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Visit to a Buffet Flat

Buffet Flats, sometimes called Goodtime Flats, were small, privately owned unlicensed clubs where customers could engage in such mundane illegal pastimes as drinking and gambling—for starters. These fun flats also offered erotic shows that featured sex acts of every conceivable kind and were only too happy to accommodate customer participation—for a fee, of course.

Usually owned by women, these establishments were run with admirable efficiency, catering to the occasional thrill-seeker as well as to regular clients whose personal preferences they knew in detail. Often the hostess also served as a bank, a trusted person into whose hands a customer could safely entrust valuables and sizable amounts of cash. Withdrawals could be made at any time in the course of the evening or morning. This probably ties in to the fact that buffet flats were originally set up to cater to Pullman porters, men whose extensive travels, contacts with the white upper class, gentlemanly manners, and good income earned them considerable respect in black communities. Porters had layovers, and what better place to let it all hang out than a neighborhood buffet flat. These establishments had existed for years, but Prohibition gave loose living a boost and made the flats even more popular. In 1970, when I was doing research for my Bessie Smith biography, I learned that the Pullman Porters Club in St. Louis—a staid gathering place for retired elderly men with many stories to tell—once was a buffet flat.

One might describe the flats as earthlier versions of outwardly legitimate “high-class” night clubs, the kind that have tuxedoed maitre’ds discreetly set up sexual liaisons for “important” patrons.

Buffet flats were as much a part of black urban night life of the 1920s as chop suey joints continued to be around the clock into the Fifties, and they were almost as safe. With the right authorities on their payroll, the better flats could pretty much guarantee that any law enforcement men coming through the front door would be doing so as patrons. Police raids were uncommon, as were incidences of violence or theft.

Whenever Bessie Smith appeared at the Koppin Theater In Detroit, she paid a visit to a buffet flat owned by a friend of hers. This lady even sent one or two limousines to the stage door to pick up Bessie and her entourage of chorines, “girls who knew how to keep their mouths shut”.

From various descriptions I received when preparing my book, I pieced together a composite picture of what a typical buffet flat might have been like:

"Drinks in hand, an eclectic crowd of pleasure-seekers packed the house. While some leisurely ascended and descended the linoleum-covered steps, others lined the staircases that connected the three floors. The air was thick with smoke, giggles, and clashing perfumes; two pianists, on separate floors, pounded the ivory competitively, and oooh’s and ahh’s emanated from activity rooms on each floor. Puffed up by their furs, Bessie and her young ladies negotiate their way down one of the corridors, to a room reserved for coats. It was not a cloakroom in the ordinary sense, but rather a bedroom with fur and wool piled high. 'There were so many fur coats that it looked like a zoo,' recalled Ruby.

"As usual, Bessie more or less restricted her participation to voyeurism. She could ill afford to actively exhibit her prurient interest publicly lest word of it got back to Jack. It was bad enough that she was drinking and patronizing a buffet flat, neither of which activity would have come as a complete surprise to her husband. 'Jack knew she wasn’t being no angel,' observed Ruby, 'but Bessie was kinda careful—well, let’s say she would only go so far when strangers were around—but not always. Bessie was well known in that place'.

“Bessie took her favorite girls and, of course, me. We was all dressed up, she had five fur coats. Each one of us would wear one of the coats. It made us feel like we were very important and loaded. I would always wear the mink. The coat was so big on me, I could wrap it around me three times. I didn't care, I just liked to wear the mink. Bessie would have me carry the bad liquor and anything else we wanted to sneak around with, under the mink. By being so big, no one noticed. As usual, when we went into a joint with Bessie it would start jumping; she was like a magnet, she attracted everyone. She wore a white ermine coat and looked like a million bucks. One girl wore Bessie’s chinchilla coat, one had on her black seal. Her nephew’s wife had on her sable. Even the horse had a monkey on her back, what I mean by horse, was a girl named Eva, who reminded you of a horse when she danced—so we nicknamed her "horse". We looked very nice.”

Here is—preceded by another of her accounts—is Ruby's colorful recollection of one such visit to the Detroit flat: