Part 1: Heaven's Cates
Although not as often associated with the supernatural these days as, say, San Francisco or New Orleans, New York City still manages to project its fair share of mythological allure -- it being, after all, America's one and only true "gotham," as well as the home of the Ghostbusters. Yet in spite of a past steeped in creepy mystery and a present littered with the East Village-Stygian, Anne Rice-a-Looney goofballs who find themselves drawn to such nonsense, my adopted home has never presented me with a paranormal experience worthy of note -- unless of course you count the tendency of my credit card to inexplicably disappear at some point every Saturday night.
No matter how much magic this city may hold, it's just never shown me any of "that old, black" variety.
That is until this past weekend.
Contrary to what you may have been led to believe by the aforementioned Ghostbusters, the true superconductive antenna for psychokinetic activity in New York City isn't a foreboding art deco-style apartment building on Central Park West -- even though it was directly in front of one such building that Yoko Ono incomprehensibly dodged five bullets taken by John Lennon; it is in fact a small and rather unassuming boutique, bas-relief etched into the face of one of the many tony, monolithic pre-wars along the Upper East Side. Inside this quaint little shop, the laws of time and space are nothing more than mercurial afterthoughts, infallible clairvoyance is commonplace, and grown men can be reduced to desperate, hyperventilative sobs in the face of the kind of religious experience that makes Saul's road-to-Damascus conversion look like a dizzy spell.
The shop is called Blue Tree.
It is owned and operated by Phoebe Cates.
As in that Phoebe Cates.
As in THAT Phoebe Cates.
For those of you who, A) aren't heterosexual males, and B) didn't come of age -- and given the subject matter, you'll forgive the pun -- in the early 1980s, the overwhelming magnitude of what I've just implied will no doubt escape you; the rest of you -- the straight men my age -- understand precisely of what I'm speaking and, as such, I'll give you the few moments necessary to properly collect yourselves.
A lot's been made over the years of the monumental impact that Phoebe Cates's seminal scene -- once again, you'll pardon the pun -- in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High had on an entire generation of men. I have nothing to add to the discussion, simply because I can't; the singular import of that thirty seconds of film -- its initial and continued effect -- cannot be overstated. I still look upon the act of Phoebe, as sex kitten Linda Barrett, unclasping her red bikini top in slow-motion to the hypnotic purr of the Cars' Moving in Stereo with more reverence than my first real sexual experience; they each lasted about the same amount of time, but the girl who unwittingly took part in the former was Phoebe Cates -- whereas the latter involved a slightly overweight fifteen-year-old who would, a month later, surprise me by running out of her house, suitcase in hand, as I pulled into her driveway -- then spend the next hour begging me to help her run away while her heavy metal brother threatened to destroy my car with an aluminum baseball bat.
Phoebe offered no such threat of bodily harm or imminent arrest though -- she was just the perfect girl exposing for me and the rest of my generation her perfect, perfect body. The fact that the overactive imagination of Judge Reinhold's character in Fast Times was the very reason for Phoebe's nudity in the first place created what to this day remains one of the greatest meta-reality moments in film history -- with poor, put-upon, Pirate Brad both standing-in for every male member of the audience at the time and creating the very masturbatory fantasy we'd all take with us to the grave.
To this day, I still fantasize about Phoebe Cates, and that one glorious scene. Like almost every single straight man my age, I long to watch her rise up out of the pool and say the words, "Hi (insert your name here), you know how cute I always thought you were."
I want her to stride toward me in the slow, fluid motion that resembles nothing less than one long, orgasmic sigh -- pull open her bikini top -- and kiss me passionately.
I've wanted this for twenty-five years.
And you know what? Phoebe Cates knows this.
My wife and I had just spent the afternoon taking a leisurely stroll through Central Park -- literally, walking from the zoo at 60th street, all the way up to 91st and 5th Avenue -- when we stumbled upon Phoebe's little boutique. We were both tangentially aware of the shop, having read in one magazine or another a profile which mentioned Blue Tree and its noteworthy proprietor, and so, finally being in the neighborhood, we decided to stop in.
Of course I'm making this decision sound like a much more nonchalant affair than it actually was. The reality is that my heart was in my throat before my hand even touched the door; by the time the thing actually opened and I felt the rush of cool air from inside, I had devolved into a thirteen-year-old again; and when I glanced across the store and saw her -- well, you could've cleaned me off the floor with a bucket and a mop. As I stepped inside and heard the door whisper shut behind me, I suddenly felt as if I'd just downed three shots of Absinthe. Possessing both a preternatural forethought and an unparalleled concern for my well-being, my wife actually turned to me as I floated down the steps into the store, gave me an amused smile, and asked, "You gonna be okay?" I'm pretty sure that I attempted to answer but nothing translatable came out -- the words I'd put together in my head escaping my mouth in the form of two or three feeble, high-pitched squeaks.
As Phoebe walked out from behind the register stand and I finally saw her -- head to toe -- I almost collapsed. She looked, she looks, as if she hasn't aged a day since turning twenty-five. She's as beautiful and youthful now as she was in 1982 -- a fact which is more than a little spooky. She's gorgeous, she's thin -- she remains perfect.
Time indeed seemed to slow as she moved toward me, the music coming from the shop's overhead speakers not the Cars, but something even more narcotic: Fleetwood Mac's Gold Dust Woman. She wore a tight black sweater and matching black pants rather than the red bikini I'd dreamed of most of my life. Still, she flashed that flawless smile as she squeezed past me, en route to help a customer who'd gotten her attention -- and when we looked directly into each other's eyes, that's when it hit me.
I'm the naked one.
There are very few times in life that a person can literally read another's thoughts -- that someone can be reduced to the proverbial open book. In that moment, not only did I realize that Phoebe Cates knew exactly what I was thinking, I understood that she was capable of pulling the same trick day after day, hour after hour -- with almost every single man she meets.
She knows what they're all thinking -- every one of them, without fail. She knows they're all exactly like me, and in a twist worthy of a Hollywood ending, the guys who once ogled her nakedness are now the ones exposed.
The realization was enough to make me look away quickly -- feeling no small amount of embarrassment -- before finally turning back to face her again, smiling and nodding at the exquisite irony of it all.
Phoebe Cates read my mind.
Later that night, my wife and I were lying on the couch -- comfortably draped across each other -- watching Helen Mirren's flawless, Oscar-winning performance in The Queen, when that familiar feeling dawned on me again: something bordering on love. I remembered becoming enraptured with Helen Mirren the first time I saw The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.
I understood that Phoebe Cates was the first woman I fell for from afar, but she certainly wouldn't be the last.
Maybe it's time I paid a little respect to all those beautiful, brilliant, strong, funny, cool, sexy, remarkable women I still put up on a pedestal -- with good reason.
Next: The Actresses