*“Do you wanna make some money?”
I’ve learned that when the answer is obvious–who doesn’t want to make money?–the question, for a variety of reasons, can be suspect. ‘Do you wanna make some money’ is the king of suspect questions.
But when Eddie asked the question one morning in the late ‘70s, like any struggling creative type, I was all ears. I’d met the 30-something house painter-slash-songwriter (the slash leaning more toward the painting) one evening in the bar at Café Figaro in West Hollywood, our glue being a spirited conversation about jazz/rock and funk bands.
Slight and tall with a gigantic ‘fro worn parted down the middle, hippie-esque Eddie was the first Brother I’d met who spoke another language. Growing up in a military family stationed in Europe, he was fluent in French and Italian.
Ever the enterprising soul, Eddie said he knew a man acquainted with a woman from France looking to expedite her legal status by marrying an American citizen. He was calling to ask if I wanted to be that citizen.
A product of parents who divorced, I explained that I wanted my own foray into the institution to be honorable. “Marriage is sacred,” I chastised. Settling down wasn’t something I was planning on doing soon, but when I did, it wouldn’t be like this.
“Well, the chick is willing to pay $3,500.”
Two nights later, on a muggy Friday evening, Eddie and I were in his big, black beloved ’69 Pontiac Bonneville convertible on our way downtown to meet my fiancée.
“What does she look like?”
“Hey, don’t go gettin’ into all that,” Eddie snapped, looking to nip in the bud any interest beyond cash. “It’s not a ‘love thang.’ This is business.”
According to Eddie, it would be simple: marry, go our separate ways and when united long enough for her to be declared legal, dissolve the marriage.
He said immigration officials made unannounced visits to the homes of U.S. citizens marrying foreigners, aiming to bust scammers.
For that reason, Eddie said I’d keep at my tiny studio apartment some of the woman’s personal items—-underwear, dresses, make-up, toiletries.
That part—having a stranger’s stuff in my place—gave me the heebie jeebies. Marrying someone I didn’t know for cash? No problem.
We pulled into the parking lot of an Italian restaurant in Chinatown, where a well-dressed dinner crowd was just arriving. The dim lighting, white table cloths and twinkling candle centerpieces made this the perfect place for a first date.
Inside, Eddie annoyed the maitre’d by looking past him and in the distance spotting at a table a chubby, late 30-something blond man in a pink polo shirt and jeans, sitting with a woman.
“Which one of you is my husband?” she joked in her French accent, rising from her chair.
“Alice” was 32–an “older” woman to my late 20s–petite with penetrating blue eyes as big as the white polka-dots on her black smock. Her straight, shoulder-length dark hair was bluntly cut into a bob just above her shoulders. The kind of girl who wore a ring on her thumb. Despite her joviality, her smile reflected anxiousness.
Over chicken, pasta, steak and red wine, Alice explained that five years earlier she and her boyfriend had come to Los Angeles from Paris on vacation and loved the city so much that they stayed.
They broke up. While he returned to France, she stayed in the U.S. and found work, ultimately rising to manager at a major restaurant in Beverly Hills. It was Jonathan, the mild-mannered man here, who suggested she bypass the bureaucracy and become legal by marrying a U.S. citizen. “I must do this,” she stressed, “or I will lose my work and be deported.”
I liked Alice. She smiled more than she spoke but I found her French accent exotic. She was “together”, as the saying went back then—-cool. There were certainly worse women to marry on a whim for profit.
During the table’s casual conversation about music, politics and food, Jonathan tactfully reiterated, no doubt for the comfort of my instant wife, what Ed had told me on the way down here: this was business and nothing else.
I suspect he misinterpreted my gaze. Like those classic cartoons where the wolf looks upon his prey and imagines them boiling in a huge black cast-iron pot with carrots and potatoes, when I looked at Alice, I saw more than a couple months rent and groceries.
Out in the parking lot, Alice kissed me goodbye on both cheeks the way the French do. “This could be fun, no?” she playfully quipped with a wink. She smelled good. Maybe I could do this.
Monday morning I put on my best white button down long sleeve shirt and black slacks and drove my faded dark blue and white ‘57 Buick Century to the County Clerk’s office downtown. There, Alice would pay for the marriage license. The four of us would then make our way to somebody Eddie found to officiate the marriage.
Over the weekend I learned that Eddie and Jonathan weren’t in this strictly for goodwill. Alice was actually paying $4,100 for her hubby package, $600 of which our pimps, Ed and Jon, would split for connecting us. Feeling a little nervous and a lot like a discount whore, I decided I wouldn’t tell anyone about this.
Not that my friends weren’t familiar. It wasn’t an epidemic, but it wasn’t unusual, either. The young people I knew, struggling musicians, actors, dancers and fine artists, made money doing odd jobs like phone solicitation, being a waiter or bartender, selling herb and…marrying for a fee.
I attended Los Angeles City College with a guy who supposedly married so many people for dough that Immigration told him if he married again, fuck the foreign bride, they were deporting HIM.
Back then, those looking to stay in the country by any means necessary were from the same places they’re from today: the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands; places like that. Africa. South America.
I’ve never understood today’s notion that “immigrant” automatically means Hispanic or Muslim. Immigrant is anyone coming here from another country to live. There are plenty white European immigrants here illegally who fear that they, too, will be kicked out of the country pending Trump’s new immigration laws. Quietly, they wait to see what doors will be opened by Hispanics and others.
In the lobby of the Clerk’s office, Eddie and Jonathan were talking excitedly to one another in French. They didn’t shout but passersby noticed the intensity.
“Where’s my bribe, I mean, bride,” I said, attempting levity.
“She’s sitting in her car,” Eddie said, turning back to Jonathan to speak more French.
“She’s having second thoughts,” said Jon.
Eddie: “Second thoughts my ass. Tell him what you told me—”
Jon: “She just said she’s not sure this is the right way to go about getting legal….”
“Tell the truth! She said she couldn’t see marrying a Black man,” Eddie blurted.
“But we’re not getting married,” I said. “I mean, not really….”
Eddie went off on Jonathan in French again. I stood just away, mute.
Wow wee. Okay.
What’s a hoe to do when they can’t GIVE away the pussy?
I have no business down here in the first place, I thought. Throughout this scheme I was thinking I’d be relieved if this chick pulled out. Yet, when she did…well, rejection always feels like rejection. It hurt to have my hue attached to her decision. I wasn’t wasn’t worthy of a sham marriage.
Jonathan, not wanting to hear any more of whatever Eddie was saying that I couldn’t understand, turned to walk out the building, with Eddie behind him spewing French and me bringing up the rear.
We got outside just in time to see Alice speeding off in her little beige Datsun, leaving three low budget hustlers gaping from the sidewalk.
“I know Alice,” said Jonathan, watching her go. “She didn’t mean it like that.”
“Well, shit, we ALL know Alice now, don’t we Steve….”
I couldn’t answer, astonished that my rent and groceries, in full flee toward the freeway on-ramp, could actually drive a car.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]