LA DOUBLE DOUCHE
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Have you ever heard of a “French Shower”? It is a somewhat derogatory term that, when used in the United States, usually indicates, no shower at all, but merely the generous application of perfume. The French, it seems, do not have a reputation for being very clean. Well, at least, that was the case, when I was living in Paris in 1958. Actually, a French Shower, meaning the French word for Shower is “Douche.” And I am proud to say that I personally took, at least, four, throughout the year that I was there. I know that doesn’t sound like many, but I thought it was rather an achievement, considering what one had to go through to stand beneath a stream of running water, and, furthermore, it cost money. Using the sink and Bidet in my hotel room, on the other hand, was free.
My hotel room was extraordinary, considering it was less than eight dollars a week. The room itself was rather small, maybe, 10 by 15 feet, from wall to wall, but the ceiling was spectacularly tall, and there was a single huge French window, overlooking Rue Mazarine. To me it was Heaven on Earth, even though, it had no heat. Actually, there was one tiny radiator that in coldest days of winter barely achieved body temperature.
The concierge epitomized the French expression, “Laissez- Faire”, meaning that she let you do anything you wanted to. As long as you paid the monthly rent of $30, she handed you one set of heavy linen sheets, each month, and never entered your room again. Sometimes she missed a month and the same sheets had to last for two. I didn’t mind, I was just glad to be in Paris; and my little room was Paradise; a dream come true.
I had turned this small enclosure into an artist’s studio with an easel and huge canvases, some of which were 4’X 8’. Once, I joined two together to make one twice that size. A sheet of glass served as my palette and it was always overflowing with a delicious selection of freshly squeezed oil paint. Sitting in the middle, at all times, was an open jar, half full of Gasoline. I used this incredibly flammable liquid as paint thinner, instead of turpentine. Gas was cheaper and commonly used as a medium for thinning oils in France. Every so often, I’d take the jar to a gas station, and attempt to convey to the attendant, the French equivalent of “filler-up!” Thus, I was living dangerously; and it’s a miracle that I survived.
And, as if the ever present jar of petrol wasn’t perilous enough, in those days I “smoked like a chimney”, the strongest French cigarettes, Gauloise. And cigarette butts, often saved and lit up twice, accumulated in a variety of makeshift ashtrays, scattered all over the place. It really was a miracle that I didn’t self-immolate!
Worse still, in winter, one heated one’s room, instantly, using a method that was commonplace. It was called “brulage”, which is French for “burning!” Bottles of flammable liquid, packaged like lemonade were sold in every grocery store, primarily for that purpose. The procedure was simple, and the results were spectacular. All “brulage” required was a shallow tin pan, placed on the floor, into which an inch or so of fuel was poured. After that, one lit a match, tossed it in the general direction of the pan, and dove out of the way. WOOOOSH, a pillar of fire rose up, and briefly touched the ceiling. Then, in an instant, it was over. Small crumbs of bright blue fire still licked the nearly empty pan, then flickered out. This perilous practice, commonly done by everyone I knew, would warm the room for half an hour.
The double bed was large and luxurious, in that, for once, my feet didn’t hang over the end. Yet, it was also primitive, a simple metal frame with a network of interwoven springs, and a thin straw filled mattress pad laid over it. The pillows resembled two bags of cement. The bed, itself, was originally set into a sort of combination headboard and shelf. I pulled the bed part out, and moved it over to the window. Meanwhile, the remaining shelf slowly filled up with the fabulous treasures I discovered in the shops and flea markets of Paris, as with the acquisition of one amazing, object, after another, I was, unknowingly, becoming a collector.
Among the wonders I discovered, was a Praxinoscope Theatre, a simple wooden box that contained a magic world of animated illusion that existed, and yet didn’t, in both real and imaginary space. This fantastic optical toy predated the motion pictures. I also acquired a fabulous 19th Century Polichinelle, a character of the Commedia del Arte. He cost me the equivalent of a month’s rent of $30, which it took me several months to pay.
