BEER MYSTIC Burp #6
We made a toast. “To he who casts the first kidney stone.” Clink of beer glasses, tink-tink, small amber waves sloshing over the sides, beer-head mustaches as our only disguise in the Pik-Clops in the Marais. Marais means “swamp,” which explains why where we lived around the corner you could see your breath on November mornings as you squeezed the baguette, soggy as a sponge in a pail of water. The city does not take kindly to sweating-wall living conditions, however; eventually an inspector declared our apartment unlivable or insalubre [if not heroic and bohemian], which meant receiving a 50% reimbursement of our rent. That’s life. That is the life. Events like this clearly depressed my partner but made my day, so much so, that I could actually feel the slide of consciousness from atheist toward agnostic.
Upon entering the Clops our barman Jerome who, today, might remind you of a rugby-playing Stephen Fry, would inevitably greet us with a “BON SOIR MESSIEURS ET MESDAMES!” We were infamous for stretching our francs, opting for quantity over quality: piss beer and,” les Americains qui demander le picrate!”
“Oui, le vin that rots a trou in your shoe sole.”
Indeed, in the Clops we drank vin rouge and whatever beer was on tap – as long as it was not too annoyingly dégueulasse or distractingly superb; pissable 33 Export or Kronenbourg or some equivalent a la pression, was fine. Because, after all, beer was a tool, a conveyance; less important than where it took you. Like renting a car: as long as it gets you to where you’re going you’re not about to quibble about the brand of automobile or the lack of a backseat DVD player … [In its day – 1987-1992 – the Pik Clops was an unpretentious hipster joint with reasonable prices, good (non-annnoying) music and an incredible variety of denizens from well-tanned artist-designers to clochards].
Here me, Guyla Halasz and Frank Lengel, sometimes Sonia, Sighile, Ivan Chtcheglov, (Chiclet to us), maybe B. Kold & Norman Douglas, would hold court, plot our rise to literary power. The Clops’ walls consisted of strips of mirror alternating with photographs of people you wished you were, then another strip of mirror to show you sipping here, the back of a woman, the woman you are with, then another black-and-white print – this time of someone who seems to be staring at you, studying how to become you, it’s of a clochard [hobo] the kind every neighborhood has one of, the kind who is cared for by the locals, the kind you talk to, the kind you keep alive and embrace periodically because you are glad you are not him, making him as essential as a priest or a boulanger. That was Jean-Luc’s function in the Pik Clops: resident clochard. He with his knowing, deep-set eyes that seemed to say: ‘I was once just like you, juiced on hope and speed, and just like me, one of every ten of you [pointing] who see my face hanging here will end up like me.”
We did not admit it then but we – all in our late-20s and early-30s – were witnessing the dusk of our last true indulgence. The last gasp, the last waltz, the last call for unrepentant alcohol consumption. Drink without status, esteem, brands, upscale lifestyle attached, solely fixated on where it took you – a reality that had more rhyme and less reason, more conversation than strategy.
Indulgence – which sometimes required drinking just enough of too much to enter a necessary oblivion where, enigmatically, you give up self to find self – without fear of consequences, hangovers, aging, ill health, spare tires, death or dying. In your youth [which ends at noon for some and for others goes on till past twilight], your very prowess is based on defying the laws of human frailty and for a long time you can survive, even thrive, even look mystifyingly radiant after a bender. But then suddenly the calories are no longer burnt away and the genes controlling consciousness suddenly switch over from daily death-defying acts to looking both ways at crosswalks and calibrated consumption, sipping to outsmart the hangover with alternating glasses of water and washing an A-B-C vitamin cocktail down with a Coke …
If we were feeling “rich” in the Clops we might opt for a Jenlain or a Belgian standard like Jupiler or Stella Artois or a Trappist specialty.
“To he who blows the first head gasket.” Life often came your way here: mysterious women might insinuate their beauty into your midst, the magic of serendipity, which is as close to religion as I get. And I would smile through my beer glass and notice a missing tooth in her otherwise voluptuous smile. The soundtrack usually spoke to someone and tonight it was the hard-of-hearing rockabilly clans that often hung here in their somber, hunched-over snarls, with big sculpted unicorn pompadours that they tended to with much ado, which meant a lot of varnish and ducking in through 17th-century doorways. It meant avoiding humidity. It meant loud music and some singing along – even on our part.
