Who doesn’t watch television these days? Who doesn’t get addicted to some series and find himself waiting impatiently for the next episode, just like the protagonist of this story? Who doesn’t find herself binge-watching a program, episode after episode? This story by Thierry Horguelin depicts a situation that is familiar to all and common to many, one which goes beyond borders – the escape from stressful reality, or sometimes just from boredom, to the fictional world of television. In this droll and congenial story, the protagonist finds a mysterious partner on screen – the man in the yellow parka. What signals does this enigmatic character send the protagonist, who spends his nights in front of the screen, waiting for a sign that will give some meaning to his life? Which one of them is the prisoner – the one sitting opposite the screen or the one appearing on it? Eventually, reality reclaims the protagonist and the mystery he obsessed about is solved in the same way people have always solved their mysteries – through the story.
Only after a few episodes did I notice him. He was trying to force the door to a rundown house at the corner of a derelict street. He was too far away to pick out his features, but his yellow parka made a blot on the background. In the foreground, Marion and Detective Burns were discussing their current case, without paying him the slightest mind. Vapor escaped their mouths. Winters are cold in Cleveland.
I forget the plots of movies quickly, but I have a good memory for visual details. Don’t ask me to sum up Intimidation or Out of the Night. But I know that in the former there’s a bridging shot where Clive Owen passes a pretty brunette with short hair who pauses for a moment in the background to scratch her shoulder, a charmingly tossed-off gesture (I’d bet my shirt the director picked that take for the grain of truth in it), and that in Out of the Night, on the wall of the seedy diner where the fleeing criminal couple hides out at dawn, there’s a Hopperesque chromo that seems to echo the lovers’ loneliness. To cut to the chase, I was sure I’d seen the man in the parka in an earlier episode of Simple Cops.
I’d come across the series by accident during my nights of insomnia. My prescriptions at the time would leave me muddled all day and overstimulated till late hour. Then, too tired to read but too wound up to sleep, I’d collapse before the small screen and let myself drift into its Bermuda Triangle, the watery grave of shipwrecked shows that make up the wee small hours. Nodding off before a nature documentary, I’d doze my way through an Australian soap from the ‘80s only to wake up in the middle of the nth rerun of Derrick or Cash in the Attic. This image salad would extend into drafts of dreams, and I’d wind up asleep on the sofa, surfacing only at dawn with a heavy head and aching back, while onscreen a dapper Miss Weather announced a day of rain ahead with a radiant smile.
One night, the voice of Detective Burns had roused me from half-slumber. He was clearly not happy. I opened one eye, my radar on alert. Cops. A local precinct. We were in the chief’s glass-walled office. The blinds were drawn against eavesdroppers. It was the classic scene where the experienced “I know the streets” detective gets chewed out by his “rules are rules” superior. With a parting shot, the detective opens the door and makes to leave. Ten to one the chief’ll call him back for a final retort. “Burns?” Bingo. Burns—that’s his name—turns and raises an eyebrow. The chief softens up and hints he’ll cover for him, but tells Burns to be careful. Fade to black. Next comes a sequence in the city where two officers, alerted by the neighbors, find the body of an old lady in her easy chair, dead for a few days already. Wide awake now, I followed the episode with some interest. It wasn’t that bad. Totally watchable, even. A nice change of pace.
A TV weekly I bought the day after informed me of the title of this particular program, and I was surprised to find myself eagerly awaiting the next episode Tuesday at 2:30AM—as if the burly Burns and his colleagues were beckoning me from the other side of the screen. I was alone and depressed, to the point of killing hours checking off the name of every film I’d ever seen in Maltin’s Movie Guide. I was looking for a diversion, a buoy to cling to, anything at all. Simple Cops could do the trick.