There was also a fabulous pig from a French carousel, with a beautifully carved bridle, inset with tiny mirrors. All these things still live with me, today.
In one corner of the chamber, there was a sort of arbitrary room divider, with a makeshift curtain that discreetly hid, both, a sink and a bidet. A bidet, by the way, is a porcelain appliance that is similar in appearance to a toilet, only the basin is shallow, with a drain intended for liquid only. In the middle of the basin, is a kind of fountain, capable of shooting a stream of water, several feet into the air, if not blocked by the user’s derriere. These two appliances, together, more than sufficed to keep my body clean.
Oh, there was also a communal toilet, reserved for everybody on the second floor. This was located in a small room at the end of the hallway, just outside my door. One aspect of this water closet did disturb me. The window, beside the toilet, opened onto an airshaft in the middle of the building, about ten feet square. A few other windows opened onto it, and no doors, as far as I could see. Objects had been tossed down there, over the years, and thus, the closed courtyard, at the bottom of the shaft, had become a kind of dumping ground. Amidst the refuse, there lived a cat. He often meowed at night, perhaps, complaining about his hard knocks life. I asked my landlady about him; she implored me not to feed him, as it would distract him from his duty, and assured me that he feasted, daily, on a cuisine, of rats and mice.
This facility was, in fact, quite luxurious compared to the one in my friends Bob and Verta’s hotel, Number 9, Rue Git le Coeur, the legendary hotel of choice of the Beat Generation, in Paris. Allen Ginsberg was a frequent resident. Gregory Corso lived on the top floor. And the small chamber, next door to Bob and Verta's, was occupied by William Burroughs, and his young Indian boy lover. That tiny smoke-filled room was where he wrote, and no doubt ate, “The Naked Lunch”. Eunice, my wife to be, stayed at 9, Rue Git le Coeur, briefly, before she met me, and returned there to occupy Bob and Verta’s room, after they and I returned to the USA.
The single toilet at 9 Rue Git le Coeur was located in a tiny room, labeled “W.C.” on one landing of the winding staircase. And it wasn’t a toilet at all, but simply a hole in the floor, surrounded by a porcelain tray, with two raised foot rests. To use it properly one needed to have mastered the gentle art of squatting. But as I had always been too fat to know squat about squatting, I found that appliance impossible to use. Nor dare I even attempt it, without completely disrobing from the waist down, then putting my shoes back on again, for there was a cat in that hotel, who used that same facility. But, unlike me, he had perfect aim, and always “did his business”, as my father used to call it, directly on one of the raised foot rests.
Perhaps it was one my fumbled attempts to master the W.C. at Number 9 Rue Git le Coeur that led me to finally visit “La Douche Publique” for the first time. Which I did with trepidation, for I was not sure what awaited me, beyond the rather elegant front door. Nonetheless, I bravely walked in off the street, and found myself in a lobby that resembled that of a conventional hotel. There was a voluptuous round couch surrounded by many potted palms. The floor and walls were covered in white tile. Two women in white uniforms smiled at me from behind a large reception desk. There was an aura of Toulouse Lautrec about the place that reminded me of some of his drawings done in brothels. I was beginning to fear that this would be expensive. But, it was not! After all, the Public Shower was, for many residents of Paris, a commonplace necessity.
“Bonjour Monsieur”, both women greeted me, in unison, in their typical French sing song voices,” Qu’es-ce que vous voulez?” one inquired.
“Une Douche, s’il vous plait.” I replied. And so, I paid a nominal fee and they handed me a large wooden number that had been hanging with many others, on the wall, behind them, and a rather small white towel that looked more like a wash cloth to me, along with a bar of soap that was ”petit”, to say the least. Then they pointed to a pair of swinging doors, located on the opposite wall. And I walked through them, into another world, one that was stark and damp and dismal.
Everything, in the enormous concrete chamber I now entered, was rendered in assorted shades of gray. I felt like I had just stepped through a projection screen, into an old black and white movie. There was no color anywhere, and no people either, as far as I could see. But I could hear water running, and see a few isolated plumes of steam, rising, here and there, from the vast Labyrinth of wooden stalls that stretched out before me. Thus, I sensed that I was not alone.
