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Monthly Archive for May, 2009

AutoBARography 7: MY SHORT CAREER AS A GAY BARTENDER/PART TWO

 

MY FIRST DISCOTEQUE

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

AutoBARography 7: MY SHORT CAREER AS A GAY BARTENDER/PART ONE

THE HOTTEST SPOT IN TOWN


July ’73, Times Square, New York…There’s a recession on, but you can’t tell by me. I’ve got a bar job– twenty-seven bucks a night and all the goldfish I can eat. It’s at the Hotel Diplomat, an SRO on 43rd. St. and Sixth Ave. We call it “the Roach Motel” because once you check in you don’t check out. Half the tenants are seniors, shuffling around the mahogany chairs and sputtering lamps in the lobby until they find a spot on a lumpy sofa where they can lean on their walkers, muttering to the ghosts in the gloom. They stop breathing in rooms filled with fifty years of clutter, and lie forgotten until their stench signals their demise. The stronger ones make it to the hospital, bounced down the steps on a gurney, heads turning for one last dazed look around before they vanish into the ambulance of no return.

Hookers live in rooms rented by their pimps, who hang out in a bar off the lobby. They are hustled out, handcuffed and hysterical, by Vice Squad cops. New girls immediately take their places like there’s a waiting list. The seniors lean on their walkers and watch as they lead raucous sailors, nervous high school kids or furtive men in suits across the lobby.

Slouchy guys mutter in the phone booths by the elevators. Some of them are found with the needles still in their arms. Alerted by a trail of blood under the doors the maids enter to find the others tied, gagged and slashed in ransacked rooms. The seniors hobble down the hall as EMS workers wheel the bodies out, wrapped in their bloody sheets.

Rats the size of anteaters raid the liquor room, ripping open the bags of pretzels, unscrewing the tops of the maraschino cherry jars. We shout and sing to get them to scatter before we enter, but there are a few practical jokers in the pack. You don’t know what terror is until you’ve been startled by a giant rodent covered in Red Dye No. 2.

The Diplomat was once the hotel of the soft Left. The Socialist Party had its meetings and dances in its three ballrooms. Now promoters rent the spaces for dances and special events. Friday, Saturday and Sunday night the Crystal Room, so named for its chandeliers, is taken over by Alfredo, a twitchy middle-aged Neapolitan and Gerry, his blonde Brooklyn girlfriend. They put on dances for Italian immigrants. They charge ten dollars at the door and the hotel gets the bar. The room has a capacity of seven hundred and fifty. Every night begins with Alfredo pacing nervously as a few people straggle in. But by ten o’clock the place is jammed.

Three of us work a ninety foot bar. It’s Paul, a retired mailman from Harlem, Al, an angry butcher at Gristedes, who sells swag steaks out of the trunk of his car and me, a recently separated hack writer with a six year old son. We each have a bottle of Seagrams Seven, Highland Dew scotch, Gordon’s gin and Wolfschmidt’s vodka–and a soda gun. Seven and Seven is the cocktail du soir; we go through at least three cases of Seagrams a night. All drinks are $1.25 and served in plastic cups. No bottled beer; quarrels often erupt and the management doesn’t want any throwable glassware available.

The customers rush the bar, hundreds of them, shouting and shoving and clamoring for drinks for like they’ve been crawling on the Sahara for weeks. They pay in small change. “These greaseballs don’t go for spit,” Al says. By midnight, we have so many nickels in the register that Lester, the night manager dumps them in a huge sack. A quarter is considered a big tip and is presented with much pomp and ceremony. A few of the guys proffer a buck like it’s the papal crown on a plush pillow, but then they want free drinks for the friends and any stray girl who happens by. We do the math and figure that with people coming and going Alfredo is grossing ten thousand cash a night on Friday and Saturday and about five on Sunday– twenty-five G’s for low. Figuring an average crowd of twelve hundred, averaging three drinks at $1.25 per, that’s about $4500 for the hotel. For very low. “Everybody’s makin’ money and we get screwed,” Al says. We decide to charge the customers and steal from the till.

