The room was a romantic's dream ... a garret ... a real goddamn "la Boheme
There was no window, only a small skylight. Five hundred years ago this room was probably home to a servant in some Noble's service. Now it was mine. Five flights up. A Turkish toilet (you had to have the agility of a ten year old to squat on the hole in the floor) outside next to the stairs with sheets of France Soir
, the local newspaper, in lieu of toilet paper. I'd been homeless since my Army discharge two years earlier, and this was the first place I'd felt at home since then. The word was that Madam Rachou, the hotel's owner, let you decorate your room any way you wanted and that she loved Americans. Most important she didn't mind it if our female guests stayed overnight or all week as long as you filled out the little cards required by the police, which she slipped under your door at the stroke of mid-night. It was Algerian wartime in Paris and everyone, every night had to be accounted for. The rent was the equivalent of $21 a month and I was getting $110 on the GI bill. Add two great meals a day for $15 a month with student restaurant tickets subsidized by the French government and there was plenty left over for wine and grass. It was perfect.
I painted one wall black and one wall ochre, the rest white except for the space around the skylight. There, Wally, my childhood friend, oil painted a blue sky with clouds and stars. Gregory Corso
added an angel. I painted the "just big enough for two lovers wrapped around each other" iron bed bright red. The room was as small as a monk's cell ... perhaps six by nine feet. I never measured. There was a small white porcelain sink used for washing (cold water only) and pissing in when it was too cold to run out into the hall. The floor was made of ancient octagon shaped terra-cotta tiles. When it got real cold during the winter one could splash alcohol out of a bottle onto the floor, light it with a match and then get out of bed as the fire went out and the room was warm. I loved that room and it was mine for three years. I was rich. I had two pair of blue Levi's and two sweatshirts, one pair of desert boots and two pair of socks. I wore one set of clothes in the public shower for a once a week washing. My red plaid-hunting jacket with a dead duck carrying pocket in the back came from Abercrombie & Fitch in NY. I had a one-burner alcohol stove and beside mr camera, only one real valued possession, a PX-bought Phillips portable phonograph with a speaker in the case. Harry Phipps and Peter Duchin laid some Jazz records on me when they left Paris. A girl I knew left me some classical records. I was set.
The duffel bag I hauled from New York was filled with the Hundred Great Books, in paperback. Heavy hauling and heavy reading. I planned to go through them in that room on that red iron bed. Now they lined the seaman's shelves strung up with rope and driftwood planks plucked from the Seine a half a block away.
One morning I dabbed some cold water on my face, pissed in the sink and flew down the five flights to buy some breakfast makings, usually an egg, a half a baguette, a piece of butter and a yogurt washed down with instant coffee. As I bounded out the door I crashed into a well-dressed elderly gentleman who was passing by. I recognized his now-startled famous face. I went into shock when I realized that he was Charlie Chaplin. It was the shock of awe. I couldn't speak. I was frozen in awe. He and his wife, who I also recognized, were very concerned, thinking I was struck dumb in the crash. Their famous faces switched from worried frowns to broad smiles as they heard me apologize in English. After we assured ourselves that no damage was done they asked me for directions to a restaurant around the corner on the Quai Des Grandes Augustines. I would like to say that they invited me to lunch but they didn't. I bounded back up the stairs to get my camera, figuring to get some great photos of the Chaplins in Paris. My head was spinning with images of a LIFE cover or a PARIS MATCH spread, the PULITZER PRIZE maybe, but when I returned to the crash site, they had disappeared. I went back up the five flights and made my breakfast on the alcohol stove. After breakfast, I grabbed a book, put on a Duke Ellington record, got in bed and blew a joint. Life was beautiful.
A light knock on the door. As I opened it Janine slipped in and slipped out of her clothes to join me in the red bed.
A hard knock on the door, my neighbor, "little" Jerry, finding the staircase toilet occupied, danced up and down, begged to piss in my sink. He had his own sink but found the practice too unsanitary to use it.
Another tap on the door, Allen Ginsberg
asking if he could borrow some alcohol for his stove for which he planned a great chicken soup.
A scratch at the door. Marteau, the gray hotel cat wanted in and a cup of milk.
Another knock, BJ and Burroughs
returning from ZiZi's Moroccan cafe next to the police station near the Hotel De Ville where they went on a hash-buying mission. Divvy-up-time.
Lured by the noise of loud jazz blaring from the speaker, loud laughter from high loud-mouthers as well as the sweet smell of cannibis mixed with strong black Gauloise cigarette tobacco, Corso, dressed in his green velvet, Hamlet costume descended from his attic room to join us.
Banging on the door, Claude, BJ's live-in girlfriend came by looking for him. Every time she got angry with BJ, usually about his infidelities, she went and slept with someone famous. Her first husband was an English Jazz guitarist so she stuck mostly to musicians. She told us about Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker and others. A few days ago she found BJ in bed with GiGi and after chasing her out with BJ's belt, vowed to retaliate heavily.
"GUESS WHAT?" she shouted over the noise. "I JUST FUCKED MARLON BRANDO"
"How was he, any good?" asked Janine as the noise came to an abrupt halt.
"A nice guy" reported Claude "but, oh,so inhibited ... he gave me the kimono he wore in 'Sayonara.' He wants me to go to Spain with him since I speak Spanish."
"BRANDO?" a defeated BJ exclaimed, " Where is he? I've got to meet him"
BJ looked as though he stepped out of 'THE WILD ONE', Brando's biker film that launched the HELL'S ANGELS look around the world. He was 6 feet 2 inches tall with a full black beard and dressed only in jeans, black leather jacket, biker's boots and a black wool hat. Of course he had a motorcycle. BJ wanted to be a "method" actor and Brando was his idol.
"Yeah ... YEAH" Corso said, "Brando is shooting 'THE YOUNG LIONS' outside Paris, Let's go out there and dig him."
"I'm for that," said Little Jerry who also was an actor. "Me too" came from the rest of us.
"OK, I'll set it up" ... As she said it I could see Claude's brain excited with the thought of BJ confronting Brando. BJ had once bit the finger of Errol Flynn who was jabbing it into the air in front of his face. But that's another story.