The room was huge and exceedingly depressing, like a prison courtyard. And the ceiling was much higher than it needed to be. There were several skylights high up in the roof, which supplied the only light. At floor level, there was a complex series of wooden enclosures, painted gray, and held aloft on wooden legs. One could see under the doors and walls, like free standing toilet stalls; only these enclosures were twice as wide, and shared adjoining walls, on either side. Linked together, they formed a rambling maze of aisles, in which one could easily get lost, if not for the white numbers on the dark gray doors.
I wandered through the rows, until I found my number, then, stepped inside the stall, and latched the door. One side of the cubicle was a dressing area with hooks, on which to hang one’s clothes, a wooden seat, attached diagonally to one corner, and a small mirror, mounted high up on the wall. The other half of the stall was the actual shower, with a floor that angled down to a drain set into the gray concrete floor. It was not especially warm, in there, but the water was hot, and there was just enough of it to be adequate. The towel, alas, was not. I had to soak up as much water as I could, then literally wring it out and try again. If at first you don’t succeed, dry and dry again! All in all, I left La Douche, with a whole new appreciation for the sink and bidet, in my room.
On the way out, I stopped at the desk to return the number and deposit my towel into a bin. That was when I noticed an item on the posted price list that referred to something called a “Double Douche”. Oh my God! I had heard of tell of that, and thought it was only make-believe. A Shower for “Deux”? I never dreamed that such a thing might actually exist. I doubted that its premise was that two bathers could get cleaner than one, and contemplated ways it might be fun.
My next trip to the Public Shower was an exceedingly unpleasant one. I went there for the second time, not on a whim, or a necessity; instead, it was an, out and out, Emergency!
In Paris, in the 1950’s, there was a very legitimate establishment, not a charity, where any American in Paris could receive medical attention for whatever ailed them, free. It was simply called the American Hospital. I had visited there on a few occasions, and always got the same doctor, who, suffice it to say, in view of the ailments I’d acquired, as well as my attire, was not impressed with me. I really outdid myself this time with a case of (alas, I can’t put this discreetly)… crabs.
Actually, they were really quite amazing, and if they didn’t itch outrageously, I might even say amusing. Each one appeared to be a tiny replica of the larger version, usually found at sea. Now, a whole army of these minute creatures clung to my body, tenaciously. When the doctor, who seemed quite fascinated with them, remarked that he had never seen one in person. I said, “Here!” And picking one off my tummy, I set it on his desk, where it proceeded to crawl at record speed
My God! What a reaction! The doctor screamed, like a Victorian lady, who had just seen a mouse run up her dress. Then, he picked up some nearby desktop item, and slammed it down on the poor creature, SPLAT!, squashing it flat!
The result of this short visit was a hurriedly written prescription, which I immediately got filled at the nearby pharmacy. The chemist studied me suspiciously as he handed me a brown cardboard cylinder, with a metal shaker on the end. It looked like flea powder to me. The instructions on the paper label, as best I could translate them, indicated that I should sprinkle the contents on my” lit” (bed), and, after that, on me. Then, thoroughly wash my body, with mild soap and water, when the unwelcome visitors were dead.
So, back in my hotel room, I proceeded to do what the instructions said. First I sprinkled the white powder on the bed. Then, I stood by the bidet and sprinkled it all over me, from top to bottom. Mon Dieux! What a reaction! The entire crab army, which apparently had been sleeping, suddenly, jumped into action, and scurried madly, all over the occupied territory, frantically seeking an avenue of retreat. I too panicked, and threw my clothes on at top speed, then headed for “La Douche Publique.”
The journey to the Public Shower was horrendous, with legions of crazed crustaceans crawling all over me. Although, formerly quite sedentary, they were suddenly going nuts! And I feared that that’s where they were heading, along with other regions, not previously explored. I could even feel some on my neck, hurriedly heading for my head. I still had hair there, then, a fact they had not yet discovered.
