Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid
The first time Renko Wallinski saw Casablanca, he was an usher at one of the decrepit downtown movie theaters when his grasp of English was not total at the time.
He was, however, completely enraptured when the screen filled with Ingrid Bergman’s face imbued with tears in her eyes over her chance meeting with Rick in his Tunisian cafe. The letters of transfer were still in Bogart’s possession.
“Renko, I am not paying you to gawk.” Mr. Flynn tapped the big man on his shoulder.
“Sorry, sir.” He saluted touching the corner of his cap with his fingers.
“I need you to sweep up the aisles like I told you to do.” He snarled at his young immigrant employee. Shaun Flynn was a crotchety old man who was not above paying less than minimum wage to an ignorant galoot from an Eastern European country he had never heard of until Renko came. He knew that Renko had snuck one of the movie posters home and had it framed.
Bogie and Bergman.
Bunch of sappy stuff as far as Flynn was concerned.
Having grown up in a rough Irish neighborhood within sight of Hell’s Kitchen, Shaun Flynn was a numbers runner for some of the Irish hoods running off-track betting. His older brother Cory was one of the thugs who was gunned down in an open war in the streets when Shaun was still in school. A few years later he quit school to avenge his older brother, but all he got was an early draft notice to Korea. Serving on the front line in the Chosen during one of the coldest winters on record helped construct a better road than becoming a lifelong criminal. With a VA loan, Shaun bought the Bijou Theater on the north end of Flatbush where he was told it was a hot spot.
Maybe once it had been a hot spot, but in 1955, the Bijou had become a sad prospect with rusted plumbing and a leaky roof. Since it rained quite often in Flatbush, the carpet became moldy and never seemed to completely dry out. Once this theater was a jewel, but it had lost its luster over time until it had fallen into ruin, but it was all Shaun could afford.
In order to make a profit, he showed old movies at a discount admission and no matter how the kids packed the place for Saturday morning matinees, but even then the profit margin remained slim.
As a result, Shaun all he could afford was a single room flat with an efficiency kitchen a few blocks away from the Bijou. Smoking his beloved stogies almost every night had given his confined dwelling a distinct aroma no amount of air freshener could mask. Any potential romantic connection he could manage was chased away by the odor until he simply had given up any hope of romance.
Renko came into the theater on a rainy night. In broken English, he asked for an application. Shaun made sure the big man filled out the application before he departed. His handwriting was poor at best, but Shaun could read it.
Slovenia? Where the heck was that he wondered. According to the application he was married and had two children.
“Hey Renko.” He looked up into the big man’s invisible blue eyes. “It says here you are married.”
“Yah.” He nodded.
“So where is your wife?” Shaun shrugged.
“In Slo-ven-ia.” He pointed. “It was once a country until the Russians came.”
“Sure, sure.” Shaun had no concept of the world outside Brooklyn.
“One day I send for her.” He smiled with more teeth than Shaun had ever seen.
“Great.” Shaun shrugged again, “When can you start?”
“To-day, eh?” He nodded.
“I do need someone to sweep up the aisles in the theater.” Shaun put his hand to his bony chin. Pointing to a door behind the counter, “The broom is in that closet. Grab it and sweep the aisles in the theater.”
Standing behind the counter, Shaun read the paper noting the race results at Saratoga to see if he had won any greenbacks, but he sighed deeply when he saw he had struck out again. Cursing to himself he put the newspaper away realizing that his newly hired help had been gone quite a while. He decided to go check on the new man.
Upon entering the theater, he saw Renko standing there completely engrossed in the black and white images flickering across the screen. When he got closer, he saw Renko’s cheeks were wet with tears.
“Renko, you are supposed to be sweeping.” Shaun was miffed that his new employee was transfixed by the drama unfolding on the screen.
“Sow-ry boss.” He began to move the broom across the moldy carpet.
Things since that first night hadn’t changed that much. Renko always got to work on time and he was very well liked by the patrons even though Shaun suspected he was giving away certain products. He was once told that his family nearly starved during the winter before Stalin died. Some of the customers, especially the adolescents would tell sob stories about not having the money to pay for their snacks.
“You can’t give away stuff for free.” Shaun warned Renko.
“Back home many people have only cabbage to eat.” He answered as he popped some popcorn.
“Sure, sure, but make sure the customer pays for what you are selling, alright?” Shaun was agitated with having to explain this to him just about every night.
It got even worse when he got a copy of Casablanca. Despite the fact that the movie was an old favorite, showing it proved to be popular with the customers.
“They don’t make them like that, do they?” He heard some of the patrons remark as they left the Bijou.
But the drawback to showing Casablanca was that Renko became enraptured by the movie. He never shirked on his duties, but having him stand there watching the movie each night it was shown became a source of irritation for Shaun.
