Why the mundane activities of adult New Yorkers in Ghostbusters and The Muppets Take Manhattan inspired me as a kid.

The Daily Show’s Head Writer on How the Muppets Lured Him to New York

The Daily Show’s Head Writer on How the Muppets Lured Him to New York

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Oct. 20 2014 10:15 AM

The City Where Grown-Ups Live

My childhood fantasies of New York involved eating takeout Chinese food after a grueling day at the office. 

NY Street
A long-exposure image of New York City, May 1978.

Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images

Excerpted from Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York edited by Sari Botton. Out now from Touchstone.

On a pleasantly chilly autumn night, after a large Georgian dinner, walking with my best friend down the Coney Island Boardwalk while our wives talked 15 or so paces behind, I couldn’t help thinking, This is exactly the part in a Woody Allen movie where one of us would reveal to the other that he’s cheating on his wife with his wife’s best friend, fully aware that our wives can’t hear us because they don’t find out about the affair until later in the movie. And then the other would respond with disbelief but not really condemnation because the morality of the movie is a little weird and off-putting, and then make a joke, and then it would cut to a scene at the Guggenheim. But neither of us revealed anything like that. We were probably talking about movies.

I’m still not totally sure New York isn’t just a movie. Even after 15 years of near nonstop New Yorking, it still seems more filmic than real. Nothing I do in New York feels completely believable unless it reminds me of something I’ve seen someone do in New York in a movie. And even something as mundane as walking and talking becomes exciting when you see it in a movie. Especially something mundane like walking and talking.

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New Yorkers are fascinated by movies, because movies are fascinated by New York. New York was where American movies were born, after all. Yes, history may tell us Thomas Edison’s early studio was in New Jersey, but surely you, as I do, consider New Jersey a sort of surplus New Yorker–holding warehouse. Even after a hundred years in Los Angeles, movies still dream of New York. They pine for the hip, frosty girlfriend they abandoned for a pleasant if unexciting marriage to her sunnier, less mentally present sister coast.

As a result, movies are a young New Jersey boy’s primer on New York and the methods of loving it. They were my invaluable education as I patiently waited, a surplus New Yorker, for someone to die and open up a spot for me there since God knows there was no place for me in New Jersey. Movies took me to my favorite of my childhood’s two New Yorks. Not the New York I actually visited, the city of grandmothers and dinosaur-occupied museums, of zoos and scary homeless people you pretended not to see. I preferred the other New York, the New York I only saw in the movies. The City Where Grown-Ups Live.

The City Where Grown-Ups Live is the thrillingly everyday metropolis glimpsed around the edges of cinematic dreamery. I was first exposed to it in the magically titled The Muppets Take Manhattan. Magical to me not because of the Muppet part, but because of that beautiful, shining silver word Manhattan. The last word in the title, because after you’ve read Manhattan, any other word is an anticlimax. Hidden among the movie’s many scenes of dancing animal puppets was a truly inspiring vision of adult normalcy. Kermit, the Muppets’ frog vaudeville ringmaster, comes down with a case of cab crash–induced amnesia and is handed the identity of Phil, a New York ad exec. Phil does not perform on Broadway or hang out with a bear. Phil wears a suit and works in an office. Phil’s days are spent attending meetings and having diner lunches with his co-workers. I wanted to be Phil.

What to the filmmakers was clearly a fate worse than death, the stifling of a unique spirit by the square establishment, was to young Elliott a dream to strive for. The message of numb conformity totally failed to reach me. All I could see was that Kermit went from naked frog to independent adult, autonomous professional, self-supported citizen. That was the magic of New York. Even an amphibian could become a grown-up. I didn’t want to marry a pig and put on a show. I wanted a subway commute and a greasy spoon lunch hour. I wanted meetings around wooden tables. I wanted a desk with a phone on it. The return of Kermit’s memory was tragic. He lost all those amazing ordinary things New Yorkers get to do!

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Not that my vision of New York was a gray world of conformists and account execs. New York grown-ups seemed to have a constant awareness of the bizarre and strange inhabitants of its streets. Of the many things I loved in the nearly perfect Gremlins 2: The New Batch was the stream of pedestrians who refuse to register alarm or even look up as Dick Miller battles a flying bat-winged monster right on the sidewalk. I envied the powerful indifference of these grown-ups. I took this to mean that so many crazy things happen in New York that nothing could ever surprise or distract a grown-up New Yorker. “Another batmonster fight? So what? Out of my way! I’ve got places to be!”

I wanted to be that adult so inured to the outrageous and insane that a hovering, reptiloid goblin wouldn’t even catch my eye, let alone impress me enough to stop walking, head down, thinking about my lease or taxicabs or the Statue of Liberty, or whatever it is grown-up New Yorkers thought about on their way to the diners they were having lunch in.

And the most potent dose of New York mundanity by far was Ghostbusters, a movie yet to be given its due as a portrait of life in late 20th-century Manhattan. Ghostbusters was a major staple of my childhood. Before the age of 13 I would estimate I watched it approximately 100 million billion times. And each time I found myself entranced not by the beautifully tossed-off jokes of Bill Murray, nor by the majesty of the gargantuan Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, nor even by the sheer terrifying evil of the snarling gargoyle demon dogs (though I did dream of riding one to school). I was drawn to the scene where Sigourney Weaver arrives at her building with an armful of brown grocery bags, briefly speaks to her neighbor in the hallway, and then unpacks her purchases in her kitchen.