I burst into La Douche Publique, where the douche ladies greeted me politely. “Bonjour Monsieur. Que voulez vous?”
“Une Douche, merci beacoup.” And through the swinging doors I flew! From that point on, a battle raged that lasted nearly half a day. When it was over the canister of flea powder was empty, and my adversaries had retreated down the drain. As I rather sheepishly returned my towel, the ladies looked at me quizzically; one doesn’t usually require three hours for a shower. I figured that it really didn’t matter, as I wouldn’t be back again soon, if ever.
Now fast forward many months. It is April in Paris and Eunice Richards, my future bride to be, (we were married by the following November) and I were living together in my room, overlooking Rue Mazarine.
The joys of wine have always eluded me, I’d, just as soon, leave it, as take it. Give me gin, any day, But, nonetheless, this being France, I drank a tumbler full of “Vin Ordinaire” with every meal. If I had had the money, I would have actually preferred something more expensive and exotic, like Coca Cola. Meanwhile, Eunice had heard that wine when mixed with Halvah, might be more “exciting”. Therefore, one evening, we stopped by a nearby near eastern market, purchased some Halvah, and took it back to Rue Mazarine, along with a bottle of red wine.
And, Exciting is what it proved to be, for Eunice ended up, throwing up all over our once a month sheets. Thus, the following day, found us in a dilemma. There were no coin operated Laundromats in France in 1958; at least I’d never noticed any. But I came up with a bright idea. We had joked about the Double Douche before. But Eunice wasn’t having any; it sounded too embarrassing, and, furthermore, she had some serious scaring on her leg that resulted from a traffic accident, followed by an operation, and a year of recuperation. And she didn’t want anybody, including me, to see it clearly.
But Logic won the day, and therefore, half an hour later, Eunice and I, hand in hand, with a mysterious bundle in the other, entered La Douche Publique together. The Douche ladies greeted me with a knowing grin. And I finally got to say those magic words: “Une Double Douche, s’il vous plait.” …and paid the fee.
Voila! This was a whole different thing! This time, there was no pointing at the swinging doors on the opposite wall. One of the ladies stepped out from behind the counter and escorted us, personally, past the reception desk and down a different hall, carrying for us, two towels, much larger than before, and two bigger bars of soap. The thought occurred to me, and I made a mental note of it, that, afterwards, she would expect a gratuity.
The corridor we walked along now was elegant, even more so than the lobby. Potted palms lined the walls, and everything, from floor to ceiling, was clad in pristine white tile. We arrived at the first of what appeared to be a continuing line of doors, and with a flourish and a smile, she held it open for us, dramatically, all the while, making it evident, in a delicate way that only the French can convey, that Double Douches are for Lovers.
Then she handed us the towels. We went inside, and latched the door behind us. The interior proved to be as elegant as the hall had been, and relatively large, though narrow. The undressing room area was right inside the door, with a counter and a mirror, above it that was bigger than any I had looked into, since I arrived in France. Beyond it, were the showers, two in a row, along one white tiled wall, each with its own set of polished chrome controls. The pristine white tiled floor sloped gently down to a single chrome plated drain, located in the middle, between the showers, and shared by both.
If anyone who is reading this is expecting a passionate love scene, you are going to be sadly disappointed, as was I. The fact is, the situation was more comic than romantic. There is nothing that can cool ones ardor more effectively than washing vomit out of a bed sheet, especially one that enormous and unwieldy.
Thus, we got over our embarrassment, quite quickly. Yes, there was a little bit of that; after all, the scene was both awkward and surreal. But, no matter how you looked at it, the first order of business was the sheet, and we were soon involved with washing that. Turning on both showers, full blast, we spread the enormous piece of linen out, across the floor, beneath them, and swooshed it all around, scrubbing it, here and there, with one of our two precious bars of soap. Then we started joking around, and soon lost interest in the sheet, and, more or less, forgot it. At one point, I sort of recollect feeling it wrap itself, around my feet.