Off the top of my head, I’d have dated the series from the beginning of the ‘80s. It was a sort of poor man’s Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue, a respectable if standard police serial, neither great nor awful. I suspected its creators of having launched it to capitalize on the success of Steven Bochco’s productions, which had just renovated the genre from top to bottom. Simple Cops (yeesh, what a terrible title) purported to be a chronicle of everyday life at the precinct. The cast consisted of a dozen cops who formed a representative sampling of the American melting pot. Their work was always interfering with their private lives, and their personal problems—one’s alcoholism, another’s marital woes—were the source of many a subplot. Each episode took place over the course of a day and depicted two, sometimes three parallel investigations that often turned out to be related along the way. Few spectacular crimes; the series tried for realism instead and offered up a mosaic of regular urban violence, all the while highlighting police routine and internal conflicts among the precinct cops, their superiors, the DA’s office, and lawyers. Never wildly original, the writers still demonstrated a certain savvy within the limits of tried and true dramatic situations. This soothing feeling of déjà-vu was not unpleasant in and of itself; such that after a few episodes, as is often the case, you wound up growing fond of the characters, or more precisely, the appealing efforts of the actors—all those dependable workhorses of TV who’d lacked the dash of charisma that launches a career—to make their roles believable.
The only truly original aspect of the series lay in its setting. It took place not in New York or San Fran, nor Miami or Los Angeles, but in a town rarely featured onscreen. Cleveland, as viewers came to know it, was a strange, ghostly city, all endless thoroughfares and vast, oddly deserted plazas. The parks, the headlands, the abandoned neighborhoods, the harbor on Lake Erie, well mined by excellent location scouts, offered a wide variety of settings on which the clearly low production values conferred an almost documentary feel. At heart, the city was the series’ main character. And as in many cop shows, its exploration over the course of investigations that involved every level of society was as a pretext for an x-ray of American social ills: community tensions, de-industrialization, widespread unemployment, and massive poverty—“The Poorest City in America” recurred in the dialogue like a leitmotif, sometimes tinged with resignation, and other times with deliberate self-deprecation, like a joke between guys at the corner.
And now there was the man in the yellow parka.
That the same extra, in the same loud jacket, had ambled through two episodes of a single series was already unusual. Was the production really that broke? But when I saw him again the next week, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Still, there he was, sitting on a bench in the background of a public square, bringing a bottle in a brown paper bag to his lips. What did it mean?
The shot had only lasted a few seconds, just long enough to establish the setting. The POV was already tightening—in medium shot—on Detective Atkinson, deep in discreet conversation with a stoolie. Truth be told, their exchange could barely hold my interest, and I watched the rest of the episode distractedly, my mind on the man in the yellow parka. What could his furtive presence signify? Nothing seemed to justify it. He had no part in the action, and the main characters didn’t even seem to notice him. Burns hadn’t even spared him a glance the week before, no more than Atkinson did now. Was he a side character whose entrance the writers were readying on the sly, a pawn surreptitiously advanced on a narrative chessboard? Why not? Except that his appearances were so subliminal that it seemed unlikely. Or perhaps his presence was an in-joke among the directors, like in Chabrol’s heyday, when you were sure to catch Attal and Zardi in small roles or hear a henchman humming “Fascination”? Or even—but frankly it was doubtful—a constraint gratuitously imposed by a nutcase, Oulipo fan producer? Was it possible the man in the parka figured in every episode of Simple Cops?
While waiting for the next episode, I set about some basic research in my books and online. Which led to the discovery that Simple Cops hadn’t exactly left an enduring impression on the memories of telephiles. Martin Winkler and Christophe Petit made no mention of it in their useful dictionary of TV shows. A single lukewarm review on IMDB, which criticized the series for being a drab carbon copy of NYPD Blue—not completely misguided. Specialized American sites like tvshows.com listed it among a hundred others with full credits and a brief blurb more or less repeated from one site to the next, with few variations. The “Anecdotes,” “Trivia,” or “Production Secrets” sections, where one might hope to find some mention of the man in the parka, were empty. Information was sparse. Still, I learned in passing that the show had only known a brief existence. It had been canceled in the middle of its second season, no doubt because of low ratings. For that same reason, it hadn’t been released on DVD—or I would have rushed to order it. All the same, sifting stubbornly through several pages of links the search engine had undiscerningly tossed up, I finally found a more complete page on an Australian site, including an episode guide with short synopses. This codex would prove useful in finding my footing, since the series, relegated to nightly spackle for programming gaps on a local affiliate, was clearly being broadcast all out of order.
