II: Big Sea
Sonya found work as a danseuse at Zelli’s famous night club in the rue Fontaine. Not as a dancer in the show, but as a dancer with the patrons—a girl who sits at tables, dances with the guests and persuades them to order one more drink—and then another—usually champagne. She got no pay, but drew a commission on every bottle of champagne, beyond the first, she could persuade a guest to buy. Result, she drank a great many glasses of champagne every night, because the faster she could aid a bottle of champagne to disappear, the sooner a new one would appear, and like lightning, be opened by the attentive waiters, with an additional commission added in Sonya’s column at the caisse.
Most of the danseuses in the clubs did not really enjoy drinking champagne night after night, and they would dump it into the ice bucket if they got a chance, or the waiters would help them by carrying off each bottle half-emptied, if the guest was not observant. Then, with the bottle gone, the little danseuse would sigh: “It is so ver-ree warm this night. Couldn’t we have just another one lee-tle drink champagne, please?” And if the guest was at all a good sport, he would naturally give the waiter the nod to open another 200-franc quart of Cordon Rouge that had already appeared like magic in the ice bucket on his table, waiting for the word for the cork to pop.
Some nights Zelli’s did good business and some nights not, so Sonya’s income varied greatly. It was never large, because it was a big club and Zelli had a great many girls working there, and it was not summer, with the American tourist trade to help out. So after a time, Sonya went to work in another smaller club, where there were only two danseuses. That was after we had known one another some three weeks, and I hadn’t found a job yet, and most of my clothes were sold.
But one morning at daybreak, Sonya came home and woke me up with a joyous shout. “Loo-oo-ook-ee here!” she cried. She opened her pocketbook and it was full of money that fell out all over the bed.
“Where did you get it?” I asked sleepily.
“Took it,” she said, “from a Danish who waste it anyhow.”
It seems that a visiting Dane (in Paris for the first time) had got very drunk on the eight bottles of champagne Sonya helped him order. So when closing time came, Sonya kindly helped him pay his bill, too. And, in doing so, simply helped herself to a large handful of the Dane’s francs.
“I deedn’t take him all,” she said, “just some lee-tle I need.”
She was very happy to have money, and so was I. So we both dressed and went to the barber shop and got our hair cut. I got a shine, and Sonya, a manicure. Then we had luncheon at a café on the Place Pigalle. After that we went to a movie on the Boulevards, my first theater in Paris. And at dusk, we came back up to the little café on the rue Bruyère, where the Montmartre performers hung out in the late afternoon, a place the Negroes called “The Flea Pit.”
The café was crowded. We were sitting just inside the big window overlooking the street with our fines, when all of a sudden, Sonya went down under the table.
Startled, I thought she had fainted. But no; she had not fainted. She sat on the floor under the table, motioning everyone to be quiet and pay her no mind. She whispered to me that the big Dane was just passing the window outside! Fortunately, he didn’t look in. He continued ambling along down the hill in the dusk, out of sight.
By now, I’d been in Paris a month and still had no job. At some of the places where I sought work, the French employees had almost run me away, particularly on one big construction job, where I thought the irate workmen, for a moment, intended to shower me with bricks.
“Salaud!” they screamed. “Sale étranger!”
It seems that there was a bitter anti-foreign feeling then among the French workers, because so many Italians and Poles had come to Paris and were working for even lower wages than the underpaid Frenchmen. I wasn’t an Italian or a Pole, but they knew I was a foreigner of some kind, and they didn’t like me, so they shouted insults.
And still there was no letter from my mother in McKeesport, much less a cable for twenty dollars. Finally, when a letter did arrive from home, it contained the longest list of calamities I have ever seen on one sheet of paper.
