MY FIRST DISCOTHEQUE
PARIS, 1961. Grown ups run the world. Nobody has heard of Vietnam. Doris Day is Number One at the box office. Every time Mickey Mantle hits a home run the Yankees send 5000 cartons of Camels to the Veterans hospitals. Men wear fedoras and couples hold each other when they dance. The big thing is to be a "non-conformist."
Jean Paul Belmondo in Breathless is my role model. I'm going to be cool, doomed and irresistible. I drop out of Brooklyn College in my first semester, cash in my $800 Regents Scholarship and hop a German freighter to Bremerhaven. Two weeks later I'm in a fleabag on the Left Bank, wondering what do with the bidet.
A group of beautiful young girls live on the floor above me. They shrug coldly when I pass them on the stairs. I see some of them in the streets with older men, who I take for their fathers. Is this a "dormitoire for the universitay?" I ask the concierge. "It is a maison for zee prostitution," he replies.
My plan is to follow in the great tradition of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and sit at a cafe, Gauloise dangling from my lips, adoring demoiselle at my side, writing the next Great American Novel. But the coffee makes me jumpy, the cigarettes make me nauseous and after a few weeks the demoiselles still haven't gotten the memo.
I pick a cafe on the Boulevard St. Michel and sit for hours, nursing a cafe creme. The waiter, an elderly, vinous professional in a starched white jacket fights a desperate battle to keep me away. He puts the chairs on his tables and shouts "Ferme! " at my approach, mops ammonia around my feet to chase me and makes disparaging remarks which I don't understand to shame me into giving up my table to a tipping customer. I am oblivious to his efforts, although years later I remember and suffer a pang of guilt for the money I cost him.
Maurice, a Moroccan with no visible means of support, befriends me. We are a funny duo--he, short, dark and voluble in dark woolen suits no matter the weather and me in the khaki denim-blue workshirt uniform of the Greenwich Village Boho, stooping and and squinting to understand his pidgin English. One night he knocks at my door.
"We are going to the discotheque," he says. "Vite, I have twin Austrian sisters who are"--he kisses his fingers--"magnifigue."
Visions of giggly, buxom blondes, dancing in my head I run downstairs to find a pair of Lipizzaners in their mid-thirties. I can tell my date from her sister because she's wearing the tinted bifocals. She looks at me like I'm a piece of blutwurst. She tells me her name, but it sounds like "gonorrhea" to me so I call her "Greta."
We go to a restaurant with red banquettes where real French people are eating. I reach into my pocket to check my funds, but Maurice grabs my wrist under the table. I realize that in Paris "magnifique" means the ladies are picking up the check. Also, that at some point in the evening I will be called upon to perform a service. Greta is starting to worry about this, too. She plies me with oysters and white wine. Then orders biftek tartare au cheval. The waiter raises an eyebrow. A few minutes later a ball of raw meat appears with an egg yolk quivering on top of it , garnished with a scoop of mayo, some pickles, capers and onions. Everyone attacks it with gusto and the carafes keep coming so I join in. Luckily, I don't know that cheval means horse.
Next, Maurice announces we are going to La Discotheque. This is a huge deal and everybody is thrilled. I put the words together and come up with "library for records."
Maurice springs for a taxi to the Rue La Huchette. We make a bizarre foursome--the hyper Moroccan,two hefty Austrian twins in print dresses and me in my blue serge high school graduation suit. We never would have made the cut in a New York club, but the captain understands immediately and takes us to a booth in the corner. The room is dark. A dim light plays over the dance floor where well-dressed couples are dancing to a primitive play list, mixing Sinatra, bouncy swing and French crooners.
I am used to live music. The only time I've ever danced to records was at house parties so this all seems kind of cheesy to me. I can dimly make out the DJ changing records in a kind of glassed-in studio.
It's all very decorous and subdued. The French take their fun seriously. Even the strip joints have a solemn, ritualized air about them. I'm a kid from Brooklyn used to vulgar, blatant displays. I am seeing the future and don't know it.
After a few dances Maurice says: "let's go to the scopi."
He leads us into another room where people are clustered in front of a kind of movie juke box. You put in a coin and see a short dramatized film of a hit record. It's called a "scopitone," and only has about ten songs on it. The films last three minutes and feature quick cutting and girls in bikinis and lingerie. Maybe it's the music or the stars--Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan are much too French for a kid who grew up on "Speedo", and "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"--but I find the whole thing incredibly tedious.
By now the oysters and the horse are fighting an artillery battle in my stomach. An elderly female attendant sits outside the bathroom door reading France Soir. I give her twenty centimes for a slug to open the door.
The toilet requires bombardier training. There are two footprints over a hole in the tile floor. The idea is to place your feet in the prints and squat over the hole. I figure that out, but neglect to move my trousers away from the target area. The attendant is lighting a Gauloise as I come out. I find a back stairway that goes past the kitchen into an alley and hurry back to the hotel. I never see Maurice or the Austrians again.
I spend six months in France and never go to a discotheque. In New York a few years later I see a scopitone in a bar downtown. It's a cute novelty, but doesn't last because the films cost too much to make, I'm told.
I was present as the disco and the music video took their first faltering steps on the way to revolutionizing popular culture. I never did write that Great American Novel. But I did learn how to use a bidet.
Now, twelve years later, I get a chance to work at the hottest disco in New York.
NEXT: DISCO FEVER
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Leukemia and Lymphomia Association
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