A quintet plays Top 40 and traditional Italian. Vito, the vocalist, a short kid with a gimpy leg and coke bottle glasses, is the ideal cover singer, doing Marvin Gay, Frankie Valli or Domenico Madugno with equal fidelity . Gerry rakes the dance floor with disco lighting, flashing, strobing, changing color, sweeping the room like a prison spotlight. The dancers do the same steps to a proto party list, going from Swear to God to Let’s Get It On to Volare.

There is a hard core of about a hundred regulars who show up every week. Among the men, an older group, smooth-shaven and slick-haired in wide-shouldered suits clusters at one end of the bar. They own pizza parlors all over Brooklyn and Staten Island, Vito explains. Another faction, young and modish in jeans and leather vests over sleeveless tees comes to my end. They work in “debt collection, you know what I mean?” Vito says flicking his nose. The two groups greet each other guardedly and never mix.

The females are either overdressed, heavily made up and deliriously sexy, at least to me, or mousy and awkward and giggling with each other. They arrive in groups like a bus tour and dance together for the first hour until the men join in. Everyone usually pairs off, but one night I spot a melancholy lady staring at me as she knocks back Seven and Sevens. At closing an invitation to coffee leads to a lurching clinch in the lobby and more stumbled kisses on the subway steps. But she sobers up on the long ride out to Brooklyn and by the time we get to Bensonhurst it’s life story time with lots of names and places, weddings, spiteful cousins, he saids, she saids… I find out she lives on 18th. Avenue with her parents and her “fiance” is a few doors down and I’m out of there. The next week she’s at the bar with one of the “debt collectors,” giving me a complicit smile like we’re having a mad affair.

The ’60′s had been a stressful time, what with psychedelics, army physicals and the shock of parenthood. Now, in the ’70′s I wake up broke, rejected and full of guilt on a mattress on the dusty floor of an empty apartment. But I’m not in school, I’m not in the army, I’m not married and I’m up for a job writing porno novels at ten dollars a page. Life is good.

One night I come to work to find a line a gleaming limos in front of the hotel.

“We doing weddings now?” I ask Lester.

“They’re havin’ a big party at Le Jardin tonight.”

He’s a black dude who’s been at the Diplomat for forty years, working his way up from porter. You’d think he had seen everything, but he shakes his head in amazement.

“They had Diana Ross and the Supremes up there the other night. They get just about everybody…”

I remember a few weeks ago when the place opened. “They got a fag joint on the roof,” Al had said.

Vito had gone up there one night and come back with a dismal report. “No live music…They got a DJ like on the radio. Two turntables goin’ back and forth…” He looked at me helplessly. “Everybody’s gonna do this now. We’re dead…”

It’s the beauty of narcissism. A seismic cultural phenomenon was erupting right under my nose and I didn’t even notice it.

For the first time I notice that the lobby has a new population. Young, stylish, flamboyant, pushing the seniors off their perches, interfering with the orderly process of prostitution, even sending the dope dealers into temporary retreat. They jam into the only elevator that goes to the roof, making so many trips that the motor burns out and they have to take the stairs.

“They wait on line like they’re givin’ out twenty dollar bills,” Lester says. “You oughta go up there. They got everything goin’ on…”

TO BE CONTINUED

AUTHOR DRAWS UNRULY CROWD WITH CALL FOR GENERAL STRIKE

WALL STREET, N.Y., May 1…Declaring that “only collective action can restore our faith in ourselves and each other,” writer Igor Yopsvoyomatsky yesterday urged every American to “stop spending” for one day next week.

Speaking to a boisterous crowd in New York’s financial district, Yopsvoyomatsky said: “The neuro-economic manipulators have addicted us to consumption in order to enrich themselves. And like drug addicts we must steal and lie to indulge our habit.”

He called on all Americans to ” break the daisy chain of deceit that has strangled our lives. Stop lying and cheating and bribing each other.”

He called for a “no sale Sunday” to protest the exploitation of the “consuming classes.”

“Can you go cold turkey on frivolous expense?” he challenged. “Can you show the manipulators that you can bring their system to a crashing halt?”

Yopsvoyomatsky, a recent immigrant from Pinsk, was on the first stop of a publicity tour to promote his new book “The Sociopathology of the Financial System ” He led a contingent of “Desktop Desperadoes,” writers who claim their books are so subversive they cannot even pay to have them published to Border’s Books, hoping to have what he called a “guerilla signing.” When turned away by store security he set up a table outside the store, grabbed a cordless mic and harangued the lunchtime crowd.

