The Moulin Rouge, San Francisco, a Fragment of Memoir

When I was 22, I lived at the Moulin Rouge, a French bar in North Beach, San Francisco, California. Not all the time, only when I was not hitch-hiking to and from the community college with almost a view on San Quentin Prison, and when I was not attending classes there, or working. The Moulin Rouge was run by a spiffy well-coiffed older French woman. I always thought she was a retired madam from Marseilles. I don’t say that to blacken her name for she was a real sweetheart. And anyhow, I don’t know this for a fact.

I was a good student who did his assignment efficiently and who drank too much every night at the Moulin Rouge. It was a good plan to meet new people, some who were interesting, some who could be useful. The regulars were a mixture of French immigrants and of American Francophiles. Some of the latter were single women of an uncertain age in the low light of the bar. I met a middle-aged French woman who owned an expensive hairdresser’s shop and who tried to make me her chauffeur/gigolo. She failed (we failed,I failed).

I had emigrated to the US with no skills and no money. That’s no money, not a cute way to say “little money.” Through the Moulin Rouge, I landed a succession of part-time jobs, not all as unimportant as you might imagine. One job was editing a small, largely local French language newspaper. I always wanted to make it more hifallutin. The publisher, a Frenchman who only lived in San Francisco part of the year, objected. We had a final falling out when he fired me with these exact words, “We don’t need intellectual shit in this paper. Fifty per cent of our readers are Basques; the Basques are stupid. I know because I am Basque.” ! At the time, I slept in a small room in a Basque hotel precisely, also in North Beach. The other tenants were Basque shepherds on vacation from their lonely jobs in the Sierras. They did not seem stupid to me although they were not what you would call real literati. Plus, they cooked great six-egg plus smoked ham breakfasts.

A middle-aged gay customer who was an interior decorator – I am not kidding – heard of my predicament. He introduced me to a rich old lady who would have me occupy her basement apartment on Pacific Hill and pay me a little stipend in return for “some work.” She called the lodgings: “the Chinaman’s flat.” (Again: Would I make this up?)

The old lady, a widow, drove a hard bargain. She thought she had a right to be demanding because she often brought down for me her surplus cooked vegetable. That was a misplaced concern, of course: Young men use beer for both fiber and vitamins. I did not enjoy the job of a houseboy much and bringing girls down into the basement was hellishly difficult because the old lady never slept. She did not even take naps in the afternoon, I know this for a fact. After a couple of months, she fired me. She told me to my face she would replace me with an Asian boy who would be “more docile.” It made a lot of sense since her main offer was the “Chinaman’s flat.”

I kept spending my long winter evenings at the Moulin Rouge. I kept meeting interesting characters there. One was a Frenchman in his forties who told me he was a pirate on leave. He said he owned an old Navy PT boat with a machine gun he used to prey on Chinese ships in the Celebes (Indonesia). “How come you are not in prison for 20 or 25 years? How about the police, the local coast guard, the navy?” I asked. “Nobody cares about the rich Chinese in Indonesia; besides, we never, never kill anyone. We wave big guns at them, my crew and I, and they always pay up. Sometimes, they bargain with me. I am not unreasonable,” he explained. He invited me to join him in a piracy campaign on my next summer vacation. I told him that I would like too but I would probably have to study in the summer too. I had my values down straight: junior college before piracy.

Evidently, the pirate had detected my criminal fiber before I had. “How about spring break – he said – I have a contact in Columbia. We could go quickly and smuggle back pre-Columbian artifacts. I know some collectors. Actually they come to his bar once in a while. I have heard you speak Spanish. Your Spanish is good. You could be very helpful and make enough money to support yourself for a whole year.”

Before I had time to really consider his tempting offer, he changed the subject. He told me that today was “El Dia de la Raza.” I did not know what that was then. Anyway, it’s not really about race. It’s just a day when Spanish speakers from all countries celebrate their “hispanidad,” whatever that is. He said there was a big dance at the Masonic auditorium. He added that it would be full of tarted-up Hispanic women on the make. (Here is a rule of thumb: Like a hunter who has lovingly cleaned and oiled his gun, a woman who has gone to great expenditure of time and money to make herself sexy for a special event hates to return empty-handed.)