From that point on, I systematically recorded the episodes while continuing to watch them as broadcast. I’d come to enjoy my Tuesday date in the silence of the night: feeling the city asleep around me strengthened my privileged connection to Cleveland’s cops. Notebook in hand, I also began watching the series with a new eye, no longer caring at all about following the cases (rather repetitive in the long run), or finding out if Burns would reconcile with his delinquent son; if Atkinson would tie the knot with the adorable Marion Sanders, whom he hit on with touching awkwardness; if Morales would beat his cancer and Resnick divorce his wife who cheated on him left and right. Instead, I attentively scrutinized every nook and cranny of each shot, keeping an eye out for the mysterious extra’s next appearance. And to my great astonishment, my wildest hypothesis was confirmed. The man in the yellow parka figured in each and every episode—at least in the dozen I saw, since I’d started midseason. He never left the background, played no role in the plot. And yet, as I fit the puzzle pieces together, a certain coherence eventually emerged from his successive appearances. They seemed to trace the dotted outline of a parallel story, the career of a poor guy going to seed.
- In Season 1, Episode 3 (the oldest one I saw), he was crossing the street with a halting step, casting worried looks all around.
- In S01E05, you can see him coming out of the store next door to where Sanders and Colson are investigating an armed robbery, and almost immediately, entering the next store down.
- In S01E06, he’s going through the revolving door to the courthouse while Bauer gets told off by the DA on the steps in the foreground.
- S01E07 was the one where I noticed him for the first time, trying to enter an abandoned house.
- In S01E09, he feeds pigeons in a park.
- In S01E10, he emerges at the end of a hallway in the precinct and makes a beeline for a locked closet door, rattling it violently (the guy seems really obsessed with doors).
- S01E12 is the one where he’s boozing it up at the far end of the square where Atkinson is meeting with the stoolie.
- For the first and only time, he makes two appearances in S01E13. First we see him panhandling on a sidewalk, while Colson and Thaddeus proceed to arrest a dealer in the foreground. A bit later on, he slips between two loose slats in a fence around a construction site.
- In S02E01, he’s negotiating on a doorstep with a retiree who then slams the door in his face.
- I almost missed him in S02E02. And yet there he was, lying around with other homeless people in an industrial squat that Burns and Morales visit in search of a vanished witness.
- It’s in S02E05 that we get the best look at him. Bauer and Resnick are on a stakeout in a van under an overpass. Bums warm themselves around a fire in an oil drum. Among them is the man in the yellow parka (not that yellow anymore; in fact, more dirty gray)—poorly shaven, features gaunt, gaze lost.
It’s strange to watch a film or series while focusing on the backgrounds and edges of the frame. You develop a curious attentional walleye, and realize that most of the time you don’t really watch movies. On one hand, you keep following the unfolding plot despite yourself. You register names, facts; you sense a twist coming up; you figure out who’s guilty. On the other, you find that even the most conventional fiction is full of bizarre, surprising, incongruous, or simply poignant details, sometimes deliberately arranged by the director—whose reasons aren’t always clear—sometimes recorded unbeknownst to him by the camera, like the short-haired girl in Intimidation: fleeting, fragile moments, gestures all the more precious for being involuntary, forever imprisoned in the frame… Aren’t these, at heart, our most secret reason for loving movies? I noticed several such details in Simple Cops. Monica, the pretty precinct receptionist, had an inexhaustible collection of sweaters. She wore a new one every episode. Thaddeus, Bauer, and Mentell were all left-handed—three lefties on the same show? And what to make of the excessive proliferation of watches, wall clocks, clock radios, sometimes shot in close-up when suspense demanded it, but more often in the background or the edges of the frame, like a furtive, barely hinted obsession? And how to take all that graffiti in the form of cries for help—“Help!”, “Get me out of this!”—which showed up at regular intervals in exterior shots, spraypainted on walls or scribbled hastily in phone booths?