Was I showing off Fabienne, a delirious hybrid of Tina Turner and Ronnie Spector in their prime? No, not exactly. I sipped casually, twirling my glass slowly, which probably is body language for contemplating a delirious horizontal encounter with Fabienne. But one must not chomp at the bit, one must savor postponement. We continued to gorgenner [knock them back] until I lost track of which ones were the mirrors and which were the framed photographs, becoming convinced that a photo was really a strip of mirror. Perhaps this was where the photographer’s genius for deception was fully realized but I was totally convinced that my face was part of the show. This is where Fabienne in her splendid Salvation Army found ensemble of glitter and blossom sat. We exchanged sip for sip and stare for stare and suddenly she had absorbed me in her presence and I was nowhere to be found.
We had been discussing our impending attack on the American University – with funding! We were going to get paid for reading at the university. Would we read scurrilous material; would Fabienne appear semi-naked as part of the evening’s events? [We did ultimately bring down the house in more ways than one but that is another story because, really, the drunken speculation, the potential for chaos, nudity, mayhem and delirium were ultimately just as satisfying as any poetic consummation thereof.]
We had evolved into a glowing, oozing, state of brilliance – caterpillar to papillon – hanging, elbows sliding off table edges, singing along in slurred, broken French, making it up along the way, to Serge Gainsbourg or Brigitte Fontaine or Gilbert Bécaud or Les Garçons Bouchers when in strode the gallant American with his entourage. This guy, Edmond Blanc, was known to many – not me – for his gay take on Paris, naughty tell-alls, his part Wilde, part Wolfe, part Quentin Crisp wardrobe, snicker perpetually edging into a sneer. But tonight he was in a grand state, celebrating his latest publishing triumph. Bastard.
He heard us discussing Pynchon, clochards, Costes [should this transgressive performer be invited to perform, bodily fluids and all?], J.G. Ballard, punk poetry and the notion of farting as entertainment art and the presumption that we could change the world by forcibly ignoring the zeitgeist and in that way wrenching it to a stop or even reversing its spin.
Edmond liked what he saw and heard. Frank, ever the prankster, dared Edmond to exchange shoes with him, Frank of the perpetual holes in soles, although the uppers often looked classy. Edmond’s pointy black Prada oxford’s were a sight to behold but too small for Frank and Frank’s shoes were just too big for Edmond. Although he did hold them up to the swirl of ceiling neon marveling at their decrepitude.
Edmond reacted quickly, swished his foppish hair back with a nice forehand and announced he was buying us all a round to show what a guy he was and show that money was no object [it can only be no object if you have enough of it]. We cheered when he said “top shelf included” and his entourage was impressed by his ability to muster street cred.
As Frank was tying his holey shoes he said, “I had some long talks with this guy. He is as gay as an antique dealer tipsy on 2 glasses of Chardonnay. But he was always interested in my stories. Pumped me, man,pumped me. A story for a beer so what the hell, 10 stories in a night. Did I even make it home that night? Said he sometimes wrote for the New Yorker or The Saturday Review …”
And then we heard: “Another round for my friends upon the event of the French publication of my latest novel L’empreinte Digitale sur le Penis! A work of genius and already a New York Times Bestseller in English!”
Yea, we cheered because the louder you cheer in these kinds of situations the more likely another round will come your way. And suddenly we were focused on these very last calls, contemplative, searching, yearning, Fabienne ready, her glistening bouffant, the swish of her pantyhose as she crossed and recrossed her legs. With clenched fists, we vowed to attack the American University in a month’s time, bring down whatever it was poets could still possibly bring down. We were still squeezing the last flat drops from our glasses when Guyla turned and noticed: “Hey, your friend Edmond Il a prendre la fuite! He’s fuckin’ absent from our midth, midn, midst…”
And then Jerome, probably a guy who simply liked a challenging crossword late at night, came with the bill, the damage and we asked him whether our Edmond left du fric, some cash.
“Mais non mes amis, rien!”
He didn’t leave anything? Nothing? And it was then that a feeling of panic emboldened by a sense of indignation and frustration set in. We began to empty our pockets to come up with the 589 francs [$100]. The bastard. Some of us dredged up 5-franc pieces, some loose centimes scooped up from adjacent tables, some titre-restaurants [employer-supplied, lunch vouchers] courtesy of Bud and Norm.
But Jerome, notre ami, let us suffer, sweat and negotiate, let us turn out every pocket, every shoulder bag, and book bag, shaking loose a few lint-covered centimes here and there, letting us go at it with recriminations, who ordered what, our doubts about humankind, Americans, gay novelists, guys wearing yuppie shoes, humanity swelling like a dark tumor, when finally Jerome who had by now seen enough suffering patted some of us on the back and with a grin said “c’est bon et bien.”
