Eric Renderking Fisk writes about how the "Real" Rick's Cafe American changed his life, providing a place to think, clear his head - and say something more then "we'll always have Paris"; when saying good bye to his own "Femme Fatal"
Eric Renderking Fisk | October 21st, 2009
Twenty years ago in Rutland Vermont, there really was a restaurant and bar called "Rick's Cafe Americian." It had a Classic Movie theme while keeping much of the original Art Deco feel of the 1930's when the building it occupied was built. To the best of my knowledge, it was around forever, mostly through the late 1980's and was converted to something else around the time I left. It was obviously one of my favorite places to go and hang out. I remember mourning its closing while being retooled into a different establishment.
It was symbolic of another time in my life when I was living a true "Film Noir" nightmare with a femme fatal who really could have ruined men's lives if she really put her mind to it. I used to sit there in "Rick's" once in a while and smoke cigarettes while wearing my military surplus duds with my fedora and wonder how it all went wrong and how can it all be turned around. Alas, a sinking ship can't make right with it's set course, and this woman was the Titanic. There are some people who want to be helped, and then there are those who are poison. They are the embodiment of the mythological creatures known as the Succubus, feeding of the life-force and ambition of others.
One of the last afternoons or evenings I spent there was when I realized that it had to end. I had to put a stop to this destructive phase in my life. Someone was drowning and she was pulling me down with her. I was going to die or be killed if I stayed with this woman. It was there in that tribute to "Casablanca" that I finally decided to end it. What happened next is now legend, the story that I share when the topic comes up on the forums about fights between you and your significant other over retrocentric eccentricities, this is the anecdote I share.
When I was in my late teens, the girl who I had been dating for 9 months said she felt that I loved vintage and retro more than her. She said that I should give it up, all of it. The Classic Movies, the collection of black and white photos that I bought like baseball cards from the local antique store, wearing my fedora and style that could only be called up-scale hobo. If we were going to make it through this recent storm, I would have to give it all up.
"That really hurt," I tell people. "Really hurt badly. Not because she made me choose between something that I really loved and her... but when I put her stuff out into the street I think I hurt my back or dislocated a rib."
To some people, it's just a funny story with an ironic ending. For me, it was a turning point. Later that summer I would be homeless, living in campgrounds or out of my vintage Chevy while heading west to California to a job that was waiting for me in a building that suffered some damage during the Loma Prieta earthquake. To some, it was a disaster, but I was paid handsomely for counting parts and putting things back on the shelves.
But while I was stacking those shelves I wrestled with the mystery. I wonder what would have happened the last time she tried to talk to me, planned a meeting at the garage with in walking distance from "Rick's," what would she have tried to say to erode my resolve?
I came to my senses when I found out what happened in a year or two after I left. I stopped dwelling on those questions when more details were filled in. The man who took my place as the object of her affections would eventually break into someone's home in the middle of the night to burgle. During the robbery the occupant woke up and went to investigate the noise he was hearing. The owner of the house never saw the light of day again and now according to the AP, my replacement is now "an inmate from the Rutland area serving a sentence of 20 years to life for second-degree murder."
I wonder if that could have been me? She pulled that "If you love me, you'll do this" a couple of times with me. Who knows what she was capable of after I left. According to her blog, she hasn't changed much.
Because of my experiences, for a while I had to think about the end of "Casablanca," and what really happened. For once I thought that Rick Blaine lied. He was putting her on that plane not because he loved Ilsa, but because he was tired of the ambiguity of it all. He was tired of al the indecisiveness of her choices. Frustrated with not knowing what cards were dealt, he folded his hand on the tarmac of he airport.
"We'll always have Paris," as if to say, "We'll always have that time in our lives when we knew where each other stood."
What would have been Rick Blaine's price for staying with Ilsa. What's the going rate for a man's soul back then? And what was the price of mine?
It was less than a year that I spent with that girl. When you're a teen, that's a lifetime. Now I spend that much time debating how I want to spend our next vacation or what color to repaint the walls. It's been 20 years since that relationship ended. Half the time since that ended has been spent with a better woman who has never lied to me and is teaching me how to unlearn that rotten skill. Unlike this broad from two decades ago, my wife is not a 38-year-old adolescent. She's better than I deserved and inspired me to be a better person.
I'm trying to push the guff out of my mind, erase her from my memory. Unintentionally I've done everything I did with her with the woman I married. Everything a marriage should be is with this woman I'm in love with now. If "Sheba" from the wrong side of the tracks taught me anything, it's that there are times you have to cut your losses and demand something better. Be glad you're left at the train station with an extra ticket as the rain is pouring down.
Did Rick Blaine meet another woman after leaving Casablanca? Did saying goodbye to her make him a better person, could that character settle down with someone who meant more to him than Ilsa, much the same way I've loved my own wife all these years? Or has my cynicism ruined another perfectly good movie?
If love can come again after a searing hot poker jabbed into my heart via a pack of lies, then maybe his heart could have mended again after his sacrifice to a much more noble cause.
The question to ask myself and the fictional main character of "Casablanca" is this: What's going to make tomorrow better since we can't change the past no matter how we try to live in it again? How can we strive to be more honest, better people in the world where reality should be enough and lies and different versions of the truth aren't necessary. And if our world isn't that, then making it so is the greatest story to be told.
Even though it's been 20 years since I lived in Rutland, Vermont... I wish "Rick's Cafe Americain" was still open. There was something comforting knowing that no matter where I was, a piece of one of my favorite movies in town I used to call home. In my youth, I would go there regardless of the weather or how late it was after work or studying at the library. How wonderful would it be to return once again with my wife and sons while enjoying winter sports at Killington, the ski resort nearby.
The few times my wife and I went back to visit the area, especially when we became engaged on New Years Eve during the first year we met, we drove by to see if by some chance that space changed back to the way it used to be and I like it best.
There was something about wearing a fedora and a long coat, listening to some local radio station playing some classical music or jazz in my vintage Chevy while trying to get there. With bald tires and rear-wheel drive, I was undeterred. Even though I was essentially anonymous, I felt as if the place stayed open for me. I wish there was more that I could have done to recuperate. It would have been wonderful to go back and revisit old times, but this time with better company. I belonged there, either in the specific moment in late 1988 and 1989 - or decades ago during the era of train stations and the novelty of transcontinental fight. When fedoras were the norm, not an aberration.
Once inside, it was almost like home. Not nearly like the motion picture set, but obviously period with the wood panel walls, subdued light from stained glass lamps with their light reflected off the glass. We could all use our own "Rick's Cafe American," both figuratively or literally. Whenever I encounter any establishment that has the same look and feel as it would have had during the Golden Era, I'll always stop and throw some money down to soak up the ambiance. Every retrocentric, vintage aficionado and classic movie fan should have a retreat close by and just be them. Meaning, the central character to their own stories.
They should all be more like this one, the way this one was.. A place to think and unwind, gather a fresh perspective in an environment that emulates the great sets and locations we enjoy seeing on the screen. Someplace that's cinematically perfect.
The question is, do you have a place to go like this? Either in the present or in the past? Where do you go to replenish your vintage-vibe? And if you don't have one, what would it be like if you did?