Sunday, January 6, 2019

To Bounce or not to Bounce, that is the question....


Many of my readers have asked me to elaborate on one of my occupations before becoming a writer, namely on how I became a bouncer in a disco on the French Riviera. This is the abridged version.


 May 1971, Montpellier, South of France

“There are no summer jobs in Montreal”. After a winter spent on a shoestring budget in Montpellier studying law, the news from my friend Jeffrey is disappointing, to put it mildly. I’m about to run out of money and  been counting on finding work back home, in order to continue my law studies at University of Ottawa.
My landlord Albert Legrand, the restaurant owner over which I rented a room, had just hired a dishwasher, his nephew, so my temporary services are no longer needed.“There’s that new place Tiffany’s, a disco in Palavas. Why don’t you try there?” said Albert  while stirring a pot full of his traditional bouillabaisse.

 I splurge for a bus ticket and head for Palavas, a quaint fishing village on the Mediterranean, a dozen kilometers south of Montpellier. Just before reaching the village, the bus stops at an intersection and to the right I see a modern structure in white stucco and cement.  A garish sign on the left side in huge red letters reads “Tiffany’s”. I get out and walk towards the long flat white building with a slightly undulating roof, its red tiles retaining a hint of the traditional.
At the front, two large wooden doors adorned with bronze knockers form the entrance.  I knock.
After a moment a petite brunette appears, leaning against one of the half -opened doors.” Oui?”
“I’m looking for un job”.
She looks me up and down, turns and yells. “Mario, someone here pour un job.”
A voice back in the room yells back : “ Pas besoin.”
Dommage,” she says, hunching her shoulders in powerlessness. She looks genuinely sorry.

I take in a deep breath and start to walk back towards the street, when she says: “ minute. I’ll talk to Mario.”She turns, and moments later, Mario and she appear. Mario is tall, thin, has a pallid complexion and a head full of unkempt, frizzy black hair.
Tu veux un job?”
Oui.”

“Come”. He signals for me to follow him, and we enter the discothèque.  Before us, a wide open room in an undulating shape, at the right of which is a bar. To the left, down a couple of steps the dance area, where workers are sanding the wooden floor.
We cross the main room, enter a small office where Mario goes behind the desk and sits down. He gestures me to the chair in front.
After a brief exchange, he says: “We open this Saturday and we need a cashier.”
My mood brightens, but I try not to look too eager. “How much does it pay?”
“500 francs per week. 6pm to 3am. Mondays off.”
“Sounds good.”
“Fine. You’ve met Annette. Come meet my brother.”

We go to the adjoining room, and Mario introduces me to Sergio, a man with an easy smile, probably early thirties, tanned complexion and shoulder- length wavy brown hair. After I tell them I’m a Canadian law student at Université de Montpelllier, their interest in me increases.  I learn that Sergio and Mario Ganzoni are Swiss entrepreneurs who are developing disco franchises. Montpellier is their third, after Tel-Aviv and Torremolinos.
I’m hired, and my spirits soar. A summer in Montpellier presages busloads of Scandinavian blondes coming to learn French at the University, and develop their tans on the sandy beaches of the French Riviera. As a bilingual Canadian, I am the perfect interpreter cum teacher. Yes!
(As it turns out, the blondes turn out to be more Dutch than Swedish, and I take a liking to Jolette from Amsterdam, whose French improves dramatically by frequenting yours truly.)

Weeks turn into months and the long white nights take their toll, and by the time 3 am, (read more 5 am) rolls around every morning, I’m completely wiped and looking forward to a day’s rest. By the end of July, I know every song played by the disco guy, and can’t wait till he plays “Satisfaction”, signaling the close of the night. My little cashier’s cubicle next to the entrance is hot, stuffy and very uncomfortable. Plus I’m bored out of my mind.