This goose chase lasted three months. One Tuesday, I settled into the sofa, remote in hand, ready to start recording. At 2:33, after the gauntlet of commercials, two uniformed strangers suddenly appeared instead of the familiar titles—a beanpole of a blonde and a well-built black man, getting out of a NYPD car. Goddammit! They’d stopped broadcasting Simple Cops without warning! And replaced it with another old stopgap of a show. I was furious.
Over the next few days, I met with another disappointment. Trying to re-watch the episodes, I found out that unbeknownst to me, my VCR had started giving up the ghost (like most everyone I knew, I recorded lots of things I only watched months later). The picture was warped, snowy, unwatchable. It was impossible to see a thing in such conditions. I’d taped a whole bunch of movies during the same period, and they were unwatchable too. I thought of my old friend Bernard, a fanatical cinephile who always checked to see the film he’d set the VCR to tape the night before had been properly recorded. He was right. I could’ve kicked myself.
Simple Cops had come to occupy such a place in my aimless life that I might’ve sunken into very real doldrums, if it hadn’t gotten a call two days later about a job with a cultural delegation to Germany that I’d applied for but never really thought I’d get. I was among four people who’d made it to the final round. The interview was held a few days later and went unbelievably well, maybe because I hadn’t entertained any false hopes. My German came back all on its own, with an ease that amazed me. A week later, they called to say that despite my having been a very competitive candidate—blah blah blah—they’d decided to go with someone else. But a second job that needed urgent filling had unexpectedly opened up in Berlin, and they’d thought of me. Of course the responsibilities weren’t the same, and the salary was lower as a result. Perhaps I might even be overqualified for the posting? The man on the other end of the line seemed apologetic. I pretended to think for a moment before accepting, not letting on that solution could have suited me more. I’ve never liked having, as he put it, “responsibilities.” I had to pack, fill out a pile of paperwork, find a subletter. My days were suddenly very full.
I liked Berlin right from the start. I felt like I’d just emerged from a long hibernation. There was a great deal of work; office hours often spilled over into evenings and weekends, but it didn’t bother me. From time to time, I remembered the man in the yellow parka. I even brought him up with a few close coworkers, but none of them knew the series and my words were met with polite, skeptical silence. This was a bit before TV’s big boom in popularity: most people who worked in the culture sector weren’t interested in those kinds of stories, which they condescendingly considered by-products of mass culture. Since I was already thought of as the department joker, I didn’t insist, and steered the conversation toward a book or an exhibit.
The first six months went by like a dream. One fall morning, checking the movie listings in the paper, I saw an ad for a new American release, The Cleveland Ultimatum. I didn’t recognize the director’s name but, remembering all the hours I’d spent in that city in the company of Detective Burns and his teammates, I went to see the movie the next Saturday afternoon. It was a big, fairly leaden thriller with endless shoot-outs, a conspiracy whose mastermind was of course some CIA bigwig, and the insufferable kind of editing inevitable these days, where the angles change every three seconds to give the film the illusion of rhythm and mask the fact that the director doesn’t know where to put the camera. If it hadn’t taken place in Cleveland, I’d have left after twenty minutes. But I was happy to catch a glimpse, however briefly, of the Terminal Tower again, and Erie Harbor, and the arches of the Detroit-Superior Bridge.
The shot went by so fast I thought I was seeing things. But that little yellow spot in the background—wasn’t that the man in the yellow parka? Valiantly I endured the avalanche of inept incidents till the end of the film and stayed for the next showing. When the sequence in question came up again, I had no more doubts. Many years had gone by between Simple Cops and the shooting of The Cleveland Ultimatum. His beard had grayed. His hair had thinned. But it was him, in his old yellow parka, that I saw on a street corner, with two other vagrants. I was flabbergasted.