Again, not wishing to imply that anything improper was going on, we were just monkeying around. And everything we did, like soaping each other up, was all just good clean fun. Admittedly, the possibility of doing more than that was rising, when, SUDDENLY! There was PANDEMONIUM, in the hall outside our door. Both the Douche ladies were out there, SCREAMING, and BANGING, repeatedly on the door, while shouting, “OUVREZ LE PORTE!” "OUVREZ LE PORTE!" “MONSIEUR, MONSIEUR”, “OUVREZ LE PORTE!” They were also shouting something else, as well, being as it was in French, I didn’t immediately recognize: “GET OFF THE HOLE!” “YOU’RE LYING ON THE HOLE!”
I suddenly looked down and realized that the water at our feet was well over 6 inches deep, as was the water level in the entire room. This was not an easy feat, as there was at least a half an inch of space beneath the doorway to the hall! The women were still screaming, “OPEN THE DOOR! OPEN THE DOOR!” So, in a state of total panic, having neither my wits about me, nor a towel, I rushed towards the door, and did!
I have occasionally wondered which might have been the bigger surprise, me standing there stark naked, or the sudden rush of dammed up water that with a mighty, WOOOOOSH, burst forth, cascading down the, already well wet hallway, and sweeping along with it, one of the two ladies, and several potted palms. The other douche lady remained standing, with water lapping at her feet.
I recall trying to explain in fractured French that we were only” faisons une peu de lavage”, (doing a little “washing”). And it wasn’t us, lying on the hole; it was this sheet, (picking up the sheet). This did not appear to be an issue with them, but it was with me.
When it comes to” Most Embarrassing Moments”, this one, pour moi, wins the prize. My Fantasy of the Double Douche was finally realized, and it didn’t quite turn out as I had envisioned it, in my mind. But, then again, you know what they say, in the immortal words of Robert Burns: “The best planned lays of mice and men oft go astray.”
Postscript: Would you believe I dared to go back to “La Douche Publique” again? It’s True, I did! …for a fourth and final time. About a month later, Eunice had to return to Dover, for a day, to renew her Visa. So my friend, Bob Grosvenor, and I went to the Paris flea market on his Vespa, for old times’ sake. I had suddenly disappeared from Bob’s life, when Eunice entered mine. Bob and I had booked Passage to return to the USA in a few weeks. His girlfriend Verta, who eventually became his wife, had already gone back home to Philadelphia.
So we headed for the Paris flea market, “le Marché aux Puces”, for the last time. Bob had a taste for Tubas. He collected them and French Horns too, as “Found Objects”. It’s not as though he knew how to play the tuba; he just liked the way they looked. At the flea market, that day, he found a great one, interestingly beaten up, and filthy dirty. We drove back to the Left Bank, with me riding on the back of the Vespa, as usual, hanging onto Bob with one hand, and the tuba with the other. We didn’t go to Rue Git le Coeur, but directly to La Douche Publique, where Bob intended to wash his tuba.
As we walked through the door together, the two Douche ladies gasped, and exclaimed, out loud, “C’EST LUI!” which means “IT’S HIM!” Someone in the back room came running out to see. Ah, my reputation had preceded me. I could sense, from the stunned expression on their faces that they were saying to themselves, “Oh, No! Not a Double Douche, again! And, this time, with a man ... and a tuba?” We quickly put their minds at ease, by asking for "Two Singles, Please." It did not escape my notice that they chose the numbers carefully, so that, even though, the place was nearly empty, the two of us would be as far apart as possible, not, side by side, in close proximity.
Could anything embarrassing take place? Of course! In the middle of the shower, Bob decided to play his tuba. It sounded like a dying whale, resounding, through the vast dank and dismal grayness of La Douche Public.
A few short weeks later, Bob and I together, aboard the Queen Mary, traveling, “en bateau”, because of all the stuff we found in France, were heading home again, where Verta waited for Bob on the dock, and Eunice, now my wife of 53 years, would follow me, a few months later.