That’s when it all changes. So far, next to my cubicle at the entrance stand two Brits from Leeds, bouncers Alan and Dave. Dave says he’s spent four years in the Marines, and I have absolutely no reason not to believe him. He’ll routinely lift a boisterous drunk with one hand and toss him out onto the pavement. End of commotion. Thin but wiry Alan is there for good measure, or when a fight breaks out inside the disco, which is not infrequent. Unfortunately one day Dave doesn’t show up for work, never to be seen again. Instantly rumors abound.  Did he piss off the wrong people? Remember, Montpellier is only a couple of hours away from Marseille, the crime capital of France at the time. He is replaced by Jean, a weight lifter built like a Panzer tank and a Judo specialist.
But there’s a problem. Every time there’s a commotion or a brawl, Jean isn’t there. Coincidence at first ? Until someone notices that every time there’s a fight, Jean’s in the toilets.
End of Jean. The next evening, Mario calls me to his office. “How would you like a promotion?”

I laugh. “How much?”
“750 francs, plus free suppers.”
“1000.”
D’accord. You start tonight.”

The first week is relatively uneventful. Alan and I get along well, and we get rid of some undesirables without too much fuss. A bit of strong-arming, not much more. But then one night, while standing guard outside at the entrance, we hear gunshots coming from inside the disco.
“Shit!” yells Alan.
We peer cautiously inside the disco hall and see Roger, a regular but consummate hothead and alky, tottering out of control, waving a pistol at the ceiling. More shots, as everybody panics and makes a run for the exits. We realize he’s trying to shoot the small flashing lights of the disco’s ceiling. Finally he collapses in a drunken stupor, murmuring incomprehensibly.

I grab Roger’s pistol from him, while Alan pins him to the floor. After a moment, we carry him to his car, and a couple of friends drive him home. Mario, who has seen all this, tells his friends to tell Roger he’s not coming back.
Now you must understand the Southern French culture. These guys are all buddies from Marseille, grew up together, know each other inside out, their families, their friends. It’s one thing not to hold one’s liquor, but way worse to be ostracized, banned from the best watering hole in the area, the “in” place to be and to be seen every weekend. Suddenly you’re no longer part of the crowd.
Roger comes back the next day to apologize, but Mario and Sergio are implacable: no.

A few days go by, until one night I think I recognize a car coming to a stop in the parking lot, a couple of hundred yards away.
“Isn’t that Roger’s car?” I say to Alan.
“Yeah, think so.”
The driver gets out slowly. It’s Roger.
“Not good,” says Alan.
Roger sees us and waves, then slowly goes to the back of his car and opens the trunk.
He pulls out what looks like a duffle bag and sets in on the pavement, next to the car. He opens the bag and pulls out a tripod, then the business end of a machine gun.

“Jesus Christ !” says Alan.
We enter the disco, close the doors. Alan runs to the office, and tells Mario who rushes to the cashier cubicle to see for himself. Roger is now preparing the ammunition box next to his machine gun. “Il est completement fou.”
I turn to Mario :“Time to call the cops.”
Mario chuckles. “They won’t come unless there are dead bodies. For them, this is gang warfare, out of their jurisdiction.” Mario turns to Alan : “is Néné here?
“I think I saw him at the bar.”
“Get him here quick.”

Minutes later, Néné Azais, a 5 ft 2 inch Gitan, successful Marseille restaurateur and respected patron of Tiffany’s, is peering through the cashier window.
Merde. ¨Ça, c’est trop!

Néné, long black mane, wearing a white open blouse, gold bracelets and fitted bell bottom pants, imposes respect by his presence, and a look that could cut through tungsten steel. He goes back to the bar, gets a pistol from one of his friends, and tucks it in his belt behind his back.
“Open the door,” he tells me.
“Are you sure?”
Oui.”
I open, Néné walks out, very slowly, hands up in the air. He stops about 20 ft out. I close the door.

We watch from the cubicle as Néné talks to Roger, who is sitting behind his gun, ready to open fire. After what seems like an eternity Néné lowers his hands slowly, takes his gun from behind him and deposits it slowly on the ground. More interminable minutes go by, more talk and finally we see Roger get up, start dismantling his weapon, and putting it back in the duffle bag.
A few days later, Mario calls me to his office, thanks me for keeping my cool, and makes me another offer: to become part of their organization on a permanent basis, and help develop other franchises. He and Sergio are planning to expand into North America and he thinks Canada, particularly Quebec, would be the perfect place to start.
I say I’ll think about it.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d accepted his offer.



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