On my way out of the theatre, I was assailed by all sorts of thoughts. Quite banal ones, really. I thought that while my life had just taken a turn, other lives s had remained inexorably stuck at an impasse. A bit like when you go back to the neighborhood where you grew up and find the lady at the bakery’s still there behind the counter. The man in the yellow parka was just like her. While the world turned, he’d continued his wandering existence for all these years without being able to leave Cleveland; or—the phrase took shape of its own accord in my mind, so quickly I was dumbfounded—without being able to leave the image of Cleveland.
Sometimes chance hastens things in strange ways. The next week I was sent on an assignment to Cologne. At the evening’s end, I went back to the hotel exhausted, collapsed on the bed, turned on the TV while noisily kicking my shoes off, and started channel surfing. I stopped on Eurosport, where there was a game of snooker underway that I watched till the end, trying to remember the rules, a red ball then a colored ball—I’ve always been fascinated by that game. After which I started surfing again, flipping quickly through five or six channels, then back: I’d just spotted big ol’ Burns. It was an episode of Simple Cops, one I’d never seen before. I turned up the sound. Naturally, the series was dubbed in German, which highlighted the strangeness of stumbling across it by chance here, of all places, in a hotel room, although still late at night. The plot also proceeded at a different pace, with something awkward about it, as if the writers hadn’t found their rhythm yet. It seemed to be endless exposition where the characters were introduced in turn, and several storylines whose resolutions I already knew were sketched out. After fifteen minutes, I realized I was watching the pilot.
So I waited, hoping the appearance of the man in the parka—his first appearance—hadn’t gone by yet. And soon I saw him, lying on a park bench where various people were walking about, among them loving couples, mothers with strollers, and finally Burns and Atkinson crossing the frame to sit down a bit farther off. The two cops weren’t on duty or discussing the current case, but rather their personal problems. The sequence ended as it had begun, with a long shot of the park. The man in the parka was still sleeping on his bench.
And as the episode went on and sleep overtook me, I caught a glimpse of what had happened that day, as they were shooting Simple Cops. It was a scene with lots of extras, a ballet of passersby that must have taken a lot of rehearsal to get right. The second AD had asked the extra in the yellow parka to just lie down on a bench and play a sleeping homeless man. They’d rehearsed, fine-tuned a few details—you, lady with the stroller, walk faster; loving couple, you go slower—done five or six takes. Lying in the sun, the man in the parka had wound up falling asleep for real. When the director was satisfied, the AD had sent the extras home while the crew packed up. They’d ignored the man in yellow lying on his bench. When he’d woken up an hour later, the park was empty.
How had he realized he’d slipped into another plane of reality? Quite naturally, he must’ve wanted to go home to his wife and kids, but that was no longer possible, since his house hadn’t been filmed. So he’d spent days and even weeks going round in circles in a virtual Cleveland that expanded as the production of Simple Cops consumed expanded to new locations. When he ran out of money, he’d started begging to get by, sleeping where he could, making friends with other homeless people. Maybe sometimes he let loose and told his story to his comrades in misery. The guys would laugh without malice, taking him for a harmless, sweet-natured nutcase, and pass him the bottle again. And all the while, he’d be looking desperately for an exit, a way back to the other side, the right side of the set. He’d go in everywhere, try every door, but utterly in vain. In a warehouse where he’d squatted, he found old cans of spraypaint he used to graffiti SOS on the wall. One day—who knew?—someone might notice his presence? But ten years later, when The Cleveland Ultimatum was shot, he was still a prisoner of that strange parallel world world between worlds, only visible to cameras. Perhaps a this very moment he is still wandering from street to street, door to door, in hopes of someday finding a way out of the screen.
*Permission given by Dalkey Archive Press, first appeared in Best Europe Fiction 2014.