I once had lunch with the late Malcolm McLaren. It was during his short-lived run for the London mayoralty and I confess I can remember none of the following: a) where we ate; b) what we ate; I’d like to be able to say that both these amnesias were because of the strange and unearthly fascination exerted on me by the discourse of this famed bowdleriser of the Situationist International’s détournement, but sad to relate I cannot recall; c) a single word that he said. This must’ve been in the early years of the last decade – at any rate, not that long ago. By contrast, I can recall, note-and-letter-perfect, “Buffalo Gals”, the proto-hiphop ditty McLaren released in 1982, including his serially offending yelps of “Two buffalo gals go around the outside/’Round the outside, ’round the outside …” Such is the queer pretzel-shaped path that time’s arrow describes.
Last week, undertaking a neo-situationist dérive across Paris with my colleague Joel Anderson, the buffalo gals came back to haunt me. We began in the northern banlieue of Épinay-sur-Seine, underneath the soaring concrete arches of the bridge that carries the A15 over this loop of the river. In front of us, on the claggy bank, was a Roma bidonville that would’ve gladdened the heart of any exploitative pop entrepreneur: tumbledown shacks, mounds of trash and actual half-naked brown babies playing in puddles of dirty water. We asked a hawk-nosed man wheeling a bike where his people were from, but he replied in perfect French that he didn’t speak French.
With the giant novelty cruet of the Eiffel Tower in the distance to guide us – our destination was hard by Les Invalides – we headed first west through Argenteuil, then south-east through Gennevilliers. Crossing the bridge into Clichy and smelling the distinctive pissflorescence of Paris proper, I raised the question of lunch with Joel and asked him to name his favoured French chain restaurant. He didn’t hesitate. “Definitely the Buffalo Grill,” he said. “I remember flying into Charles de Gaulle all the time and seeing its signature giant horns pronging up into the sky.”
A quick auxiliary brain search revealed that we were no more that a dosie-do away from a branch. After a morning wandering ’round the outside of Paris, lunch takes on a buffalo stance in the Place du Maréchal-Juin, so my partner and I hip-hopped there with out any more ado. There is, of course, a species of détournement involved in eating in a joint like this when almost any street in central Paris still boasts a family-run bistro offering a perfectly reasonable €15 or €20 prix-fixe menu. Sadly, there were no giant horns ’round the outside of this Buffalo Grill but there was a scarlet canopy with the enlarged head of Wild Bill Hickok (or possibly Buffalo Bill) picked out of it in white.
Once we were seated, Joel called my attention to the oxblood-coloured faux-leather wall coverings, framed pictures of old French cowboy comics and, lurking on a nearby ledge, a wooden bust of Wild Bill Hickok (or possibly Buffalo Bill), who appeared to be earwigging the conversation of some rather voluble Senegalese.
Unwilling to eat actual buffalo in the eponymous establishment (bison was on the menu but it would have been like choking down a slug on a lettuce leaf in the Slug and Lettuce), I opted instead for an inoffensive bit of grilled chicken and some frites. Joel had some salmon he claimed was perfectly tasty – my chicken was as tough as an insufficiently chewed moccasin, but still: what was I expecting? Along with a big bottle avec gaz the bill came to €29.60 (service compris), and we strode out into rue de Courcelles if not exactly replete, at any rate no longer famished.
Then the trouble began. A simple mental transposition was all that was required for grills to become girls, and girls to metamorphose into gals. On we tramped – turning into the Champs-Élysées and then the gourmandising Avenue Winston Churchill – but for me the gold-leafed magnificence of the Grand and Petit Palais were nought but a blur, and even the reappearance of the Seine failed to register. All I could think of – if you can call it cogitating – was: “Round-the-outside-’round-the-outside-’round-the-outside …” Over and over again, a demented, humped and woolly buffalo of an earworm that rampaged around my head. If I ever join Malcolm up in heaven, I’ll make sure I pay more attention to what he says over lunch. Of course, if we’re in the big fire there’ll be no chitchat as we get cosmically overcooked.