First Person

Elsewhere On-Screen

Elsewhere On-Screen

In 1960 The Apartment was playing at Cinema Rialto and was advertised with a loud red poster. I was too young to see it at the time, but I do recall overhearing my parents describing it to their friends as an unusually bold film. What was shocking about the film was its subject. A young, rather hapless, timid junior executive named C. C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon) has been lending the key to his apartment to a number of married senior executives who need a place to spend a few leisurely evening hours with their mistresses. The key does the rounds of the office building, earns the young executive the goodwill of senior members, and eventually gets him promoted. In 1960 the subject was decidedly risqué. But something about the reaction of my parents intrigued me. They enjoyed talking about the film with their friends, about the acting, about the story itself, about this place called New York, which neither they nor their friends had ever seen before and which hovered in the distance like one of those places none of them was ever likely to set foot in. I never forgot my parents’ fascination with the kind of New York the film evoked, but since the film was not available on video or on late-night TV programs until the mid- to late seventies, I never gave it another thought. Yet when I finally did see it, where I saw it and who I myself was that evening left an indelible mark.

The year was 1984—late fall of 1984. I was single at the time, living on New York’s Upper West Side, and was dropped by my girlfriend a couple of months earlier. I had no money, not much of a job, and as for career prospects, these were decidedly grim. So that Saturday, with nothing to do, no friends, nothing planned, and no desire to stay home, I went out for a walk down Broadway just to experience a Saturday evening lost in the crowd.

At Eighty-First Street, I stepped into what was then the only Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Manhattan and was idly leafing through various books, envying couples who, like me, had also wandered into the store. Then I saw Maggie. I knew Maggie from a café where the two of us used to hang out almost every evening; neither of us was attached at the time, and neither liked being homebound on a weekend by ourselves. She was single and, like me, held a job that hardly paid anything. We were not attracted to each other, though something like a muted friendship had blossomed between us in our lonely-hearts café. That evening we couldn’t have been more pleased to run into someone we knew. We spoke, as usual made fun of our lives, and, because we were both smokers, couldn’t wait to leave the bookstore to light up. We walked down Broadway on the Upper West Side with lit cigarettes, not knowing what to do, neither eager to spend money at a bar.

“Without knowing it, I was headed on an improvised pilgrimage, the sort that many people take when they travel to the site of a film or of a novel they’ve loved and whose resonance continues to hover over their lives.”

When we reached the Regency Theater on Broadway and Sixty-Eighth Street, I saw that The Apartment was playing. My decision was instantaneous. As for hers, who knows why she consented—because I coaxed her into joining me, or because she had nothing better to do that night. I’ll never know, nor did I ask. I loved the Regency, where old double features were still being played, frequently to a full house, and I loved the shape of the theater itself, which wasn’t rectangular but circular. There was a sense of intimate coziness inside, in good part because one felt in the company of people who shared a love for vintage films, which is perhaps nothing more than a love for things that endure despite their age. Later that night, I walked Maggie home and we said goodbye in her lobby.

But what stayed with me ever since that evening was the echo, the reflux and hazy after-presence of the film. It lingered all night and into the following week.

After leaving Maggie, I did not want to go back home and, even past midnight, continued to wander around the Upper West Side in the mid-Seventies and high Sixties, perhaps looking for the apartment and trying to see if the world inhabited by its characters continued to exist more than two and a half decades later. Without knowing it, I was headed on an improvised pilgrimage, the sort that many people take when they travel to the site of a film or of a novel they’ve loved and whose resonance continues to hover over their lives, almost beckoning them to slip into a world that suddenly feels more real and far more compelling than their own. It’s not just that they want the movie to stay with them indefinitely, they want to borrow the lives of its characters—because they want the story to happen to them, or better yet, the film feels as though it has already happened to them and what they’re asking the site to do for them is to help them relive what they’ve just lived through on-screen.

So here I was walking on the Upper West Side at night feeling not too different from C. C. Baxter on evenings when someone is using his apartment and he is forced to linger out in the cold. All I could find, though, was not the old Upper West Side of 1960, which I was hoping to drift into somehow, but one that was systematically being revamped and modernized. So many small, insignificant landmarks had already vanished or had their impending disappearance written all over their storefronts—groceries, bakeries, butchers, cobblers, fruit and vegetable vendors, drugstores large and small, delicatessens, and hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop stores—to say nothing of the disappearance of so many neighborhood movie theaters. Now, more than thirty years after I took that walk past midnight, I want to list all these vanished theaters because I don’t want them forgotten: the Paramount, Cinema Studios, the Embassy, the Beacon, the New Yorker, the Riviera and the Riverside, the Midtown, the Edison, the Olympia, and of course the Regency. The Thalia and the Symphony still exist today, but gone are the days of continuous film runs. And as for the Midtown, renamed Metro, it was gutted a number of years ago and remains an empty shell still.