We were 42 francs short and suddenly Fabienne out of nowhere opened up her little fake ermine purse and in the pinch of incredibly long pianist fingers [she played Satie!] she held a 50 note, which she handed Jerome and said “Keep the change,” in perfect English. She got up and asked me “On y va?”
“Certainement!” I heard a discernible, tangible, moist, unrequited sigh rise from the collective remains of the bar jockeys as we departed. This was the soundtrack to her everyday existence. She got used to the clucks, smooches, wolf howls, groans, sighs…
But this was not the cool dénouement or happy ending to an annoying moment in a life. Months later, me, Frank and Guyla were hanging with Helene, the artist who did chop meat busts, and, I don’t know who else, a few nomadic ex-pats on permanent parental retainers who sometimes talked a nice diatribe about nomadism and zen-like detachment from material things, when in strode a man in white, in a manteau blanc, white shoes even …
“Friggin’ Tom Wolfe wannabe.” Frank sneered. He had twice since recalled his long conversations with Edmond Blanc in Place Vichy and, when we saw him in the Pik Clops we could not believe our eyes, our fortune. This only happens in movies we were thinking. Frank became livid, his eyes sprang toward his eyebrows, face grew flushed, neck swelled like that of a gecko. But he remained calm because the beers had made us calm, it groomed and sedated, elbows loose and lips always near the glass…
Frank stood up, swaying a bit, hoping for more film noir panache, urged me to come along and we sidled up to the bar. Barwoman, comrade of Jerome, poured us our usual, un demi of low-brow brew, topped it off nicely, served it with an elegant flare that sent it sliding several meters down the bar, right into the palm of my hand. We took hefty sips, put the glasses down with a certain savoir faire emphasis and turned to our bon vivant at the bar holding court with a cane dangling from his arm, kid riding gloves clenched in his fist.
He seemed intent on perplexity to deflect our approach. His flair for indignation a characteristic strategy of his.
“I remember all too much.”
“You remember me and my friends and this place a few weeks ago? How you stiffed us?”
“Uh, mais non.”
“OH but you do. You ran out on a generous offer of a few rounds.”
“Je ne comprend pas.”
“All show and no boat.”
“I have no idea…”
“You do you do you do, oh, but you Do. And you know what, you are going to buy everyone in this place a beer right now.”
Frank turned to the rest of the Pik Clop denizens and declared: “Boissons à la maison les compliments de monsieur Ed-Mond Blanc!”
“DES compliments…” someone corrected.
And everyone remained somewhat suspicious, not totally convinced of the gesture. Frank then reassured and explained what had happened to some of the regulars, some who suddenly recalled being there that evening, some perhaps Old World Socialists itching for some indignity like this as excuse to get righteously rowdy – and maybe another top shelf drink.
Frank turned to me at the bar and from the side of his mouth told me something even more puerile and perverse. Edmond, he claimed, had indeed purloined one of Frank’s tales word for word, not from memory but what later turned out to be a hidden microphone. Transcribed and folded into Blanc’s latest bestselling novel.
“But why does this honor not feel like value added?”
“Lemme guess.” I concurred.
“‘Boring, pretentious hack job done for the greenbacks’ is how one review summed up his latest.” And then Frank, shoved his beer aside with the back of his hand the way Richard Widmark might have done 30 years earlier and thrust himself into Edmond’s smug jowls. “There are lines, my lines, whole sections verbatim my story, you flaccid prick.”
“Quote me something that you think is yours.”
“‘You say life is chaotic but you keep churning it out like an assembly line worker in a Ford plant.’ That’s my line! If I went to your place had a search warrant to look for the tapes, it’d be on there. Me saying that. I mean, I worked in a Ford plant.’”
But, ultimately, we began to suspect that the whole world was being documented by people who had been designated as experts or geniuses or cultural ambassadors or … We had already been filmed and we had been cut from the final version.
Some of the above was cribbed from the eternally unfinished novel Paris Sex Tête, a novel which Einar Moos, the editor of Parisianatook a generous liking to and ultimately published half a dozen excerpts of. Einar still edits Parisiana, a very moveable and mobile beast. It is also host to a BEER MYSTIC excerpt. For more on the global pub crawl see Beer Mystic Spins Round the Earth.