Kamis, 29 September 2011

ENTREZ NOUS by Peter Nolan Smith

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. The case was a year old. The killer’s trail had gone cold. A friend from Paris called 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’. “Them seh evil.”Benji wished me luck.“Don’t come back soon, maan.” New York wasn't my town for the moment. “Thanks for the warning.” I had seen a dead man in the snow.An hour later I was on a 747.Flight time to Paris 6 hours. I arrived at dawn. I handed the unshaven taxi driver the address. He glanced over his shoulder.“Le Bains-Douches est ferme.”“No problem.” I adopted Pepe Le Phew’s accent. The driver shrugged and turned on the meter. Paris was like the postcards. The ride to Les Halles cost around 250 francs. The winer sun filled the Boulevard Sebastopol. Pedestrians wore light coats. Spring felt a few weeks away. I fought to keep from asking, “Ou est le bibliotechque?”My grammar school French had been improved by a six-month stay in 1982. This was my second time to the City of Light. The driver took the point A to B route to the Bains-Douches and 30 minutes after leaving the super-modern Charles De Gaulle Aeroport the taxi stopped on a small street close to the 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 10 francs. He made a noise like a snake fart and drove around the corner. I climbed the stairs and pushed open the heavy glass and wood door. The restaurant was ready for the night. Tables set with forks, knives, spoons, and glasses atop paper sheets. The mustached cook was chopping 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 concerts. The bands were punk, soul, funk, African, French, New Wave, and electronic. 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. I had never heard worse at the door of Le Rex.“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.” We will speak English.” Fabrice swiftly explained the job. My schedule was Tuesday through Saturday. The club opened early. My shift started at 9. The doors closed at 4. 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.“Sounds good.”“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. 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 said 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 harsh 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 le petite 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 nightclub. 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 clouchards. Les voyos. This is a purge. You worked Studio 54, n’est pas?”“Yes.” I had managed the faded glory of the velvet ropes for one month after it had been sold by the founders. They had been sent to prison for tax evasion. 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. No Americans understood the froggies’ appreciation of Dean Martin’s ex-partner. My old girlfriend rom 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. Treating the French like shit was a dream job for most Americans. We hated the garlic-eaters for some reason. Probably because they had suckered us into two wars and Charles De Gaulle had demanded for our troops to leave the country. President LBJ had responded to this insult by asking if that meant the 60,000 GIs buried on French soil. Things got worse with Vietnam. There was no need to mentioned Franco-American politics this early in the morning. It was best to stick to basics.”“Are you sure?” Somehow the word ‘merde’ stuck in my mind. The scatological term certainly hadn’t come from the nuns at Our Lady of the Foothills. They never went to the bathroom.“Ouais, the French like the rapport de force. You treat them like shit and they will love you.” Fabrice was tired of his crowd. His friends expected everything for free. Drinks, entry, everything. A stranger would tax ‘ses amis’ to the bone.‘Sounds a little sadistic to me.” My cousin Sherri had been a dominatrix in New York. I had gone to her show at the Belle Du Jour. Bunuel’s film crossed oceans.“Le Marquis was French. The Masochism comes from the Ukraine.”“I always thought Sacher-Masoch was German.”“Spanish and Ukrainian, but enough history. You start tomorrow night?” It was a combined question and order.“Ouais.” I mimicked the elongated ‘qui’. “Where are you staying?” “There’s a hotel in the Marais.” The Hotel Des Ecouffes in the Jewish Quarter. It was a ten minute walk from the Bains-Douches. The top floor had a room with a view of Notre-Dame. 500 francs a week with a petite dejeuner.“Bien. Tout est regulee. Ce soir viens pour manger avec moi et mes amis.” It was an invitation to the best table at the club. That evening I sat with models, musicians, and artists. Keith Richard sat two away from me. He looked straight. Jack Nicholson dragged the Rolling Stone to the downstairs dance floor. Fabrice was equally unimpressed with their fame and the covergirls’ look. Everyone wanted to fuck Claudine. Male and female. Her beauty acted as a magnet for my eyes.I excused myself from the table and introduced myself to the two videurs. Neither was a giant, but the warped knuckles and broken noses testified to their toughness. They refused no one entrance. I stopped three men in sneakers.“Pas ce soir.”“Pour quoi?”“Les tennis.” I pointed to their trainers. “Les Bains-Douches isn’t a gym.”They snarled under their breath and the bouncers smiled with amusement. It hadn’t taken me long to make enemies. Fabrice stood at the entrance to the restaurant, nodding with an approval. I spent the rest of the night acting like I had come from the stars to stand watch over the door to heaven. My friends from the Rex smiled with the pleasure of free admission. Scores of people were befuddled by an American at the door of Les Bains-Douches. They asked for my predecessor. 