So, we went to the ball and it was just as he had said. For some reason, women visibly outnumbered men. Now, a neutral, scientific note about Frenchmen: They may look like any northern Europeans but many can dance like Puerto-Rican pimps. The reasons why this is are interesting but too complex for this story. In this case, we both also spoke Spanish with ease which is not uncommon among French people. Quickly, the pirate and I did very well. I met a short but shapely brown, black-eyed Central American woman with hair down to her waist. She wore a bare-back dress and her skin under my right hand was the smoothest and the softest I had ever felt. She liked that I was twice her size and she raised herself on her toes to reach me. After a decent hour or so, she took me to her apartment in a taxi she called herself. Turned out she was twice my age. CUT! This may be read at a family gathering!

My friend the pirate had met a very sweet Mexican-American woman half his age at the dance and he had immediately fallen hard for her. She had the kind of sweetness that caused her to keep worrying about who was doing my ironing since I was a bachelor living alone. She thought that was not right. The pirate told me it was time for him to abandon his evil practices and to return to France where his old mother was still alive. He and his Mexican-American sweetheart began traveling West to East toward our shared native country. The girl had never been outside the Bay Area. Together, they hitched-hiked and worked their way on ships toward Singapore. That included a two-month stay in Australia where the pirate made good money killing rabbits. Then, he worked as a cook and she as a maid on a freighter that took a few passengers. They made it to France by various means in a little under a year.

“Why stop in Singapore?” I asked the pirate when I met him and Maria again briefly in Paris. “Why, it has the biggest and the most beautiful Catholic cathedral in Asia. That where I wanted to marry Maria. That’s where I married her,” he said simply. Real or not, the pirate had great style. I am sorry I don’t know what became of him or her. I imagine they lived in a nice farm in the beautiful French countryside and that they have had many children who look like pretty Maria.

Soon afterwards the Dia de la Raza, I moved to Sausalito where I had found a gardener’s job on the sole strength of my French name. After that, I only returned to the Moulin Rouge infrequently. In Sausalito, every night, I would attend the No Name Bar, right downtown. It was an intellectual sort of place. There was wallpaper in the restroom that showed scenes from the Trojan War. Someone had drawn a bubble coming out of a hoplite’s mouth with words in Greek letters. Another graffito said: “Schwartz is a neo-classic.” Schwartz must have been devastated! Soon, I found that the Moulin Rouge had played out its part in my destiny. I was steeped in American life and on my way to becoming a scholar, not a little thanks to the No Name Bar. Staying on the academic straight and narrow was not always easy though because of the pirate’s bad example.

12 thoughts on “The Moulin Rouge, San Francisco, a Fragment of Memoir

  1. I have similar tales except instead of attending the College of Marin, I worked in the kitchen at the adjacent Marin General Hospital. I met Vivian Vance, who a a patient, Also, I hung at Carol Doda’s.

    • Well, we were traveling companions without knowing it but, if I may, I think using “hanging” and Carol Doda in the same sentence is inappropriate.

  2. Ha! Good thinking! “Junior college before piracy!” Sounds like you had a fun youth. How did you manage to immigrate penniless though? I always thought it a rather expensive thing to do. What year was that? And is the Moulin Rouge the same one that was in the movie of that name?

    • Ok. Glad you asked. After being released from the (French) Navy, I worked for two months as a bellboy in a hotel. That allowed me to buy a one way ship ticket to the east coast with enough to spare to travel to the west coast where I had friends to fall back on if needed. It was not needed. I got a job in San Francisco within one week of arriving there. (It was a good job actually.) I supported myself through two years of community college and two years at Stanford (which gave me a full tuition scholarship). Emigrating is not expensive for a healthy young male with few needs and non one else to support. The Moulin Rouge is a famous landmark in Pigalle, the red light district in Paris. It was not the real name of theFrench bar I describe.

    • I wish life were longer to give me a chance to disagree graciously with you at length. Here is the short way: In grad school, I had a friend who, I thought should have lived in Paris, specifically. He even spoke French well. For G’s sake, he even looked French, in some way! I thought he should have been sitting at La Coupole at 6 pm every day shooting the breeze with some French intellectual or other. I still think he wasted his life by becoming a (well paid) bureaucrat for the State of California . Myself, as soon as I hit a California community college, it was as if the proverbial scales had fallen off my proverbial eyes. Nearly everything in the California of those days suited me. It was as if I had been in exile most of my life. It was like coming home at last. Not much hardship. Sorry if this disappoints! PS: As I think I have said before, I knew English quite well much before I moved to this country for good. It mattered greatly.

Please keep it civil

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