My Jill Clayburgh Movie Date


Back when we thought everything was possible because we had already made all our mistakes, Jill Clayburgh jumped off the movie screen and — in the sticky floor popcorn darkness of the Village Theater on Clark Street in Chicago, landed in the empty seat next to mine. Nodding at the tub of popcorn in my lap, she whispered, “Did you get the extra butter?” And when I shot back, “Yep,” she smiled deep, stuck her hand in to the tub, and we both began to watch her up on the screen in “An Unmarried Woman.”

Off and on she’d put her hands over her eyes, whispering, “Oh God, I don’t really look like that do I?” But through most of it she smiled and riffed on the plot line and the characters. “The husband had to dump me. He never would have been able to deal when he found out our kid was gay.” And then later, “Ok so I found the sensitive artist. But then six months after the movie ended he was spending more time on his hair and beard than I was.” And lets not even talk about how the son of a bitch made me carry that giant pretentious piece of crap painting down the street by myself! I got your ‘I am woman’ right here pal!”

Jill and I went way back. She grew up in a big yellow house on Lake Street in the same suburb I did. But that was when we were kids. When we met again as grown ups, she was pure, straight city of Chicago solid smart and one of funniest people on the face of the earth. I never really knew why it never clicked hard and final. Maybe because she would think sentences like that last one are trite. But then I’d have to agree with her.

When we got to her ballet scene, dancing across her bed and then through her living room, framed by the high-rise views of New York City, she covered her face at the opening shot of just her waking up. Stuffing popcorn into her mouth and then grabbing my coke from the armrest and washing it down.

Both of us staring up at the screen at her eyes opening to the morning, the thought flashed again that Jill was not the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, until you looked twice.

“You know, she said, this scene makes me cringe.”

“I love this!”

“Which part of me not being able to dance do you like best?”

“It’s not just about dancing. . .it’s. . “

“OK Mister Deep and Sensitive. The artist in the movie, you saw where that went. And all this popcorn. Isn’t it about time we got some beer? Lets go to that bar you’re always talking about and I can watch you fawn, grovel and suck up to whatever writer happens to be drunk tonight.”

I laughed and said, “OK, OK, it’s not like I haven’t seen the movie at least 5 times already,” and we bundled up to get ready for January in Chicago.

In the lobby of the theater, putting on gloves and scarves, she said, “Wait! Do you have your little writer toys”

“What are you. . .”

“C’mon, open up the back pack. Let’s see who you got riding along with you tonight. As if I couldn’t guess.” She reached over, unzipped the top of my back pack and stuck her hand inside, looked at the ceiling of the theater lobby and said, “Show me, Algren and McMurtry!” and then pulled out battered copies of ‘The Man With the Golden Arm,’ and ‘All My Friend’s Are Going to Be Strangers.’

And as we walked out on to Clark Street and turned the corner on to North Avenue, the gale force icy winds of January roaring right off the thunderous Lake and driving at our backs she said, “C’mon writer boy, give me a first line please.”

“Jill I don’t know, I can’t remember every. . .”

The wind kept pushing us west into the winter lights and she said, “C’mon” as she took my arm and huddled in close. “C’mon it will help keep us warm! First line please!

“OK. Let’s see. . .’ the captain never drank. Yet towards nightfall in that smoke colored season between Indian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken.”

“See!” she said smiling. I knew you had it in you! Now tell me the name of the place we’re going again.”

“O’Rourke’s,” I said. “And it will be warm.”

It was only a couple blocks, but we walked in, and it was warm. A gauzy, smoke drenched conversation rippling like a friendly steady pumping space heater filled the room. We found two seats at the bar. There were writers at the tables. Some I recognized, some I did not. Each table like an instrument in some orchestra, the ghosts of writers past resurrected in the dangling conversational symphony. All of it settled in as a comforting din, background music to the dancing light in Jill’s eyes.

I don’t remember what we talked about. I only remember that we never stopped talking. I remember thinking Jill just might be the funniest smart person I had ever known. And if there was an edge in her, a character that might start spilling at the seams on a seconds notice. . .I could fix that. I could help her through it. This is back when I thought I could fix someone else. Back when I looked hard for something that needed fixing, didn’t matter if it was real or not, just so I could come riding in and fix it. I remember looking into her eyes for hours and then I remember only sleep.

Then just sleep. Jill’s eyes and then sleep.

And then my leg being shaken. Cramped. Stiff. Hearing, “Hey, old man! Wake up old man! Wake up! You done this before! You know you not supposed to be in here!

“But I always come to O’Rourke’s I said. Hey, you know Ebert smiled at me once! And Royko, he scowled at me. Told me to get the f—out of his way!”

“Old man. This is Old Town ale House. I don’t know this O’Rourke’s. I don’t know these people. I just gotta clean now. So you gotta go.”

“But I have a key! A back door key! See, there was this time they were betting who could come up with the most character names from The Great Gatsby? And I won. And the prize was a key to the place. So, sometimes I forget stuff now. And I need to sleep. But I stay away from the shelters, I stay away from the shelters.”

“Yeah, well, listen old man. You take your shopping cart and you move along now.”

And as I bundled up, put my hat on and slouched towards the door, leaning over the home I kept in my shopping cart, something spilled out. The man hurrying me on my way picked up what had spilled. “Hey, he said, “These are books. ‘The Man With the Golden Arm’ and ‘All My Friends are Going to Be Strangers. Are these yours? Why you carrying around books?”

To which I stopped. Stood up straight, stopped leaning on my cart, puffed out my chest, and said, “Why do I want books? Well, to answer that, I’d have to tell you about Jill. ‘She had the clearest eyes, the most honest face, I missed it so—ah no chance.’”

“You talk crazy, old man.”

I smiled and said, “So to answer your question. Why am I carrying around these books? Here’s why. Better just to want books—Jill was gone.

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