Just east of Amsterdam Avenue, in a section of Harlem called Hamilton Heights, a newly poignant obsession of mine was given life. I had spent my week with the DVD of Wes Anderson’s third movie, The Royal Tenenbaums. I sang along with the quirky soundtrack songs (Nico, The Clash, Paul Simon); listened to the director’s commentary, amazed at his penchant for detail, and, in effect, the film’s punchy blend of neo-impressionism; and became one with the endearingly gloomy has-beens who just didn’t feel comfortable outside the house they grew up in. The movie hooked me.
In a way, I coudn’t help myself. Anderson’s beautiful weirdness, melancholic narrative fog, and tales of co-dependence were good companions for someone who’d just moved to Manhattan and didn’t quite know how to get his life on some sort of track. Someone who just felt a little off. Someone with a few talents in his back pocket but little confidence that he still knew how to use them, or that he’d want to even if he could. Someone who longed to feel at home again — somewhere.
Which is why, when out of Saturday morning boredom I found myself driving downtown from my new neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, I began to think: Maybe I can find the Tenenbaum house, the actual one the movie was filmed in. Anderson had said it was in Harlem, and here I was — on Broadway between 125th and 150th — a view of the Hudson to my right, blocks and blocks of tree-lined streets to my left. City College was somewhere around here, I remembered. Maybe some nice brownstones were in the vicinity. The rooftop views of the river definitely came from this angle. And the streets were rather flat and green, not like the slopes west of Broadway. It has to be east.
“Between here and here,” I said to my friend, Lina, who looked like she thought I was psycho.
I made a left into the City College area and met my Manhattan real-estate dream: one gorgeous stone home after the other, replete with gothic architectural embellishments, gardens, and a feeling of solidity that made similar houses on the Upper West Side or in the Village look like garden sheds. From the look of it on film, the Tenenbaum house was a home I could live in, its attractive narrative symbolism and kitsch factor aside. The conical turrets, circular rooms, dark red blocks, and stylistic black iron gate made it seem like a fortress. Like a place that could protect you.
The only problem was that I’d probably never find it. There had to be a million of these houses in Manhattan, I thought. What really were the chances I’d make a random turn onto the right block?
Pretty good, as it turned out.
Rolling down the street at no more than five m.p.h., I pointed to a building.
“That’s it,” I said to Lina.
Look at the short half-block behind it. Picture the trees without leaves. The street empty. Ben Stiller tapping his chin as he peers down at the street from a third-floor window. Owen Wilson crashing into the front gate in a vintage convertible. Luke Wilson letting his falcon go from the elaborately tiled roof. Gene Hackman hiding behind the huge built-in staircase, ready to surprise someone with the line: “I’m not talkin’ about… dance lessons. I’m talkin’ about… puttin’ a brick through the other guy’s windshield; I’m talkin’ about… taking it out and choppin’it up.”
Lina agreed this was the place and I parked. We got out and walked toward the house. I noticed that the windows had blue-taped outlines, that the doors were brand new but designed to appear very old, and the front yard looked as if it had been gutted of foliage. On the side of the house were a few planks of wood and a construction hat. And on the windows were white pieces of paper that said New York City would allow the house to be converted into a two-family dwelling following a substantial renovation.
I walked up the stairs and peeked through the mail slot, to see a very familiar wood-paneled foyer.
“Put your hand in there and see if you can unlock the door,” I said.
Lina gave me another look, then bent down and slid her hand in.
“There’s something blocking the lock,” she said.
We descended the stairs. No breaking and entering today.
Then I saw a woman with a laundry bag exit the building next door.
“Did someone shoot a movie in this house a year or two ago?” I asked her.
“Yeah,” she said. “Something with Gwyneth Paltrow. I heard it was supposed to be funny.”
Some thirty minutes later, after a layover in a home built by Alexander Hamilton, now a museum, Lina and I returned to the Tenenbaum house, still determined to find our way in. Waiting was smart: A man with a beeper and work gloves was there, carrying in wood and construction materials. Lina and I decided to go for it.
He opened the door after a few knocks. He didn’t look surprised. Lina mumbled something about an interest in real estate, feigned surprise, as if we were at the wrong house. “Wait,” I said, speaking pre-arranged lines, “is this house that Wes Anderson –”
“Yeah,” said the man, scrunching up his eyes but still managing to appear friendly.
“Are you renovating it?” I asked.
“Yeah, I own it.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a little silly at this point.
“Are you looking for an apartment?” he asked.
“Are you renting one?”
“We’re splitting the place up into a two-family. But there’s one rental unit in the back with a separate entrance.”
The man showd me the rental, where Richie, the Luke Wilson character, came in through a back window after checking himself out of the hospital. I asked the man if we could tour the house, maybe even peek upstairs. He said yes. Lina and I followed him inside and walked around the foyer. We saw the makeshift phonebooth where Angelica Houston spoke Italian. The living room where Gwyneth and Luke listened to the Stones together in a tent. The closet full of board games where Ben Stiller hid Gene Hackman’s stuffed Javalina and Dalmatian mice ran free. It was all there, despite the new flooring, and a massive amount of new decorative woodwork and restructuring.
“How’d your house end up in the movie?”
“One day I came home and there was a note from Wes in my mailbox,” he said. “Simple as that.”
“You only dealt with him?”
“Yeah. Very nice, very down-to-earth guy. Paid in cash.”
“People love the movie in part because of all the cool things he did to your house,” I said. “He’s pretty interested in the details.”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t that hard undoing it all. Disney paid for it. Decent job, they did.”
My inner groupie was on fire.
“So are you really interested in the apartment?” he said, perhaps knowing the real reason I was standing in his living room.
“Well, I just moved into a new place not long ago, but I’ve always wanted to live somewhere like this.”
“That’s how me and my wife felt when we first saw it, too,” the man said as he took down my name and number. “There’s something about it. It just sort of feels the way a home should.”
I looked at him and smiled. Then I looked around the house again and realized that it was just that: a house – someone else’s. My new home was waiting for me fifty blocks north, ready to be a character in my life. Suddenly, the quest was over. The credits rolled.