Nobody Steps On a Church in My Town: Living With an Addiction to New York and Film by Gabriel Ricard

Time to kill in New York is a dangerous thing.

That’s true of any city I’ve been to. San Francisco, Chicago, Memphis, Atlanta, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Denver, Richmond, Victoria, Savannah, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Dallas, Santa Fe and others have all held some kind of appeal for me. People always tell me that it’s easy to love a city when you don’t live there. I’ve lived in a couple of those cities, and I never grew particularly tired of it, so I think it just depends on the person.

Or money.

I never have a lot of that, money, but I’ve been lucky enough to see some pretty big chunks of America and Canada. Don’t think I’m not aware of the fantastic karma that has to go into something like that. Karma I’m not even sure I deserve. One of my great dreams is to bounce around the world for the rest of my life. I have no idea if that’s ever going to happen, but it’s pretty close to the top of the bucket list. It’s definitely in the top-three.

If I was rich? If I could spend the vast majority of my life living out amongst the world, but could also have one place to call home?

It would be New York.

It’s always been New York.

It’s been New York since I was about three years old.

My memories going that far back are a little a little fuzzy at this point. It’s mostly images that feel like photographs that were created from several other photographs. Some of them are a little clearer than that. Those are my favorites. My memory is a schizophrenic thing. It almost feels at times as though I have absolutely no control over what goes into the archives. That isn’t a big deal, but it can make me protective of what I do hold on to. It also makes me wish I could pinpoint the exact moment when something important to me first took root.

I wish I could remember when I fell in love with New York.

I do know exactly what it was that made me fall in love with New York. The particulars are likely to never come to me, but I can remember wanting to see the city where Ghostbusters took place. That was collateral damage from finding something to obsess over, while I was getting kicked out of preschool (the movie taught me how to swear). My love of movies carries with it a list of favorites, titles, actors, actresses, directors, set designers, composers and more, that wouldn’t have any trouble circling the globe a few times. The point is that it’s a long list. Memorizing all this stuff is not something I’ve ever set out to do. I don’t push myself to keep these things in my head. I love film, and I still kid myself into thinking I can study it on a serious level. Go from that, to see some of the scripts I’ve written actually exist outside the confines of their pages.

Image © Sony Pictures

Image © Sony Pictures

That would be nice. Old dreams die hard, I’ve found.

Remembering all these movies I love? Remembering the names and faces, the writers and filmmakers, the history and the trivia? It just hangs around. I watch movies, read books and articles about movies, and I’m even the kind of nerd who can survive a slow evening by listening to audio commentaries. This is all at once an interest, a passion, an education, a wonderful waste of time and sometimes a sanctuary.

Remembering as much as I do has become as natural as remembering my own name. It’s never been on purpose, and it never will be.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Ghostbusters. I faintly remember when we bought it on VHS (one of the first video cassettes we ever owned), but I can’t for the life of me pinpoint that first viewing. I guess it doesn’t matter, really. I recall the important part. I know that Ghostbusters was where the whole movie geek thing started for me.

To know for sure I’d have to ask my mom when I had the dialog for both movies (I was a pretty big fan of Ghostbusters II as well) down from start to finish. My guess would probably put it at four or five years old. Having the dialog committed came in handy. Too many Saturday mornings were spent re-enacting either movie (or both) in the backyard with the proton pack, the trap and even an armband. It wasn’t easy playing every part, but I did it. Sometimes I went easy on myself and staged elaborate re-imaginings of the movies with the action figures.

Image © Sony Pictures

Image © Sony Pictures

I was a weird kid. That hasn’t changed much, and that’s sadly probably not even the strangest thing I did as a child (or adult) anyway.

I knew everything there was to know about Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II. They were the first movies to stay in my head. I knew the lines, every scene, the music. I started recognizing the actors in other movies (this is why I’m still a fan of guys like Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd and Sigourney Weaver to this day), and I wanted to see them in as much as I could. That inevitably led to watching more movies. By the first grade the catalog was already considerable. I found things on my own, on TV or at the video store. I became a horror movie junkie, but favorites could come from any genre, any decade. I owe at least a few of what I would define as classics to my mom. The same way she encouraged my reading, she also supported my movie habit. We had two video stores in Lake Cowichan, British Columbia. One of them was called McQuinn’s, and I unfortunately forget the name of the other one (I think it was called Mike’s). My parents rented movies pretty regularly, and because of that I was able to see movies most kids my age didn’t bother with.

No, it sadly wasn’t porn, but I did get to see stuff like Annie HallMonty Python and the Meaning of Life,To Kill a Mocking BirdThe Godfather I and IIDog Day AfternoonPsychoSome like It Hot and countless others by the time I was firmly entrenched in elementary school. I wouldn’t call myself cultured, but what little culture I do have, what open-mindedness with the arts I do posses, I owe to my mom.

