Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On the surface.

Buildings aren’t nominated for Emmy awards, but at the corner of Bedford and Grove, in the West Village, there’s one getting so much attention you’d think it has already won. The five-story, brick building is steady and solid with big, pleasant, curving windows. On one side is the quintessential fire-escape, making it quintessentially photogenic. You’ll find it alongside quiet one-way streets, near a school where you can hear kids playing. If you had a bike and were afraid to ride in New York, you would enjoy riding it here.

A week ago I had been across the street, waiting for a leasing agent to arrive. Three months ago I had moved to New York and, still looking for my new home, I was hoping this tree-lined block would be the one. (Looking for real estate in New York involves a lot of crossed fingers.) While waiting for the agent I noticed a steady stream of visitors to the opposite corner. They’d walk up, look around, snap a picture and walk off. Odd I thought. When the agent arrived I asked if he knew what it was. “Oh, yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s where Bob Dylan lived, or something.” His answer seemed iffy, so I pulled out my phone and typed in 90 Bedford Street. There in front of my eyes was the reason: Friends, and a link to Wikipedia. We were standing in front of the exterior location shot of the long-time hit show of the same name. You know the one, I need only say their names to make it all come flooding back: Monica, Ross, Chandler, Rachel, Phoebe and Joey.

The apartment he showed me was as uncharming as Friends was charming. Too dark, too small, too depressing (it was in the basement) and it could be mine for only two thousand dollars. I walked away from the agent with a frown but, still feeling a bit like a tourist myself, my interest was piqued and a week later I went back.

Barreling down the sidewalk, past the corner, came a family, a four top. Speaking rapidly in French, wearing red backpacks and pointing, they craned their necks up and looked around. The father held a giant SLR camera in his hands and, if my High School level French served me right, the mother mentioned she was hungry. Their angular kids shrugged their skinny shoulders. I couldn’t tell if anyone was excited to be there. But then again, non-excitement is the French form of excitement. They wandered back and forth and corner to corner as if in a real world version of Pac-Man. Quick and darting movements. Is that it? Or is that it? I could see them, eyebrows thrown up in question marks. When I glanced over I noticed they were taking pictures of the wrong building.

Sitting on my bench outside The Little Owl, the restaurant that has occupied the ground level at 90 Bedford for the last five years, I watched this same scene unfold ten times in one hour. Couples, families, and tour groups alike. They came to pay homage to their version of television mecca. It’s been seven years since the show last aired but, if one goes by the languages spoken on that corner, the show has hit its syndication stride in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. As the Euros fanned out to their respective corners to take pictures they pointed their cameras up the building, down the block and then they stood in front to capture the moment in a digital memento to take back home; to show around to their real friends.

Friends first aired in 1994 and, over the course of ten years, produced a total of 236 episodes. If we track just one relationship of the group we see it come full circle: Ross wants Rachel. Ross and Rachel date. Ross and Rachel break up. Ross wants Rachel. Ross and Rachel date. And there they’ll remain, frozen in a prehistoric TV stratum for all eternity.

According to an article in The New York Times, the foreign interest in American entertainment has been particularly pronounced in the television industry. In many countries, particularly in Europe, American television shows, once relegated to late night, are being shown in prime time. With this shift in programming has come an increase in the number of hours given over to American programming on the European networks and this number has been increasing year over year, with no signs of downshifting. Sitting here on my corner, I could tell they loved America for our TV, but did it go any deeper?

Out of nowhere a stealth German group walked up, lead by a tour guide wearing a headset, the kind worn by a big pop star singing in a big pop arena. He lead a group of about 25 people that brought to mind a submarine suddenly surfacing for some much-needed air. I tried to follow, hoping to catch an occasional word in English, but it was too fast and too German. They made quick work of this tourist hotspot. They snapped pictures, they moved along.

“Excuse me,” I said to the woman walking past me into the restaurant. Tall and round with ruddy cheeks, she smiled but kept one hand on the opened door, striking a pose that said, don’t take too much of my time. She was wearing clogs so I presumed she was the chef. So, what’s it like to work at this location? “Well, it’s all part of the neighborhood charm, ya know.” So, it doesn’t get old? She repeated that it was fine but when I asked again, with slightly different wording, she gave in to my line of questioning. “Well, yeah, it can get a little boring.” One can’t miss all the cameras pointed at the restaurant, so I asked if she’d ever looked for the photos online. “Nope,” she said. Ok. Thanks. I guess I was also getting a little boring, so I thanked her for her time and promised to come back for dinner.

Despite the prominent New York backdrop the show never filmed in New York. The producers felt that shooting outside made the episodes less funny and so, not a single “Friend” left the sound stages of sunny Los Angeles for the urban grit of New York. Yet somehow, what’s made it into seemingly every European guidebook, is this building, used only for it’s exterior, in the opening scene. Once. Our biggest export of Friends is to entice world travelers to visit New York, to see the outside of a building, a building as meaningless as a square of cement with a stars handprint in it.

The Levin Institute says that many complain that this form of globalization should actually be called Americanization, since the United States is by far the biggest producer of popular culture goods. They go on to say that the U.S. entertainment industry generates more revenue from overseas sales than any other industry. In a world where a show like Friends earns us more money than hard goods, is it any surprise that we still don’t have enough jobs to go around?

Hearing Spanish I jumped up from my wooden bench to chat with a couple from Madrid. I asked them why they had come to see this building. “Ah, well, because we both watch the Friends.” But do you still watch the show? I asked. “Ah, yes, we watch again,” the husband said with the obligatory large camera held aloft in his palm. “We enjoy doing together,” his cute wife added, sportily clad in yellow jeans, navy puffy jacket and scarf. They asked me questions, my being “from New York” I instantly became the local expert. I pointed up to the top of the building mentioning that it was just used for the exterior. “Ah,” they said. “So, just uh, façade?” the husband added moving one flattened hand up and down. Yes, I said. The façade. Are you visiting any other locations? Places like this? I asked. “Ah, yes, we go to Tiffanys,” replied the wife, looking at me with that blue box glow in her eyes, “And to see Marilyn,” she said billowing her hands like a pretend skirt blowing up and out from her hips, “At Times Square. You know?” Oh yes, I know.

We stood there smiling for a second longer. I had run out of Friends trivia and they had run out of English. I wondered if they felt about Friends like I did, like they were family. I was 23 when the show first aired, it was almost like we had grown up together. But what did it mean to the Europeans? Was it a show about New York? These were questions I didn’t know how to ask. Before we said adios they asked me to take their picture. I crossed the street to another corner so I could get far enough away, panned up so that the whole building fit in the frame and said quietly to myself, Cheese.

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