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Travel

Working as you go

Harvesting legal tender around the next bend in the road.

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Published 1/27/1999

France in the mid-’60s was a real shock to my college boy-beatnik system. When the boat train from Le Havre dropped me at the Gare du Nord in Paris, I could see that just about everything was going to be different and that francs, even in the smallest denominations, wouldn’t be easy to come by.

After a few months of embarrassment with the language and finally learning my way around the city, I started working "au pair" for a couple of university professors and their two young sons. Madame was a sociologist and Monsieur a historian. Their sons were my responsibility – feeding them breakfast, then escorting them via subway to their private school and back.

Mornings were free time; afternoons I shopped for the evening meal, which I cooked for the whole family. Then, after washing the dinner dishes, I could head out into the City of Light.

"Au pair" provided me with a small sleeping room – in a corridor on the sixth floor, where my neighbors were the building’s other nannies, maids and such – two meals a day and a tiny sum to spend on treats such as a morning slice of flan, a copy of Le Monde, a film at the cinémathequè and a beer now and then.

But how to get more cash pronto?

Around this time I was reading Henry Miller’s books – the parallels with Tropic of Cancer, set in a merciless Paris of the ’30s, were too perfect. Like Henry, I was broke, horny, writing all the time, excited by life, in love with French women in general and one sweet young apparition in particular.

So with all this bubbling through my brains, I found myself one evening on a side street in Pigalle. From a doorway, a portly tart of a whore clicked her tongue and motioned me over, turning out to be a drag imitation when I pulled in close. I could see the stubble under her makeup and she winked at my recognition.

"Cherie, want to make some francs?"

"Doing what?"

An unexpected turnaround was beckoning me onto melting ice. Victor/ia was proposing the equivalent of half a month’s "au pair" wages if I’d team up with her on a trick, actually a pair of tricks.

"It’s a married couple. The man likes to watch his wife getting stuffed. That’s where you come in, cherie. I’ll take care of Monsieur. Then maybe he’ll want to play with you."

At the crossroads of instant fortune I paused, aware only that oblivion in high heels wiggled its well-paid ass just beyond some invisible border. But what should a poor boy do? The commode of easy living was about to overflow.

It didn’t take more than a second for my gut feeling to kick in: I didn’t like the idea of servicing Pépé Le Pew and his old lady. This cash cow was a bull in disguise, crapping. So I bid goodbye to that ambiguous creature of the night and strolled down the boulevard back to my humble, workaday existence.

Other gambits awaited me, other ways of straying from the 9-to-5 straight-and-narrow. In the lower Alps, near the Côte d’Azur, I earned while I traveled by collecting wild plants with some French friends – thistles, lavender, artichoke flowers, mint – which we sold to tourists in Saint-Tropez and other seaside resorts. It was a nice, relaxed living for six months, enough to keep us in cigarettes, pasta and rosé. And we swam in the blue-green sea each afternoon.

Then back in Paris, with the arrival of Motown compatriot Mick Vranich, we worked the streets as a duo: Mick on guitar and vocals, me on congas. The Parisians wigged for our American poetry-blues, but the francs just trickled in.

It was time to get a "real" job.

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