|Painting and sketches: Papa Duke|
Monaco, Autumn 1988
There is zero pretension at Le Texan, on a Condamine backstreet in the earthy quarter of Monaco.
Stepping inside, you're greeted by the piquant aroma of ham hock stewing in a crock of beans, and this Tex-Mex saloon is immediately as comfortable as your favorite pair of blue jeans.
For a couple bucks you can linger over a bottle of Heineken, corn chips and salsa at the long Alamo Bar and watch the diverse cliques of Monaco mix it up:
Young international professionals here to transform the principality from an upper-crust retirement community into the financial center of Europe; the Monegasque establishment; royalty; the neighborhood eccentrics, spies and celebrities.
You seem them all.
Standing at the long Alamo Bar, I have a long, enjoyable chat with the actor James Coburn and tell him how, as a kid, I saw his movie, Our Man Flint, about 20 times, summer of '66, at Loews' theater on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills (part of their free summertime gift to local kids).
I watch an elegant madam hang her $20,000 mink coat on a hat-and-coat stand near the door and disappear to a table around the back.
And then, as a corpulent, fruity American expounds at length about the absence of crime in Monaco, the stand, laden with Italian furs and leathers, topples over and mugs him.
Behind my cowhide-covered barstool, an English couple, the owners of an interior design shop in Monte Carlo, engage in a loud, profane spat.
When these expat Brits over-indulge in tequila, the posh Oxbridge accent mysteriously disintegrates into a provincial, distinctly middle-class dialect, liberally sprinkled with fook yous, piss orfs and arsehole.
As they heap drunken abuse upon one another, Jaws strides in.
This is a large, bull-necked longshoreman type, the Brutus in Popeye cartoons, who everyone calls Jaws because his only teeth are sharp canines, used for gnawing at nachos.
Jaws sits at the bar and gulps pastis, a strong, cheap, aniseed-flavored liquor, and smacks his tongue against the roof of his mouth, sounding like a squirrel in heat.
He sometimes follows pretty waitresses into the communal washroom for an attempted grope, then washes his face and returns to his barstool, water dripping from his moist mug.
One night, Jaws brings in a nudie magazine and, sans reservation, plops himself down at a table near the door so that anyone coming or going can catch its bawdy cover full in the face.
"That dirty ol' Jaws," says Tony, scratching his head and making notes in the reservation book. "He's screwing' up mah floor plan again."
Everyone in the principality comes equipped with a story, and Tony's story is as good as any.
A man of color from North Carolina, Tony hasn't been "home" since 1964 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army and got deployed to Germany.
Set free after a two-year stint, he roamed Europe, savored its fruit, picked up three languages doing nightclub work in Germany, Holland, and France before settling in Rocquebrune, a stone's throw from Monaco.
He hasn't seen his mother or seven siblings in 25 years; won't ever see his daddy again, ten years gone.
Tony almost went back twice, once after a sister was murdered. ("It's a good thing," he tells me. "I would-a killed a man.")
Another time, bags packed, ticket in hand at the airport, Tony couldn't bring himself to board the plane. A little voice kept nagging him, You can't go home, Tony, you can't go home.
Now Tony works at Le Texan. And this is where he was always meant to be.
"Who's that funny guy you's with the other night?" Tony asks me.
"You mean Bob Beckman?"
"Who he? What's he do?"
"Hot-shot investment guru," I say. "Gives expensive advice. Especially expensive to those who follow it. Why do you ask?"
"He was in here last night acting peculiar. I just wondered who he is, that's all."
"Tony, this place if full of peculiar people. What did Beckman do?"
"Well, it was weird. One minute he's sittin' inside, next, he's out on the terrace, sittin' by hisself in the cold. Then he's in again, out again, all the time with a real strange look in his eye. And he did this till closing' time, about 1:30 in the mornin'."
"Beckman has an overblown ego," I explain. "And it got nailed a couple weeks ago when his wife, Penny, walked out on him. You know how it is, the bigger they are, the harder they fall."
Jaws has finished his nachos and begins to pace until he looms heavily over Miss Katie, growling, again, about a date.
Miss Katie is Le Texan.
A golden-haired, blue-eyed cactus flower garbed in beat-up denim and cowboy boots, Miss Katie runs the joint, and the quirky character cabaret, with a finesse unseen since Amanda Blake and her Long Branch Saloon graced our TV screens in Gunsmoke.
Next evening, Le Texan is buzzing with gossip about Bob Beckman's beloved Lamborghini, totaled early that morning when Penny, Beckman's newly-estranged wife, drove into brick wall.
Miraculously, Penny suffered only a broken thigh.
But Beckman lost his prized automobile and his pride when he rushed to her bedside, hopeful for reconciliation.
When Penny regained consciousness, she looked Beckman square in the face and said, "I think you're repulsive."
This episode is related to me at the Alamo Bar by a tall, slim, 60-ish balding American expat named John J. McMillard III.
When you ask McMillard what he does, he looks both ways, locks his eyeballs into yours, and whispers "Problem-solver."
It is, for him, an intense moment.
You pry a tad further, mostly out of amusement, and he turns quiet and secretive, murmuring something about the State Department a few years back.
"Oh, the foreign service?" you ask.
He nods quickly, looks right, left, into his glass of red wine, then back into your eyes.
"Security, Eastern Europe," he erupts in one quick burst.
Jaws and McMillard are both in love with Miss Katie, along with a dozen other Alamo Bar fixtures.
And charismatic Kate knows how to treat each one as if they were Marshal Matt Dillon.