At the Bastille Day tribute to Serge Gainsbourg, the Loser’s Lounge crew played grainy French TV shows from the early Sixties. Serge was precocious as a dirty old man. In one song after another, he leered at angel-faced Twiggies, and they gazed back full of wide-eyed love. What did they see in him? With pouchy eyes, ears like rashers of bacon, a huge shnozz, and lank hair, he was so ugly that it became another kind of beauty. I’d do him.
The truth is they look well-matched, the baby blondes and Uncle Serge. “Sois belle et tais-toi” (“Shut up and look beautiful”) he sang; harsh but fair advice to most twenty-year-old girls. It’s plain he just wants to bed them, but in return they might learn a thing or two. As for the crush-struck girls, they look hypnotized and flattered, but they will throw him over soon.
In front of the flickering videos the Losers delivered phonetic tributes to Serge. I love all his songs; my date, Peter (who has a touch of Jean-Paul Belmondo about the eyes), knew none except “Je t’Aime”. That one takes me right back to seventeen, when the girls in my class sang it on the bus all the way back from the Kerry Gaeltacht.
On the Bastille Day playlist, most of the songs were lecherous love-letters to the USA. “Bonnie and Clyde.” “New York USA.” “Harley David Son of a Bitch.” “Ford Mustang.” One singer stripped down to a pair of tiny red Speedos by the third verse of “Comic Strip.” In the American mind, Speedos have replaced berets and striped shirts as the national costume of France. His little basketball belly might have been Serge’s own.
The oddest tribute came from a twelve-piece accordion girl band wearing hipster jeans. They all looked new to the instrument: they frowned as they gripped their dozen squeezeboxes and rocked comically. Chord changes were tense for all of us, but it was worth sitting through for the sight alone.
I’d forgotten about them until this morning. It’s a glorious day, one of the perfect ones that will always remind me of September 11th. I took the long route to work, walking from Prospect Heights over the Brooklyn Bridge, and stopped at the little park on Clinton Street to scribble for a while. The park is too paved and manicured to be beautiful, but I love it because the neighbors use it. Old men from Atlantic Avenue spend hours playing dominoes while small girls on pink bikes ride circles around them. Hennaed Italian biddies swap gossip and aches and pains. A brat throws a tantrum, and his mother whines:
“Noah, remember we discussed co-operation? I want you to know that right now this is a choice you’re making, to act and feel this way.”
If that’s what Noah has to put up with, I decided, it seemed like a pretty good choice to roar and stamp.
A man slowed down and nodded, and when I smiled back he got brave enough to sit on my bench. Wherever I go I draw small girls and oddballs (“Because you talk to them!” explains my sister) and so I wasn’t surprised when he asked if I’d mind if he played some music.
“What sort of music?” I said.
“I’m learning the accordion.”
Those aren’t the best words to start a life-long friendship.
“People don’t seem to mind,” he said anxiously. “Sometimes they say it makes it feel like Paris.”
He fixed his music stand, set up his backing CDs, unpacked his shiny red accordion, and launched into “Moon River” and “It Might As Well Be Spring.”
It was lovely. Cobble Hill did feel, improbably, like the Jardins du Luxembourg for an hour or so. The toddlers started dancing and the bench people clapped. Another accordionist introduced himself, and they made arrangements to play together next week.
Ranger Tim, who has sharp instincts for the next big thing, bought a junk-shop accordion a few years ago, though he failed to teach himself to play. His New York apartment was decorated with a record sleeve of a green-eyed vixen hugging a squeezebox. I’d put it down to his polka and knackwurst heritage, but now it looks like he was set to make a hit with the ladeez. First trucker hats, then knitting, now accordion music: is there nothing New Yorkers won’t rehabilitate?