I can’t remember the first time I saw Ghostbusters, but I can remember what started this whole business of paying attention to movies. And that attention to them has held up pretty well up to this point. It’s influenced my writing and acting, introduced me to characters and ideas of great creative value to me and shown me places fictional and actual that keeps my enthusiasm for travel in a state of constant, flawless movement.

Image © Sony Pictures

Image © Sony Pictures

Ghostbusters may not be the most prestigious film of all time, but it got the ball rolling for me. I haven’t looked back, and I’m glad I haven’t. Anyone who has ever had to listen to me prattle on about movies for hours on end can point to Ghostbusters as the reason for all of that.

They can also point to it as the moment when I saw New York City for the first time.

New York is another topic I talk about a bit too much. I can’t help it. Loving the city goes back as far as loving films does. It all goes back to the same ridiculous, fantastic movie. Being a fan ofGhostbusters wasn’t just limited to the actors, special effects, story and humor. New York as depicted in the film was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It made Lake Cowichan look like a handful of shacks along a street with thousands of miles of absolutely nothing in every possible direction. It was practically on the other side of the continent, so that made it seem even more foreign, impossible and extraordinary to me. Canada had its own cities, and I still remember the first time I visited Vancouver, but it wasn’t the same. I wanted to see the city of my favorite movie. I especially wanted to visit some of its specific locations. Like the main branch of the New York Public Library (I was already practically living in libraries by the time I was five, so that just made sense) or the grounds of Columbia University.

Most of all I wanted to see the firehouse. I learned early on that it wasn’t just a movie set. It was a real place, and it looked exactly as it did in the movie. It was still used as an actual firehouse by the FDNY. Unlike the Batcave or the original starship Enterprise it wasn’t a complete pipedream to imagine visiting it someday.

But I knew how far I lived from New York. Enough of a distance that to a little kid it may as well have been the Batcave or the Enterprise. I didn’t see that ever changing, so I just kept it on the shelf as something I could maybe do when I got older.

Movies didn’t help waiting for the opportunity though. As I got older I continued to build on that obsession with film. I watched more and absorbed more, and along the way I learned more about the city, encountered different filmmaker’s visions of it, watched the history of its streets quietly or not-so-quietly visualized over the decades. The evolution of film fascinates me as much as any other part of it. In the years since Ghostbusters opened the doors to a self-made education about the medium, I have loved to watch that evolution in very specific terms. The history of New York is an astonishing one (if you’re at all interested there’s an amazing, albeit very long, PBS documentary about this). You can pick up on that history in any number of ways. My favorite is through film.  Watching the subtle and very obvious history of our cities, countries and cultures is just part of the history of film. It gets even more complex when you throw in the visions of the storytellers themselves. Taken as a whole it can show you things that straightforward, pure non-fiction can’t. Different movies have used it to express different things that run from ordinary to fantastic and everything between those. I can just enjoy a movie as pure entertainment, but I like having the option to go further than that in front of me. History in general is another addiction, and I’ll feed that in any way that I can.

From movies I’ve gathered so much on the history of New York. Over the years I expanded on what I knew about the city and built on my desire to see it for myself. Ghostbusters was still the genesis, I never lost sight of that, but it was a very, very rough beginning. In spite of all the definition to that rough beginning that I’ve added, I’m still gathering that history. I don’t even know how many movies in the history of the medium have been filmed in or depicted New York. All I’m certain of is that I haven’t seen them all. That’s the way it goes with movies in general. You’ll never live long enough to see absolutely everything.

Unless you’re Martin Scorsese or Roger Ebert.

It doesn’t bother me. All it means is that I can keep myself busy for as long as I’m compelled to. Not even realizing the dream of finally seeing New York has changed that for me.

I’ve been there a few times now. It’s easy to tell the memories of each visit apart, and I’ve been lucky that all of my memories in that city have been wonderful so far. There’s the first time I went. The fact that it was one of the only times in my life when Greyhound was running on time gave me a chance to finally see the skyline of Manhattan for myself. It was very clearly the same skyline I had seen in hundreds of films. It goes without saying though, that it’s a whole other rush of seeing it in person. Compared to the real thing shots of that skyline are just a moving painting. I’m pretty good at not gawking when I visit a place for the first time, but in the case of my first visit to New York, it was a waste of time to even try.

Somehow I managed to walk the streets, and stare up at the buildings or right at them, without getting mugged or run over.

What I expected from New York was more than just buildings and crowded sidewalks (people-watching is yet another pastime of mine) of frantic, constant activity. Some of my favorite New York films require a stage large enough to populate a planet. Others deal in the kind of small details and individuals that pass me by every time I go out. I love both in the things I watch, read and listen to, and I love both in my day-to-day life. Drinking with friends in a Queens bar on Halloween night is just as significant a memory to me as my introduction to the skyline. Same goes for seeing the Evil Dead musical with friends, while covering Chiller Theater for a horror movie site.