He would show other movies, but on Friday nights, Casablanca would fill the seats in the theater. It would also turn Renko into a statue in the main aisle. No one ever complained, but it bothered Shaun very much.
“So what’s the big deal?” Sal would ask as he dealt the cards on their weekly poker night. Salvatore Spenilli had a nice place down on the better side of town. He would make sure there were all sorts of goodies from the Italian deli around the corner.
“I dunno.” Shaun raked in his cards and grimaced.
“He’s a nice guy, right?” Sal shrugged.
“Yeah, he’s alright.” Shaun answered.
“Sounds like he misses his wife.” Norton added as he placed a couple chips into the kitty on the table.
“So what?” Shaun shot back, not making any bones about the disappointment of the cards in his hand.
“Well, a lot of men pine for their wives when they are far away from them.” Spooky replied as his Adam’s Apple moved like a piston when he spoke.
“He was singing full voice.” One of the patrons reported as he filed out of the Bijou.
“Renko.” Shaun called out as Renko entered the mezzanine.
“Yes boss.” Renko sauntered over. Shaun immediately noticed he was dressed like Humphrey Bogart in the movie.
“Were you singing? I mean while the movie was playing?” Shaun asked.
“Once Dooley Wilson starts playing, I can’t help myself.” Renko nodded.
“I am not paying you to sing.” Shaun’s face turned scarlet red.
“It’s alright, boss, there were people who applauded.” Renko winked.
“It’s not alright.” Shaun stuck his index finger in the big man’s face. “People want to watch the movie without you distracting them with your wobble.”
Renko left the theater shamefaced.
His room at the YMCA was small. On one of the walls over his bed hung the large framed poster he had pilfered from the Bijou.
Sitting on his bed, Renko bowed his head so far it almost was between his knees.
“I am Rick.” He muttered over and over to himself. “I own Rick’s Café.”
After a few minutes he got up, walked to his dilapidated dresser where an old phonograph was set, and he turned on the player. The tiny room filled with music.
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
"Of All The Gin Joints In All The Towns In All The World, She Walks Into Mine." Renko repeated in his best Humphrey Bogart voice. At that moment, he was standing by a grand piano manned by Dooley Wilson telling him “if it was good enough for her then it was good enough for him…play it.”
“Hey, turn that down.” A voice shouted through the walls.
Anna was just sixteen when they got married. He was a partisan and was only twenty years old when the Russian army began to roll west. The German army was in full retreat.
“Anna, we must get married.” He told her waking up next to her on a warm spring morning at sunrise. He could hear the engines of the tanks and the voices of men speaking in German.
“You are in such a hurry.” She said with a yawn.
“The Russians are on their way.” He got out of bed wearing just his underwear and peered out the window.
“You sound as if the end of the world is coming tomorrow.” She shook her head pulling the blanket over her, “Come back to bed.”
“If the Russians arrive, they must know I fought as a partisan.” He sniffed.
“They will know.” She smiled, “Now come back to bed.”
They did arrive that day and immediately took them both into custody. While his Russian was flawed at times, he spoke to the commanding officer, telling him they were partisans. Judging from the expression on his face, the officer did not hold partisans in high regard.
“Are you Jewish?” He sneered.
“Da.” Renko nodded.
“We have no use for Jews in our army, comrade.” The officer lit a cigarette and blew the smoke in Renko’s face.
“I do not wish to join the ranks of your army. We just want to go in peace.” He turned to her, but Anna’s face was frozen in fear.
“Go in peace? There is a war going on.” He blew more smoke in Renko’s face.
“We have fought the Germans at every junction.” Renko explained.
“And now you want peace? There is no time for peace, comrade.” More smoke.
“If we are no use to you, let us go.” Renko coughed.
“If you are no use to us, then we will dispose of you as we have all the other rubbish we have found.” He smiled and tossed the cigarette over his shoulder.
As they had for almost four years, Anna and Renko slipped away in the night through the woods which had become their home. Somewhere over the German border, they found a plane about ready to take off. It was an allied plane, but it bore no markings. The pilot spoke English while his co pilot spoke Polish which Renko understood.
“He says he only has room for one passenger.” Renko told Anna, “They are flying to England in a few minutes.”
“You go.” Anna pushed him toward the plane.
“No Anna, you must go.” He insisted.
“If they catch you, you will be marked for execution.” She glanced at the two engine transport, propellers revved and ready to launch.
“And you?” He held her cold hands.
“I am a woman. They will do to me as they wish.” She shook her head.
“I will send for you.” He said as he put his foot on the ladder.
“And I will come. I will wait for your Renko.” She kissed him on the cheek.
