“Good goin’, stranger.”
If those words ring a bell, it means that in 1985 you saw Susan Seidelman's “Desperately Seeking Susan,” a film ahead of its time because it was executive-produced, directed and written by women. Immediately, I gravitated to Madonna’s character — a free spirit who hung on the Lower East Side (home of graffiti art and punk music) and lived on the edge as well as hand to mouth.
The reality: I was more like Rosanna Arquette’s character Roberta. No, I was not a bored, Jersey homeowner married to a hot tub salesman. I worked in an ad agency, had a boyfriend, and a midtown, single gal studio apartment in a doorman building. I was as out and about in NYC as any other 20-something but had only a nodding acquaintance with the downtown scene; my existence — like Roberta’s — was pretty safe.
To feed my denial about this as well as the fantasy that I was bohemian, I did things like wearing lots of black and shopping in a now-defunct store called The Antique Boutique for a jacket similar to Susan’s sans the giant gold pyramid on the back, which Roberta eventually ended up owning. (FYI: I still have mine; my daughter Meg has borrowed it.)
In celebration of the film’s 35th Anniversary on March 29th, I re-watched it to see if the movie, as well as my feelings about it, still held up.
For those who have never had the pleasure, or simply don’t recall the details: Roberta spends her days obsessing over the romance between “Susan and Jim,” who each enjoy peripatetic lifestyles and orchestrate their NYC hook-ups via the personal ads which the suburbanite reads voraciously.
When being a voyeur is no longer enough, she crosses the bridge to trail her idol and meet up. A bump on the head leads to amnesia which has the housewife believing she is Susan. Living this false identity helps Roberta at last find her true one.
I grew increasingly nostalgic during the hour and forty-five-minute viewing. First and foremost, for the New York of my youth. The city in the 80s was emerging from near-bankruptcy, bursting with creativity on every front, and full of contradictions a la high-tone restaurants feet away from squatter-filled abandoned buildings (think “Rent.”) It was scary and scandalous, inspired and amazing; the place to be.
I found my smile watching an on-the-verge-of-fame and still-amusing Madonna, before she became a parody of herself, as well as the talented and eclectic Rosanna Arquette, before Harvey Weinstein torpedoed her career.
Best of all, I realized I had no regrets about that period of my life. Even though the seemingly carefree way that Susan glided through her days looked glamorous and fun, exciting even, the actuality is that living out of a suitcase as she did, trading her belongings or herself for different possessions or a meal held no interest for me. Nor did couch surfing or working the occasional odd job. I liked having a steady paycheck, a place to live and a relationship, as conventional as that may have been during such an innovative time.
I also didn’t like downtown as much as I pretended, at least not enough to live there.
A rather radical former colleague used to say, “There’s no life above 23rd Street.” I secretly always disagreed. In fact, for the very brief time I lived on West 4th, I felt disconnected and always wondered what I was missing above 59th.
My place was on the Upper East Side, with the occasional visit below 14th Street for shopping and the cachet of finding something unattainable uptown, and dining somewhere deemed “cool.” (Same went for the Upper West Side.)
This time ‘round I actually saw less of myself in Roberta. I was never as meek and un-self-assured. I also never had house-fever or would have married a man who didn’t share my dream of living in Manhattan.
Whenever we’re presented with opposites, there seems to be this need to choose. In the ‘60s one was either a Jackie or a Marilyn; more recently, a Carrie, a Miranda, a Charlotte or a Samantha. I was actually neither of the characters in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” but perhaps a tiny bit of both; just enough to have made the most of the decade in my own way.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels "Fat Chick" and "Back to Work She Goes."