As I’m writing this staff pick, I’m sipping on a chai latte outside of a cafe in New York City on 58th and 8th, just south of the southeast side of Central Park. (By the time you read this, I will be back in the Twin Cities, assuming my flights go as planned.)
New York City: The last time I was here was almost 17 years ago, and for the last five days, I’ve fallen in love all over again. Yes, it smells, the streets are dirty, and I’ve walked so much I’ve put blisters on my feet, but there’s something so beautiful about this city — its rich history, its skyline, its various cultures blending into each other in each borough I explore.
It’s hard to come here and not think about all the times you’ve seen it in the movies or on television, from the horse-drawn carriage rides through Central Park to the flavor of Washington Heights. It’s also hard for me, as a writer, not to appreciate the love of the written language and those who do it so well.
As I thought about how the culture of New York and the city itself have been portrayed in various films, and how the dialogue and written language of a story can so encapsulate a city, the one that won’t leave my head as much as my heart is “You’ve Got Mail,” written by the incomparable Nora Ephron, a master of romantic whimsy and tones of lyricism in her writing.
Set in the Big Apple during the era of AOL and dial-up internet, Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) are destined to be enemies: she, the owner of a small bookshop in the Upper West Side; he, a member of the family who owns Fox Books, the “big bad chain [book]store.” Both are speaking to each other online, and falling in love with one another, without knowing who the other is.
Hanks is charming, a sampling of witty with a touch of snark, but just as much of a softhearted romantic, in his role as Joe Fox. He’s the character we hate to love, but do, because we know deep down he’s not just a savage businessman. And Meg Ryan is effervescent, compelling and just as charming as her co-star in her role as Kathleen Kelly, the tenderhearted and vibrant local “shopgirl.” The two together have a magic that is difficult to create on screen together, a perfect mix of combative and tender.
As I’m staying with a friend, and as I’ve spoken to other friends, the entire premise of the show is based on a real divide and concern of residents of the city: gentrification. For those of us who love Targets and Barnes & Nobles with a shot of Starbucks in our suburban life, this is hard to compute. But those in the city will tell you of their disdain for the chains, for the little shops they lose that they say “make a city what it is,” and the store owners who own the shops and lose their livelihoods.
Nora Ephron wrote this line for Kathleen Kelly about it:
“Someone, some foolish person, will probably think it’s a tribute to the city, the way it keeps changing on you or the way you can’t count on it or something. I know, because that’s the sort of thing I’m always saying, but the truth is, I’m heartbroken.”
While I’ve been wandering the city with my friend, in the almost six years she’s been here, there have been countless times she’s said, “That used to be a _____,” and would list whatever small business it was. For as much history as there is here, there is also constant change.
“You’ve Got Mail” tells an enchanting romance, but it’s also a love letter to the city. The way Ephron writes about a butterfly getting on the subway (a rather unusual circumstance if you have experienced the city’s subway system), or the “zipper man” who repairs zippers on Amsterdam Avenue, are those quirks we love in our relationships — just with Ephron, it’s as much about the city as it is about the characters.
While the movie is also about love of the city, Ephron allows her viewers to explore the love of language through her craftsmanship of words, with funny permeating thoughts like, “The purpose of a place like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy a cup of coffee,” to contemplative statements, like “What is so wrong with being personal anyway? Because whatever else anything is, it ought to begin with being personal.”
For as impersonal as the city can feel, “You’ve Got Mail” captures life on the Upper West Side in a very personal and intimate way, with words that make you swoon and characters that make you smile.