A few months later, the letter he sent to her came back with “address unknown” stamped on the envelope. The ink used on the stamp was washed away by his tears.
“I like John Wayne action movies.” Shaun said as he picked up the cards Spooky had dealt him.
“Sure, sure.” Sal nodded.
“Heard you had a good week.” Norton attempted to start a conversation before the game hit full stride.
“It was okay.” Shaun nodded as he looked at his promising hand.
“Running numbers still?” Sal sat back in his chair and pushed back his fedora revealing his thinning hairline and his olive dark features including a thick uninterrupted brow.
“Sure, sure.” Shaun coughed as the cigar smoke got thicker.
“Numbers are for chumps.” Sal laughed.
“I do alright.” Shaun stuck out his lip.
“Alright boys, let’s keep things civil, okay.” Spooky replied, unfolding his cards like a fan.
“Hey, how’s that idiot you got working for you doing?” Norton asked after throwing a chip into the kitty.
“He’s as dumb as they get.” Shaun laughed, turning his sour mood into something more socially acceptable. “He was singing in the middle of the auditorium.”
“No kidding? What was he singing?” Spooky laughed.
“As Time Goes By.” Shaun answered.
“That clunky tune from Casablanca?” Spooky chomped on his cigar.
“My old lady loves that film.” Norton smiled, “It is so romantic.”
“Keep your romance to yourself, Nor.” Shaun shot back. “As I was saying, I like action films.”
“Me too.” Norton added.
“But old Renko loves that film.” Shaun shrugged.
“Some guys do.” Norton chuckled, his cigar bobbled a bit in his mouth when he did.
“I think it was a pretty good movie, you know.” Sal nodded.
“I just don’t want him singing while the movie is playing to paying customers.” Shaun cocked his head and glared at Sal.
“Could be worse things.” Sal shook his head.
“I wonder what the hook is?” Norton put three cards down on the table and Spooky gave him three more to replace them.
“Hook?” Shaun put two cards on the table.
“Yeah, there’s always a reason why guys like movies. There’s a hook that catches them like a fishing hook catches a fish.” Norton noted.
“That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.” Shaun laughed.
“I thought it was quite astute.” Sal tossed four cards on the table.
“Where is this guy from? Upstate?” Norton asked.
“Naw, he’s from Slovenia.” Shaun tossed a couple of chips into the kitty.
“What the heck is that?” Norton’s face twisted into a question mark.
“I dunno.” Shaun replied, “He said it was part of Czechoslovakia. He told me it used to be a country until the Ruskies came.”
“That part of the world ain’t never gonna be right.” Norton put his cards on the table. The others followed suit.
Renko was fired when he was caught singing “As Time Goes By.” Shaun told him that he had been warned. With his large shoulders slumped, Renko exited the Bijou and walked home in the rain. In his rant, Shaun told Renko that he would never play Casablanca again under any circumstances.
“It reminds me of her.” He managed to say as he put his raincoat on.
“Who?” Shaun put his hands on his hips.
“Anna.” This would be the last word he would say to Shaun.
As he walked to his room at the YMCA, the movie faded into black as Humphrey Bogart walked with Claude Rains talking about the start of a beautiful friendship. As The End flashes across the screen before the final credits, Renko crosses over a bridge. When he looks over the side, he sees the black water flow beneath the abutment.
“I miss you Anna.” He puts one leg over the rail. “As that movie played…you came alive for me. It was you and me on that screen.”
He put his other leg over and sat on the rail.
“Whacha doing?” A beat policeman asked, seeing Renko sitting precariously on the rail.
The policeman startled Renko, but standing there in the dim streetlight, he resembled Claude Rains.
“Whadda say you come down and we have a chat?” The policeman peered over the side at the twenty foot drop into the drink. “There’s nothing that could be that bad.”
“C’mon, I’ll take you to the station and get you a cup of coffee.” He suggested.
“Very well.” Renko turned himself and put his feet back on the pavement.
“Where are you from? You seem to have a slight accent.” He noted.
“Slovenia.” He answered.
“Really? We have a desk sergeant who claims to be from the same place.” The policeman said as they walked the rain slick streets.
This is where the final credits were supposed to roll, but they didn’t.
When they walked into the station, Renko got this strange sensation. Upon hearing the voice, he stopped in his tracks.
“Her name is Anna Klevotovich.” The policeman pointed to the woman behind the counter.
“Anna?” He knew instantly even after all this time.
“Renko?” She stood up. Her blue eyes were wide.
“How?” Was all he could manage to say.
“I found my way.” She touched his face.
“I can’t believe it.” He embraced her, “Just like the movies. Just like the movies.”
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by
While movies are just reflections of the possibilities of what life can bring, it can never replace the reality that actually comes in the end, just before the end credits…here’s looking at you, kid.