I rushed up the long flight of stairs, exhilarated. I stopped to catch my breath, and I froze. From the inside, the familiar Parthenon dome of the Manhattan Federal Court took on a whole new meaning—the one it was actually designed for—pomp, respect, and authority. From this perspective, it went from imposing to actually scaring me. I walked on, through two gold-incrusted portals, ready to take the oath.
It was April 30, 1986. There were four hundred of us, four hundred souls from the four corners of our planet with very little in common except the burning desire to weave ourselves into The American Dream.
The judge entered. We stood in unison, hands over our hearts, and pledged-allegiance-to-the-flag of-the-United-States-of-America . . .
Six time zones away, thirty-three years earlier, in the town of Cholet (“The Handkerchief Capital of France”), my parents had unknowingly given birth to an American son. Looking back, however, the growing evidence was there all along:
EXHIBIT A. As soon as I could talk, I had a great interest in money. My curiosity on the subject was boundless. I would ask guests the sticker price of their cars or how much they made, as my parents watched, helpless and horrified.
EXHIBIT B. As soon as I could walk, I engaged total strangers in conversation, indiscriminately. My mother soon kept a weary eye on me, for everywhere we went, I made instant friends, sometimes with dire outcome. So not proper. So not French.
EXHIBIT C. By age twelve, I made a unilateral decision to boycott the formal tense of “vous” in favor of “tu.” Somehow, it was obvious to me that “vous” was an upper-class, oppressive, archaic tradition, and it was time to do away with it. Pop Quiz: Which word does not belong? Liberté, egalité, formalité.
EXHIBIT D. When I turned thirteen, I was ready for my first business venture, a Tupperware kind of scheme for a new detergent called “Swipe.” All I had to do was purchase two crates and then sell one bottle at a time to the mothers of my classmates. I was baffled by my mother’s reaction. Somehow, it never crossed my mind that, in a small French town, no solid bourgeois parents would let themselves suffer such public disgrace. After intense negotiations, I settled to make money with tutoring the sons of the local hairdresser and auto dealer. Still, a ground-breaking advance in our town.
I never failed to feel out of place. An odd, ugly duckling at best. At worst, the vulgar one whose loud quack got too much attention. That was until the summer of ’67, when I turned fourteen.
After a long turbo-prop flight on Icelandic Airways, the five Morellets (mother, father and three sons) landed at the fog-shrouded JFK to spend a week in New York. I expected a room in a Hilton, above a gleaming city that combined the Dallas of JFK’s assassination with Disney World. Instead we stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. The city was dirty, bums were everywhere, and you couldn’t see the top of the buildings in the khaki air. I was in shock, depressed and pissed, but I knew my America was somewhere out there.
Everything changed the minute I saw our shining white Cutlass Supreme rental, and we took off across the U.S.
As we hopped along from cheap motels (with swimming pools, yeah!) to greasy diners, something strange was happening in the family. The deeper we immersed ourselves in mid-America, the more the rest of my family felt uncomfortable and alienated. On the contrary, I was now the one feeling at ease, blossoming even. It didn’t matter if it was a truck stop in Alabama, a Holiday Inn off the exit ramp in Texas, or a cocktail party in Beverly Hills, I could easily strike up conversation with anyone, anywhere. And nobody gave me attitude. It was okay, I was okay. The duckling was turning into a swan. A tacky swan, but a swan, nonetheless.
We crossed the deserts, did the Grand Canyon, and finally hit California. What a dream, California! L.A. was just like in the movies, our Cutlass speeding down freeways, going from morning swim at the beach, lunch in Hollywood, watching Jimmy Hendrix rehearse at the Hollywood Bowl, dinner in Beverly Hills, and back to Venice for a late night party with our hippie friends. The Beach Boys were right! This land of surf and sun was full of opportunity!
We finished our journey up the coast in San Francisco. It was the zenith of the city’s Flower Power and its dawn as Free-Sex Mecca, bill-boarded by the topless and implant pioneer Carol Doda go-go-ing in a glass cage high above the Broadway strip. We went to the Fillmore and hung in Haight-Ashbury. If L.A. was Opportunity, San Francisco was Tolerance. It fulfilled—no, exceeded—my abstract vision of just what American freedom was supposed to be. As our jet took a sharp turn over the Golden Gate, toward home, I took one last look out my window and swore “One day I will live here and become American.”
Age fifteen brought another big step forward. When I came out to my parents, I was promised to be shipped out to more tolerant lands as soon as I finished high school. So, at 18, I left my little “Handkerchief Capital” to study in a real capital, London. But, even then, my heart was still further overseas. So, after enduring two years, I took a sabbatical and flew to Cincinnati, Ohio. From there I hitchhiked back to San Francisco and stumbled into the latest stage of the American Revolution: Sex and Drugs. To pay for these, though, meant having a real job. So it was there in 1973, that I started my restaurant career, cooking and waiting tables.
The next year I ended-up not back in London, but Paris. Not in school, but owning my first restaurant. An important stop along the way, it turned out.
I finally, definitely immigrated to New York in April of 1978. New York, because it is the real capital of America. New York, because it has the incredible blast of fresh air where people love to mix and match: artists with bankers, academics with hairdressers, waiters with curators. New York, because it is the city with the largest community of any ethnic group from any nation. Forty per cent of the population was born abroad. Just like me. And here people were open, nonjudgmental, and just as curious about me as I was about them.
I experienced the American Dream first-hand. My first job was bicycle messenger, which, to my surprise, became an engaging conversation piece. Just imagine the kind of look I would get saying that at a dinner party on the Riviera! A few months later, I became a waiter, again. In 1985, I opened my own restaurant in the meat packing district of the city. And the following year, I climbed those stairs to Federal Court and became an American citizen.
As the millennium approached, people called my restaurant “an institution.” They called me “The Mayor of the Meat Market.” Me, part of an American institution! Me, a “mayor” in America!