Times Square for the first time was unadulterated sensory overload. It always will be.

Do you get a sense I could probably go on with recollections for a few dozen pages? I won’t, but I could. I have to keep in mind that just because I can go on about something forever, doesn’t mean I should.

People are a saint to put up with. My girlfriend in particular had to listen to a bunch of these stories when we went to New York this past June. She seems to put up with it, and she seems to love movies the same way I do, so there’s that.

Since moving to Virginia in 1998 I’ve been to New York a total of four times. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve packed into those trips. It’s still giving me images, sounds and people I’ve tried to recreate through writing. Every trip has been different from the other.

Every visit has reminded me of the same thing I know about movies: I will never live long enough to exhaust the possibilities. Doesn’t mean I won’t try though.

Knowing this is a mix of tangible and intangible. There are still places I want to visit that can be anything from touristy as hell (I’d still like the Statue of Liberty) to the ancient apartment of a good friend (I love those buildings with the old fire escapes along the side that look like rusted, steel spider webs). The list of places I know I want to go is, as of this writing, probably the easiest thing to tackle. There’s the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the museums, FAO Schwartz (thanks, Big). There’s still the main branch of the New York Public Library. A friend of mine went there not too long ago, and I asked them if it looked the same as it had in Ghostbusters. They told me it was. That’s oddly comforting, and I feel nothing but remorse for the poor son-of-a-bitch who has to drag me out of there when I finally walk past those stone lions.

Yeah, it all comes back to Ghostbusters. I’m twenty-seven years old, and I can watch it with the same enthusiasm I had at three years old.

May that never, ever change.

Time to kill in New York can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes.

“We’ve got a few hours,” my girlfriend said to me when we were there, “Anything you want to do?”

I could have said anything. She’s giving and patient like that. She had also just seen Ghostbusters for the first time a few days earlier. New York brings into my consciousness thousands of things at once. That Ghostbusters pushed me towards New York, film and films about New York is never very far from the top of the heap.

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She loved the idea of going off to find the firehouse.

It wasn’t hard. We got the address, and the cab driver did the rest. It was the only time I can ever remember not being able to focus on the surroundings of the city as we rode. Several months earlier I had heard that the building was being considered by Mayor Bloomberg for decommission. If for no other reason than I think New York needs all the firefighters it can get, I hope that doesn’t happen. The other reason why I didn’t want it to happen was because I’ve always hoped for a chance to actually go inside.

Part of the movie was filmed in Los Angeles, but the firehouse I still wanted to see was the one the New York cab driver dropped us off at.

There may be a time when the firehouse is indeed decommissioned and abandoned until such time as it will be torn down. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet.

Several minutes went by, and all I could do was stare at that goddamn building. Is that kind of nerdy and stupid? A little, but some things mean enough to me that I can’t be bothered to care. I probably could have stared at the building for an hour. If only so I could get a grip on my childhood, on my memories of growing up with film, visuals and memories of New York and a combination of all those things. It’s one thing to pick and choose from these things for whatever reason. Dizzying is a good way to put when everything hits you at once like that. It’s just a building, but it was also a culmination of a great many other things that are important to me. It was a physical realization of where so much of me got started.

Going inside (even though the interiors for the film were shot in Los Angeles), meeting one of the firehouse’s staff and learning of the house’s long history (it was built well over a century ago) and seeing the actual Ghostbusters II sign were just bonuses. I was just happy with the outside.

I was pleased to be able to strike something from the to-do list. Some things on that list will be there until the day I die, and a few will hopefully be knocked off before that happens. I’m also pretty sure I’ll add things as I stagger along.

I’m keenly aware that the loneliness, misery and suffering (thanks, Woody Allen) that are inherent in being alive. I understand that I’m kind of the person who will never run out of things, either out of my control or designed in my own head, that qualify as any or all of those three things. What I also understand, and this bears repeating one more time, is that I’ll also never run out of stuff that keeps those three things from bringing the ride above my eyes. It’s on me to find and maintain the balance between joy, passion, and the kind of despair that makes a bleach chaser with my whiskey seem like a super-neat idea. If something as commonplace, and yet important to me in so many ways, as a century-old New York firehouse can keep me focused on the balance, then I’m willing to be a complete dork about it.

I can’t be cynical about everything. I can’t even pretend. I’m not that good a liar. Anyone who walked past me as I stared at the firehouse can probably tell you that. My face likely told them everything they could ever want to know about what I was thinking. I’m okay with that.

(All photos, unless otherwise specified – and not including the skyline shot – are courtesy of Brittany McDermott)