets. Clochards slept on heating vents. I stuck a hundred-franc note into the gnarled mitt of a wine-drunk bum. Hand-outs were good luck.
I reached my hotel and climbed the stairs to the top floor. The apartments across the street seemed within arm’s reach.
With the windows open Paris spread west to a vague horizon speared by the Eiffel Tower. I laid on the bed with the covers pulled up to my neck and fell into a dreamless sleep, as the dawn extinguished the lights of Paris.
That first night had been a one-off. The bouncers turned against me after I refused their loutish friends entry. Later in the month I tossed a famous fashion designer out of the restaurant for insulting a waitress. His expulsion made the morning papers. The crowd of the refused grew before the door like they were the Vietnamese waiting a helicopter lift from the US embassy in Saigon in 1975.
The videurs spent most of the night playing billiards and said nothing to me throughout the night. I was on my own every minute of the night, except for whenever a young black or Arab man tried to enter the club. The two of them formed a wall. Their friends from the billiard hall provided back up.
“Pas ce soir.”
Les Bains-Douches had a color line as pronounced as the back of the bus in pre-1965 Mississippi. I came from Boston. Racism was that city’s second nature. Paris was not white. People of color were everywhere. The Rex prided itself in equality, but not the videurs at the Bains-Douches, who enforced the line with insults.
The last word was used on a tall handsome young black man.
He stepped away from the door and the videurs laughed with racial pride.
I coughed out loud.
The bouncers turned their heads with a dismissive smirk on their faces and I said, “Fuck you, you frog peckerwoods.”
They were too French to understand the insult and walked out through the crowd in front of Les Bains-Douches.
The young black man was leaning against the wall with several leather-jacketed friends. They looked like thugs and probably spent the day searching for an easy score. I pointed to the young man.
"Toi." The young man was as tall as an NFL linebacker and as handsome as Rock Hudson.
“T-t-t-tu v-v-v-veux moi.” His stutter was worse than mine.
“What’s your name?” I had a stutter too.
“J-a-a-a-Jacques.” His knuckles were scarred with calluses.
“You want a job?”
“Job?” he spoke better English than most French.
“Le boulot.” I doubted that he had ever been offered a job. "So?"
“One minute. Wait here.”
I returned to the door. The bouncers were outside. I pushed my way through them and went to office. Fabrice was in the office counting money.
“We have a small problem.” The previous doorperson had been from Algeria. She had been kind to her friends, but street thugs were not welcome.
“Ouais?” The word had many uses.
“Les videurs won’t let in any blacks. The DJ plays Michael Jackson.I see plenty of cool ones. I want to hire one to work with me.”
“Come with me.”
From the steps I pointed out Jacques.
“He’s big and good-looking. The girls will love him and you want the place to change. He knows the street.”
“How can you tell he isn’t a problem? He comes from Bidonville.” Fabrice’s accusation of slum origins was on the money. Every large city had their Harlems
“Because I will train him.”
“And he is your responsibility.” Fabrice stared me in the eyes. This was one of the changes he hadn’t mentioned in our talk, but we were of the same mind. “400 francs a night. Not a sou more.”
Fabrice entered the club. His girlfriend was waiting upstairs at their table. Claudine never looked my way. It was better that way.
“Jacques,” I called out to the young man and he shuffled nervously to the door. “You have a job.”
“Comme ca?” Doubt mixed with apprehension, as he looked over my shoulder.
“Ne quittez pas.” I wasn’t worried about the bouncers. Another body meant more time to play billiards. “You go to school?”
“La Sante.” The 19th century prison was a testament to the failure of incarceration. Two friends from the Rex were serving time there for drugs. They were not innocent.
Theft was the only crime to which he admitted to me.
“D’accord, but from now on there will be no stealing. You got a job. Some of your friends might get jobs. You want to work or go back to prison?” I was acting like the Great White Hope, but I was no Gerry Cooney.
“I don’t want to go to prison again.” He gave me a short life history. His family was been brought to Martinique as slaves, otherwise they were pure Africa.
"What happened to the stutter?”
“I only ‘begaye’ with white people.”
“And I’m not white.”
“No, you are very white, Mr. Johnson.”
“Mr. Johnson?” Johnson was slang for penis, but I didn’t explain to Jacques the meaning. “Thanks, I like the name. Keep your friends in line.”
“Les Buffaloes.” He waved for his friends to join him. We exchanged the French version of the black pride handshake.
It was obvious that they took each others’ backs. I liked that kind of loyalty.
“W-w-w-why are you doing this?” Jacques knew no white people other than the police. Les Flics were the enemy for a young mec from the project beyond the Champs-Elysees.
Jacques was 6-3.
I was making lots of enemies.
If anyone was going to shoot at me, I could duck behind him, plus I needed someone who owed me. Jacques was it.
“I don’t know white people.” His voice snitched out his fear of my race.
“Don’t worry about that. They’re no different from me or you. We all have to piss in the morning.”
It took him a long time to believe that lie, mostly because it wasn’t the truth.
“And what about mes pots?”
“They’re okay until they’re not okay.”
We were a good team.
Poivre et Sel.
Black and White.
The models loved him, but he He liked fat girls. The models never understood this and I never explained his preference for a woman with a big butt, because les amis ne jamais cafter ie friends never snitch
Not now. Not then. Not never.
Just the way it is entrez-vous.