Shortly after this, Weaver learns her apartment is haunted and there are monsters in her fridge. That was all fine and amusing. But when the movie was over, what stayed with me were visions of high-rise living, tiny kitchens, and how the society of hallway neighbors could be simultaneously comforting and irritating. Having your own small space inside a larger network of human lives, a personal cell in a vast metropolitan hive, everyone scurrying their own ways in and around one another to get to their tiny pockets of privacy and quiet. As a child I knew this was how I wanted to live. The New York grown-up way.

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Ghostbusters might be where I first met a sacred and potent fetish of New York living: the late-night Chinese takeout work dinner. Though here it appears in diluted, impure form, since the Chinese takeout is enjoyed at a renovated firehouse they also live in and not at an office desk by a tie-knot-loosened employee. But still, all the possibilities and promises of grown-up living were represented by that strangely not-quite-square white cardboard box with the thin metal handle. That perfectly compact package of ethnic food, compressed like the city’s adults themselves into small yet private and anonymous compartments. Its use as after-hours workplace sustenance became the subject of innumerable daydreams.

What kind of job, I wondered, will I be doing someday that requires me to stay so late that I must call someone to box up some noodles and deliver them directly to me? How many years will pass before I become such an expert wielder of those tapered sticks that I can use them to eat directly out of the box? In my mind, children ate with fork and knife off a plate. Adults were too busy to empty out their cartons of food and switch between two different utensils. They had work to do. New York work. At New York night. The most exciting kind of night.

The Chinese takeout container, chopsticks planted firmly like the flag of the Grown-Up nation, held the everyday, ordinary moments of a New Yorker: the haunted apartment door closing behind you so you can put down your groceries. The silent shuffling of chairs as you and your fellow frog ad execs get up from a meeting. The white noise of the blurry city around you as you bull through the streets, head down, ignoring the gremlins in the air.

Any vision of New York that failed to include these peeks of the mundane was useless to me. The less dull the characters’ days were, the more bored I got. The real disappointment of a movie like Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan wasn’t the lame scares, the irritating characters, or the fact that Jason doesn’t actually get to Manhattan until most of the movie is over. It’s that Jason didn’t end his day of murdering teenagers by stopping at the bodega for toilet paper and cat food, picking up moo goo gai pan for dinner, and eating it at his tiny apartment’s even tinier kitchen table while watching the local news on WPIX.

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The weird thing is I never wanted to be a New York child. That seemed too difficult and too dangerous. I never had the skills or wits to charm my way into shelter and food, Home Alone 2–style. So I bided my time and at 17 I enrolled in NYU, where I could live the life of a grown-up in training, less a college student than a New Yorker whose day job was going to college. Eager to achieve full grown-up–hood, I rushed through the core curriculum like a No. 2 express train barreling straight from 14th Street to 72nd with the bare minimum of stops in between.

Then, success! Within a few years I was experiencing the very things I’d fantasized about as a child. I wore a tie to a job. I commuted to work, keeping my head down and ignoring the people around me. I went home to my tiny apartment and put away my groceries in my tinier kitchen. And every now and then I even got to stay late at work eating Chinese takeout food.

And you know what? It sucked. Sure, I enjoyed the brief moment when the Chinese food entered my mouth. But only as an adult did I realize that working late was a drag, bringing home groceries was a pain, and New Yorkers ignore the city around them because city transit is a soul-crushing experience. Being a grown-up in New York is often extremely exciting. But despite what I thought as a boy, not the boring parts. That’s why everyone calls them the boring parts. Because they’re boring.

Yet still, I can’t completely shake the glow of wonder about it. When I watch movies set in New York, I still feel a tingle of hope that someday I may get to live in that place and be one of those people. And that hope persists long after I remind myself that I do live in that place and I’m already one of those people. The mundane fantasy of this city has entrenched itself in my soul, and no amount of reality can dislodge it. If I’m being kind to myself, I’d say this was because I’ve maintained a sense of childlike wonder. But as a New Yorker I’m essentially a cynic, so instead I’ll chalk it up to denial.

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But let’s play devil’s advocate and say my mundane fantasy of the City Where Grown-Ups Live is special. That it possesses a quality no other fantasies can lay claim to: I’ve achieved them. The fantasies the movies peddled to me, on the other hand—a world of ghosts, gremlins, and musical cloth animals—are not only unachievable, they’re totally impossible. Why should I settle for a fantasy I can never see come to life when I can live my fantasies every single day? My mundane dreams of New York were far healthier, better, more emotionally stable dreams than anything Hollywood could come up with—and so powerful, Hollywood couldn’t stop them from leaking through the fabric of their made-up nonsense.

I believe everyday New York fantasies are better than fantastical New York fantasies. And we all believe, because it’s true, that New York is the greatest place on Earth. And so ipso facto, I must conclude logically and mathematically that the dull, ordinary dreams of my childhood were the best of all possible dreams. After all, they’re the only dreams guaranteed to become a reality.

Excerpted from Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York edited by Sari Botton, published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2014 by Sari Botton. Reprinted with permission.