That night, as I walked around on Columbus Avenue, which was being heavily gentrified and had once been quite a dicey area, I kept passing boutique stores that hadn’t been there a few weeks before but whose earlier incarnation I no longer could even recall and felt guilty for not remembering. Maybe I’d been noticing changes in the neighborhood for longer than I knew, but only after seeing the film and the way it seemed to coddle its own tranquil, mildly shabby image of an Upper West Side that no longer existed was I made aware of how pervasive and irreversible these changes were.

A new Manhattan was creeping into existence. The very store where I’d bought my first pair of American sneakers had disappeared. Gone as well were the Syrian bodega where cigarettes were cheaper than anywhere else in the city, and the numberless incense Botanica stores on Amsterdam Avenue—vanished, each one.

“How could I belong here when I couldn’t find a personal landmark anywhere except on the silver screen of a theater that itself would never even achieve landmark status?”

At the start of the film, Jack Lemmon’s voice said that he lived at 51 West Sixty-Seventh Street, and as I was approaching its location, I felt that I was actually about to enter a spellbound portal through time, until I saw something I’d never considered before: many of the brownstones between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West had had their stoops removed to allow for more renters. Worse yet, the brownstone on Sixty-Seventh Street was no longer even there. As I later found out online a year ago, it had been demolished in 1983 to allow a large apartment complex to be built on its site. I had missed the building where The Apartment was filmed by one year. It would be just like me to come looking for a building that didn’t exist any longer. Or, as I would also discover online, I was in search of a brownstone that wasn’t even real. The real brownstone that inspired the producers to rebuild a look-alike in Hollywood was not the brownstone on Sixty-Seventh Street but another at 55 West Sixty-Ninth Street. It’s just that the Hollywood replica, as happens so often in art, was ultimately more persuasive than the brownstone allegedly located on Sixty-Seventh Street.

I was living in a city that held no loyalty to its past and was so hastily slipping into the future that it made me feel behind the times, and, like a debtor who can’t manage his loan payments, I was perpetually in arrears. New York was disappearing before my eyes. In the film, Mrs. Lieberman, C. C. Baxter’s landlady, speaks with a thick Brooklyn accent; Dr. Dreyfuss, who lives next door, speaks English with an audible Yiddish inflection; Karl Matuschka, the cabbie and Fran Kubelik’s outraged brother-in-law who punches C. C. Baxter on the jaw, thinking that Baxter had taken advantage of her, speaks with a typical outer-borough accent—all these ways of speaking sounded already dated in 1984 and have almost disappeared today. The Apartment was offering a rearview portrait of Lost New York and allowing us to think that a part of us, however small, still belonged, still missed living there.

Once I reached Central Park West I entered the park and there discovered the long row of benches exactly as it was captured in the film, where a fluish and irritated C. C. Baxter sat tugging his raincoat while one of his company’s senior execs was busy entertaining a mistress in his apartment. Here he sat, shivering, feeling lost, unloved, and ever so solitary. I too decided to sit on one of those benches in that deserted spot in the park, trying to take stock of my life, which wasn’t going well, for I too felt abandoned, alone, and unmoored in a world where neither the present nor the future held any promise for me—there was only the past, and now that I think of the night when I scoured the streets looking for an Upper West Side that might have felt more congenial, I realize that like the Regency itself, like the Rialto of my childhood, that old welcoming area of the city with its strange accents, old shops, and dingy bars has completely been expunged. The Regency was gone in 1987, and the Rialto was brutally demolished in 2013. How could I belong here when I couldn’t find a personal landmark anywhere except on the silver screen of a theater that itself would never even achieve landmark status? Sometimes even the past, real or imagined, can be taken from us and all we’re left holding on a cold night in late fall is our raincoat.

And it hit me then that one of the reasons why some people cling to what has vintage status is not because they like things old or marginally dated, which allows them to feel that their personal time and vintage time are magically in sync; rather it’s because the word vintage is just a figure of speech, a metaphor for saying that so many of us don’t really belong here, not in the present, or the past, or the future, but that all of us seek a life that exists simply elsewhere in time, or elsewhere on-screen, and that, not being able to find it, we have all learned to make do with what life throws our way. In C. C. Baxter’s case this happened on New Year’s Eve, when Fran Kubelik, his love interest played by Shirley MacLaine, knocks at his door, sits on his sofa, and watching him shuffle the cards says, “Shut up and deal.” In my case, what life had to offer was far simpler: late that Sunday evening I went to see The Apartment again. The film was about me. All great art invariably lets us say the same thing: This was really about me. And this, in most cases, is not only a consolation, it’s an uplifting revelation that reminds us that we are not alone, that others are like us too. I couldn’t have asked for more. Then I went on the same pilgrimage as the night before. Maybe this time I would discover something I’d missed the night before.

Copyright © 2020 by André Aciman. Illustration by Xia Gordon.

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