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The Fall of France


Harry Buschman

For sentimental reasons I thought I would drive out to the old Anchorage Hotel today. It's a burned out shell now, disfiguring a strip of beach just east of the Hamptons. Winter storms and summer hurricanes have eroded the broad white beach that was once dotted with yellow umbrellas and bright red cabanas.

People with money spent their summers out there before the war. Overweight women and overworked husbands mingled with members of their own class. Lubricated in tanning oil, they sunned themselves on the hot summer sand  beside their private cabanas in the afternoon. At regular intervals they would signal for a drink by waving little red flags at the college student waiters on the terrace. The waiters would plod their way down to the beach front, take their orders and plod back again. They would give the order to the day shift bartender and carry them back down to the thirsty guests.

The spotless beach was raked each night and groomed constantly during the day by little white suited Gregario, who carried a burlap sack and a stick with a nail in the end of it. You could look in vain to find a discarded cigarette butt or a bottle cap. The beach was so clean that gulls ignored it; instead, they stood in wait by the dumpster at the rear of the kitchen. The beach was essentially a play pen, a sand box for the nouveau riche. Guests would not think of swimming in the surf or walking the wet velvet sand on the outgoing tide. Guests did not sit in the sand, they lounged in red and white striped beach chairs.

We hated beach duty in the afternoon. We had to wear white monkey jackets with pointed tails and black serge pants that trapped the heat of the sun. Before long we were drenched in sweat as we plodded through the soft burning sand with pitchers of Martinis, Manhattans and Bloody Marys. Afternoon duty was a penance for those of us who had screwed up serving dinner the evening before. If there wasn't enough of us, the roster would be filled by drawing a number from a hat. There were few tips during afternoon duty. The guests were in various stages of undress and had no access to their wallets or purses.

Almost everyone "Put it on the tab," which left us holding the bag.

Therefore, there was a real incentive to be on our toes for the evening meal. If we were successful, we had our afternoons to ourselves, and at a secluded area of the beach, far from the sight of the guests, the 'garcons' and the 'femmes de chambres' would spend a few hours together in the dunes. We would pair off and make out as best we could in the naked glare of the sun. The 'garcons' had to work fast for the cocktail hour commenced at four.

We were all college students working our way through vacation. The temptation of getting away from home with free board and meals was irresistible. For most of the boys it was the last summer of youthful abandon. The war had just begun, and though the sound of its muffled drums was an ocean away, the future was bleak. But we were too young, far too young to think of tragedy and far too buoyant to permit the gloomy faces of the paying guests to rain on our personal parade. I made great strides with Gladys who worked the third floor east and was usually through by noon. By four o'clock, (the cocktail hour) off in the quiet of the dunes, we would work ourselves into a frenzy.

At the stroke of four I had to be in the lounge, in a fresh uniform, polished patent leather shoes and hair slicked down with pomade. There, under the watchful eye of Al Dorfmann, (whom everyone called, "Monsieur Dorfmann") I would circulate with a tray of canapes. The guests, who had been drinking in the sun all afternoon were still in a catatonic state from exposure and alcohol.

Albert Dorfmann was the only man I ever met who wore a monocle. It was a  perfect prop for a Hollywood Nazi film villain and fitted him to a "T". It hung from a white silk ribbon to contrast with his midnight blue tuxedo jacket. He also wore a ginger colored military mustache that stood out arrogantly from his upper lip like the bristles on toilet scrub brush. We called him "The Monsieur" because all the guests did.

With authoritarian fervor, he used the Gallic term for everything on the menu. "Madame WILL enjoy the roulade." Or, "Monsieur MUST sample the macedoine." Or, "you WILL agree with me that Chef HAS outdone himself en brochette this evening." In the presence of the guests he would refer to the waiters and bus boys as "mon Petits," but back in the kitchen, he called us "assholes."

Like many Maitres-de, he spent much of his time walking backwards and pirouetting as he shepherded the guests from the lobby to their tables in the ornate dining room. His Dutchman's haircut, bristling mustache and arrogant blue eyes conflicted with his kowtowing and to make up for it he would be especially savage to everyone in the kitchen. Although the waiters called him "The Monsieur," the Chef, a sad eyed and silent Frenchman referred to him as "Der Fuhrer."

The Monsieur was a past master of the art of eating as he worked. Hardly a dish passed from the kitchen to the dining room without its choicest parts having been intercepted and sampled by him. His recommendations to the diners were based on his own preferences in cuisine. He was fond of truffles and endorsed them highly, by ten PM he would have put away nearly half of those that had been ordered. Through the years he had learned to eat without moving his jaw or cheeks, and he could keep up a running conversation with the guests while he ate much of the food they had paid for.

He used his own ample anatomy to describe to diners where the cuts of meat came from. He would lift his leg at Lady Lavaliere and with a deft slicing motion demonstrate where the lamb steak had originally resided, "Les Cuisse, Madame!" For breast of chicken he would raise an arm in a stiff salute and with the other, carve himself from armpit to waist. All of us looked forward to some future evening when Lady Lavaliere might ask him where her Rocky Mountain Oysters came from.

Mrs. Lavaliere's husband Jules and his family owned a distillery in Picardy. It was confiscated by Hitler very early in the war. He was devastated, and he spent his afternoons walking the beach wearing a wide brimmed straw hat like that of Claude Monet and shake his fist in the general direction of France. He would rarely come down for dinner at night and Lady Lavaliere would dine alone. Younger by far than her husband, she would cast carnal glances at the bus boys and waiters throughout the evening meal. By July she had singled out Angie Spinoza. In spite of Angie's torrid romance with Gina, (the chambermaid on the fourth floor west) he had enough in reserve to fulfill Lady Lavaliere's requirements. It was perfectly all right with The Monsieur, as long as they didn't go at it in the dining room.

These thoughts, long forgotten or swept into that dusty corner of an old man's mind wherein his youth lies hidden, came flooding back to me as I stood in the sand. The beach is now disreputable. Sea wrack has washed up nearly to the old parking lot. All signs of the building, except for its foundations, are gone. Yet somehow despite the cold emptiness of it, the music from the three piece combo that played on weekends came back to me.

"Red Sails in the Sunset."

"Stars Fell on Alabama."

How wonderful it was to be nineteen! There -- over there, was the dining room. Four enormous chandeliers with candle flame light bulbs -- and there -- over there, Mrs. Frankel and her husband Max would scan the menu each evening for something without pork, (or "porc" as The Monsieur would say). He would insert his monocle in his eye with deliberate care and bypass the shellfish with regret. He would then announce to the Frankel's that only fowl and hare were available that evening, knowing full well that both were served with truffles.

All gone. Every bit of it -- gone. Why am I here? One short summer -- a lifetime ago. 1940! Not yet half way through the twentieth century. So many of us were yet to die in the coming holocaust. Why is this place so special?

There's a chill in the air -- it is September after all. I think I'll go home.

I walk up to the curb which used to mark the edge of the old parking lot, I sit there and take off my shoes. The sand I shake from them is gray and cold now. It runs through my fingers, and looking closely I can see specks of charcoal -- all that's left of The Anchorage.

I know -- now I know why I'm here!

Dead sand. Sand that once was warm, white, and glittered in her hair like tiny diamonds as we made love by the sea on a summer afternoon.

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