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[Readings]

An Honest Living

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From a series of columns published in January 1927 by the German tabloid B. Z. am Mittag, about his experiences as a paid nightclub dancer. The columns are included in Billy Wilder on Assignment, a collection of the filmmaker’s writing, which will be published in April by Princeton University Press.

1.

“This is our new dancer,” said Herr Isin.

The woman behind the desk fixes her gaze on me, sharp like a military doctor. Then she says, in a thick Czech accent: “Put down coat here.”

In the ballroom. Packed. Cigarette haze. Preened ladies from age twenty to fifty. Bald heads. Mothers with prepubescent daughters. Young men with garish neckties and brightly colored spats. Whole families. The jazz band on the upper level is slouching over their instruments and bobbing to the rhythm.

Herr Isin taps my shoulder. “You’re dancing with Table 91. Right over here.” Table 91. An older lady in a bottle-green dress, with a long neck and hair the color of egg yolks, and a little lady, whose reddish snub nose is trying too hard to look uppity.

I stand in front of them, sweat on my brow, helpless and wobbly. Then I mechanically thrust my torso forward, toward the one with the snub nose, purse my lips, and say very softly: “May I ask for this dance?”

She smiles at me with a sour look on her face, mulling it over.

The little one gets up, places her chubby arm around my shoulder. We dance. The blood is pounding against my temples, my legs seem to be paralyzed by a stroke. Everything blurs until someone kicks my shin and thus revives me. An endless dance. I’m gritting my teeth. I would love to leave my dance partner standing right here, get my coat from the cloakroom, and run away, far away, to those lacking pfennigs and beds—

But Herr Isin’s face is smiling, yellow and distant. I dance only with Table 91. The one with the long neck has asked for my name, letting me know that she plans to come often, now that I’m a dancer here.

2.

My day goes well. I sleep into the afternoon, until about three o’clock. Right after I was hired, I bought an alarm clock; it works flawlessly. My dressing routine now takes a good hour, and is so grotesquely complex that I am beginning to feel ashamed of myself in front of the landlady. A whole series of new acquisitions are now in the room, beautification implements and primping potions of the kind you would expect to find only on ladies’ vanity tables: perfume bottles, French soaps, complexion creams, white eau de cologne, violet eau de cologne, skin lotion in all colors, powder in all shades, lavender water, pomades, eyebrow brushes, fingernail polish, hair gel, this and that.

Four minutes shaving, four minutes hair styling, ten minutes getting my clothing ready, ten minutes necktie, eight minutes suit, five minutes final look in the mirror.

By quarter after four, I have to leave the house, because the people at the hotel are punctilious about punctuality. Four-thirty is the time I must make my appearance.

I basically already feel at home.

3.

I make my living honestly, honestly and with difficulty, because I dance honestly and conscientiously. No wishes, no desires, no thoughts, no opinions, no heart, no brain. All that matters here are my legs, which belong to this treadmill and on which they have to stomp, in rhythm, tirelessly, endlessly: one-two, one-two, one-two.

I dance with the young and old; with the very short and those who are two heads taller than me; with the pretty and the less attractive; with ladies who send the waiter to get me and savor the tango with their eyes closed in rapture; with wives; with fashion plates sporting black-rimmed monocles and with their escorts, themselves utterly unable to dance; with painfully inept out-of-towners who think an excursion to Berlin would be pointless without five-o’clock tea; with splendid women from abroad who divide their stay between hotel rooms and ballrooms; with ladies who are there every day and no one knows where they’re from or where they’re going; with a thousand kinds.

This is no easy way to earn your daily bread, nor is it the kind of work that sentimental, softhearted types can stomach. I did not earn badly this first week, but starting out is typically always difficult; let’s hope it goes on this way. I won’t go hungry.

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February 2021