THE MEAL TICKET
The beginning of a drunk, an orderly process,
was a very solemn undertaking for Maurice.
It required planning, determination, and sufficient cash for financing it. The initial phase of a binge--very critical--always made him nervous. He hated the prospect of an aborted binge, and just considering the possibility, put him in a bad mood. If the booze was safely stowed away, it was a new deck of cards, he looked for trouble, and knew precisely how to bring it about.
At this stage, when the rough stuff began, everybody was spoiling for a fight, something to give the inebriation a real flavor. The gang with him, as the intoxication gained momentum, flew with the wind, leaves at the mercy of the storm. As money and energy dwindled, a battered but happy group would end up at the Montmartre Cemetery at the top of the Hill. Then, one by one, almost reluctantly, they'd fall asleep around a small fire, their snores loud in the dark silence. Maurice, and his drinking friend, Amodeo Modigliani, also an artist, sometimes ended up at the cemetery, still figures stretched out incongruously, among the others. The two of them were ingenious at causing trouble, they knew all the tricks, and they could turn a peaceful cafe scene into a nightmare.
Modigliani valued this skill, using it as a means of creating a great brawl, a grand finale, the beautiful crowning glory of a night of debauchery out on the hill. Ordinary patrons, looking for a peaceful evening at their favorite cafe, never knew what happened to them: suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, it was turmoil,; bottles, chairs, tables, flew indiscriminately around ; knuckles tightly clenched, or fists holding whatever was at hand, were actively seeking targets, and bodies, as the melee took its toll, covered the floor. Combatants weren't at all bothered by the prone figures, which were stepped upon or kicked when they interfered with the progress of the battle. There were no victors or vanquished in these senseless encounters; no one knew what was going on. It had gotten out of hand; the only real loser, the one who owned the battlefield, was the cafe proprietor, who was left with broken windows, complete disarray, his stock stolen or shattered, and possibly, as I had heard, in several cases, with very serious injuries to either him or his family. The late arrival of the police, clubs raised above their heads ready to strike, capes flying in back of them, and their free hand holding their kepis in place, were a welcome sight to the fighters, who by this time, were looking for a way out. Arrests in these situations were relatively rare for the simple reason of it being very difficult to point out the culprits, and, even if this was possible, when you consider how often this went on every night across the Montmartre, there simply wasn't enough jail space to accomodate the sort of mass jailing this would necessitate.
If they were lucky, Maurice and Modigliani, would get safely out of the door, bottles of wine they had pilfered under their arms, ready to start all over again at some other place. Modigliani, I believe, was far more effective in precipitating a brawl than Maurice, although I do not want to imply that Maurice couldn't get the job done, too. The Italian was a genius at finding differences with patrons in a bistro. Most of his ploys were pointless and inappropriate, to say the least. The incredible thing about it was that Modigliani backed all of the phony business with his fists as though he was defending his homeland from an invader. When he had supercharged a scenario, Modigliani would assault his assumed enemy like a maniac, usually followed by Maurice, who, fired up by the the excitement and drink, hurled himself into the fray, arms flailing in all directions, like a windmill in a hurricane.
The cafe owners who suffered damage as well as adverse publicity from these altercations, took a decidely hostile view of the two intigators, reaching a point, finally, where strict instructions were given bartenders, waiters, and other help, to exclude Maurice and Modigliani on sight: no exceptions allowed. But there were many cafes on the hill, on corners and in between; making it easy for the two boozers to find new places where they could put on their act without interference. The circuitous itinerary they followed, was hardly interrupted at all, going full blast, unimpeded, measured only by their thirst and the, durability they brought to each binge.
Marie Vizier, at the Cafe Belle Gabrielle, never suffered the damage Maurice and Modigliani inflicted on many of her competitors. For one thing, she wouldn't stand for violence; she made this clear to the both of them many times, and she had a secret agreement with cops on the beat outside on the Rue Leval, to come to her aid at a moment's notice. In this way, it worked out better for her, enabling Vizier to anticipate a riot before it occured, or avoiding extreme situations which could be dangerous to everyone concerned. Another thing that tended to cool off the the violent troublemakers like Maurice and Modigliani, and the rest of the bummers, was her readiness to file charges against anyone who acted outside the law. Several legal battles where she had sued for damages had been decided in her favor, a fact which gained her the respect of her colleagues in the cafe business, and, additionally, notified those who were out for trouble that the Cafe Belle Gabrielle was off limits for that sort of thing. I'm not so sure of this holding back Maurice and Modigliani because it was well known that they were not intimidated by the law. In their case, I believe it was a genuine liking for her as a person which turned them into docile patrons just like everybody else. Vizier, along with the no-nonsense side of her character, had admirable human qualities, a real warmth, an empathy, especially, on account of their drinking problems. Also, and this was a plus for characters like Maurice and Modigliani, she didn't hold grudges; allowing a penitent drunk back if they promised to behave themselves, and pay their bills. I knew that Maurice had special feelings about Vizier, about the Cafe Belle Gabrielle, which set the place apart, making it more of a refuge where he could get sympathy, and a drink if he was in desperate need for one. Most of the cafes, in his head, were merely spots on his drinking itinerary, some dangerous, some willing to tolerate him if he behaved, some that threw him out on sight. The fabric of a binge was built on this; its success was measured by it; making the intoxication process a gambling proposition.
Sergeant Gay still hung around the Cafe Belle Gabrielle, even if he didn't run the business. For Vizier, the former owner of the cafe was just like any other customer, another patron seated at a table. Even though he was still the landlord, he wisely retained a low-key attitude, never said a word about the changes taking place, and tended to his small market in the annex which was still functioning briskly, selling a variety of commodities, including Utrillo paintings. The Utrillos remained his big item; they moved