“Do you know what happens to sheep? They are slaughtered. Lemmings follow each other to mutual destruction. Rats under stress consume themselves. This is what they are doing to you.”

“Who?” someone asked.

“Them…” Yopsvoyomatsky pointed to a skyscraper across the street. “The sleek, well-tailored men in the corner offices with the gleaming limousines waiting to whisk them to gourmet restaurants for caviar and champagne and later”–he sighed with a wistful look–”into the arms of their beautiful mistresses…”

A broker, unshaven, tie askew, shirt flopping untucked out of his trousers, stopped in disbelief. “Who?” he demanded.

Grunting with the strain,Yopsvoyomatsky hoisted his eleven hundred page book. “It is all here in painstaking analytic detail. They have created a polity of thieves…”

“A what?” the harried broker demanded.

Yopsvoyomatsky riffled the pages. “Under socialism people cheated and stole because they had nothing. Under capitalism they cheat and steal because they don’t have enough. Under socialism the nomenklatura had it all…”

The broker shook his head with an angry squint.

“The what?”

“The privileged classes,” Yopsvoyomatsky said. “The ones with the powerful jobs, who shopped in special stores, had Black Sea dachas. Even a special lane to drive their cars. They had everything. The rest of us had to cheat, steal and bribe to survive…”

“That was Russia,” the broker said.

“What is the difference?” Yopsvoyomatsky said. “You have here capitalist nomenklatura. Bankers, hedge fund, private equity. They are allowed to create and circulate wealth among themselves. When they are ensnared by their own greed their cronies in government free them. Then they return the favor by hiring cronies to eight figure jobs…But they have done something much worse…”

“Tell them, Igor,” a Desktop Desperado shouted and confided to a friend: “this is cool…”

“They have turned all of us into thieves, cheaters and liars so that we can continue buying pointless electronic toys they foist on us,” Yopsvoyomatsky shouted. “You sir…” He approached the broker. “You give buy recommendation on bad stock to increase the value of your holdings…”

“That’s a lie!” the broker shouted.

“Your client who you lied to owns restaurant that charges you thirty dollars for a piece of farm-raised fish that they say is wild caught. A taxi driver who buys gasoline for price inflated by your speculation fixes the meter to raise the fare. At home, the plumber who lost mortgage on sub-prime insured by your CDO charges you thousands when all he had to do was replace a washer. And to add insult to injury he is having an affair with your wife, who is angry because she saw passionate e mail from your receptionist…”

The broker gulped and reddened. “So that’s why he’s been coming every day…And billing me for his time…”

“You open your mail, sir. The phone company has billed you two dollars for fictitious calls, calculating that you won’t spend an hour on the phone to get the money back. Your credit card interest has been arbitrarily doubled and you have penalty for not paying. The hideously expensive private school wants a contribution or it won’t even consider your superbly gifted children. The nanny has given your credit card and account numbers to identity thieves in Slovakia. Meanwhile, her twenty dollar prepaid phone only has seventeen dollars in calls…”

” My God, you’re right,” the broker said with a stricken look. “We’re all stealing from each other.”

A contingent of motorcycle cops from the security checkpoint up the block arrived. “You are creating a traffic hazard, sir. You’ll have to disperse…”

Yopsvoyomatsky climbed on his rickety table. “And look. They send the Cossacks to attack us …” The legs buckled and the table collapsed. Yopsvoyomatsky tumbled and was stunned by one of his falling books. “Police brutality,” he shouted.

He marched down Broadway, shouting:

“What do we want?”

The crowd shouted, “No sale Sunday!”

“When do we want it?”

The crowd was puzzled.

“Sunday?”

He arrived at the bronze statue of a bull, the symbol of BoA Merrill Lynch at Bowling Green.

“This bull my friends is perfect symbol of capitalism…”He paused for effect…” A bull screws passive cows. It takes huge shits wherever and whenever it wants and it gores anybody who comes into its pasture…” As the crowd roared he jumped on the bull’s back. “We will show this bull what we think of it…”

Police moved in quickly and took Yopsvoyomatsky into custody. He was charged with obstructing commerce, orating without a permit and attempted sodomy of a financial icon.