In the first place, my mother wrote, my step-father was seriously ill in the city hospital with pneumonia; she herself had no job and no money; my little brother had been expelled from school for fighting; and besides all that, the river was rising in McKeesport. The water was already knee-deep at the door, and if it got any higher she would have to get a rowboat and move out of the house. The Jewish people downstairs had fled to stay with relatives. But my mother had no place to go, and she couldn’t even send me a two-cent stamp, much less twenty dollars. Besides, what was I doing way over there in France? Why didn’t I stay home like decent folks, get a job, and go to work and help her—instead of galavanting all over the world as a sailor, and writing from Paris for money?
Well, I felt bad. I wondered how I would ever get back home, and how my mother would get along with so much trouble on her hands.
Fortunately, a few days after that letter came, I got a job myself. I had tried all the big night clubs in Montmartre, now I decided to try the little ones; so I started out early one evening. I noticed a little club in the rue Fontaine that had no doorman. I went in and asked for the owner. The owner turned out to be a colored woman, a Martiniquaise. I addressed her politely in my best French and asked if she needed a chausseur. She looked at me a moment, and finally said: “Oui! Cinq francs et le dîner.” Naturally, I accepted.
Then and there, she showed me the way to the kitchen, where the cook fed me. And at ten o’clock that night, I took up my post outside the door on the rue Fontaine. The heavy dinner the cook gave me and the big bottle of wine that went with it made me so sleepy that I went to sleep standing up in the street outside the door. I couldn’t help it. I slept almost all night.
I had no uniform, but the next day, at the Flea Market, I bought a blue cap with gold braid on it, which gave me an air of authority. My salary, five francs a night, was less than a quarter in American money, but it was a great help in Paris until I could do better.
Shortly after I began working for the Martinique lady, Sonya secured a contract to dance at Le Havre, so one rainy March afternoon I went to the Gare St. Lazare with her to say good-bye. She cried and I felt bad seeing her cry. She had been a swell friend and I liked her. She waved at me through the window as the long train pulled out. I waved back. And I never saw her any more.
That night I felt lonesome and sad standing outside the door of the little boîte in the cold, damp, winter night, my collar turned up and my cap with the gold braid pulled down as far over my ears as it would come. Every so often, I would step inside the door to get warm. Business was dull.
It was a very small night club of not more than ten tables and a tiny bar. There was a little Tzigane orchestra, and one entertainer. And a great many fights in the place.
Since they sold no cigarettes, the way I made my tips was largely by going to the corner to the tabac for packages of smokes for the guests. But whenever a fight would break out, I made an especial point of heading for the tabac so that I would not be called upon to stop it. I didn’t know when I took the job that I was expected to be a bouncer as well as a doorman, and I didn’t like the task of fight-stopping, because the first fight I saw there was between ladies, who shattered champagne glasses on the edge of the table, then slashed at each other with the jagged stems.
Madame’s friend was a tall Roumanian girl, with large green circles painted on her eyes, who often came to the club in a white riding habit, white boots and hat, carrying a black whip. And madame herself would fight if the girl were insulted by any of the guests. For such a job, five francs was not enough, and the fights were too much, so I was glad when I found other work. Rayford Logan told me about an opening at a popular club on the rue Pigalle.
Rayford Logan is now a professor of history at Howard University in Washington. Then, he had been in France since the war, one of the Negro officers who stayed over there instead of coming home. That winter he was around Montmartre on crutches, having broken his leg in a bus accident. He received the Crisis all the time in Paris, and had read my poems, so when he knew I was a poet, he tried to help me find a job. One day he sent for me to tell me they needed a second cook at the Grand Duc, a well-known night club.
I couldn’t cook, but I decided to say I could. Fortunately the title, second cook, really meant dishwasher, so I got the job. They fired another boy to give it to me. Strangely enough, the other boy happened to be from Cleveland, too, a tall brownskin fellow named Bob. He was discharged, the bosses said, because he came late to work, was unreliable, broke too many dishes, and cussed out the proprietors.
Gene Bullard, the colored manager, told me to be at work at eleven o’clock. Salary, fifteen francs a night and breakfast.
I was coming up in the world.