“Elle est en retrait.” Farida had gone to a better world. Modeling for Azzedine Alaia. My French was improving with every encounter.“Va te faire foutre.”“Vieux cochon!”“Ras de Ped.” That was Verlain for pederast.The Francoswears rolled off my skin. I had better things to do.Beautiful women were granted immediate entry. Interesting faces were given carte blanche. I call it a night early and Fabrice hugged me with genuine affection and slipped me 600 francs in 100-franc notes. They were red.“Thank you.”“You’re welcome.” That expression escaped my French. “One question. Why did you hire me?”“You came recommended by the owner of that magazine.”“Even though I was American.”“Ouais, have a good night’s sleep.”I walked back to the Marais through narrow streets. Few people were awake at his hour. Clouchards slept on heating vents. The night air was chilly. 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. This was not the East Village. 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. I fell into a dreamless sleep. The lights of Paris were extinguished by dawn. That first night had been a one-off. The bouncers turned against me. Their friends shouted threats. 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 in imitation of the hordes awaiting a helicopter lift from the US embassy in Saigon 1975. The anger was simmering to a boil. The videurs abdicated their responsibility and spent most of the night playing billiards.They said nothing to me throughout the night. My presence was an aberration and their every effort was aimed at hastening my departure. 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 Mississippi pre-1965. 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. Every night a small group of young blacks tried the door. Every night the videurs enforced the line.“Kaffir.”“Noir.”“Negre.”The last word was used on a tall handsome young black man. His face trembled with repressed violence. Negre sounded to close to nigger to be polite language.He stepped away from the door and the videurs laughed with racial pride. I coughed out loud. They turned their heads with a dismissive smirk on their faces. I lifted a finger and said, “Fuck you, you peckerwoods.”They were too French to understand a Delta insult and I gave them the finger. I had not left New York to join the KKK a la Francaise and walked out through the crowd in front of Les Bains-Douches. The young black man was leaning against the wall with several friends. They looked like thugs and probably spent the day searching for an easy score. Each of them stood erect at my approach. “Tu.” I pointed to the young man. He was tall as an NFL linebacker and handsome as Rock Hudson. His friends regarded him as their leader. His election meant he had brains.“T-t-t-tu v-v-v-veux moi.” His stutter was worse than mine.“What’s your name?” The word for stutter in French was ‘begayer’. In Latin it was ‘alalia syllabaris’. I had studied the dead language in high school.“J-a-a-a-cques.” His knuckles were scarred with calluses. “You want a job?” “Job?” He spoke more English than most French. “Le boulot.” I doubted that he had ever been offered a job. Every city had its Bed-Stuy.“Ouais.”“One minute. Wait here.”I returned to the door. The bouncers were outside. I pushed my way through them and went up to office. Fabrice was in the office counting money. “Ouais.”“We have a small problem.” The previous doorperson had been from Algeria. She had been kind to Arabs. It was time to push the door open for others.“Ouais.”“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.”“Who?”“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.“Because I will train him.”“This is your responsibility.” Fabrice stared me in the eyes. This was one of the changes he hadn’t mentioned in our talk. 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. She never looked my way. It was better that way.“Jacques.” I called out to the young man. 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.“What for?”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 from Martinique. They were pure Africa. Jacques was black as the Ace of Spades.“I don’t want to work either. 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. 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.“Because.” Jacques was 6-3. If anyone was going to shoot at me, I could duck behind him. Paris was a lot more dangerous than New York. 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.” I was probably the only white person who had spoken to Jacques other than his teachers or the police. “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?”His friends were thieves, villains, and fighters.A welcome addition to the nightlife of Paris.“They’re okay until they’re not okay.”We were a good team. Poivre et Sel. Black and White. I was no Abraham Lincoln and he was no Uncle Tom. The model girls loved him. I got all the actresses. He liked fat not skinny. The models never understood this. I never explained his preference for a woman with a big butt. It was a black thing.Les Amis ne jamais cafter.I think that means ‘friends never snitch’.Not now. Not then. Not never.Just the way it is.

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