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 Ninety-first and Madison. According to the snazzy Streetwise Manhattan pocket map a friend gave me upon my arrival in New York, I need to hop on the 6 Train at 14th and Park Avenue South, ride it to 96th Street and then jaunt five blocks south and two blocks west. Iím $1.50 and a five-minute walk away ... from Woody.

When I revealed to close friends that I had accepted a job in New York City, the first question they asked, without exception, was, ďSo, are you going to stalk Woody Allen when you get there?Ē I chuckled, let out an amused sigh and then shot them a steely glance and said, ďYes. Of course.Ē

Little bit you should know about me. Growing up in a small Southern Illinois town, it was difficult to find others like me, other neurotic little simps who would much rather sit and muse and philosophize about love, death and the meaning of it all than swig beers while sitting on the hood of your Corvette in a cornfield (as Iíve gotten older, Iíve learned to combine all these things). The closest I could come was my best friend Tim, and even he was a little too cool for the job. I mean, he was smart and read books by Tom Wolfe, too deep for a Shel Silverstein junkie like myself, so he was out, though he would occasionally suffice as a reasonable substitute.

Then Tim and I discovered Woody. We were 16 and had only recently discovered that we shared a manic, depraved love of the movies. We were coming to the devotion somewhat late, so we made a practice on Saturday nights - while normal kids were out prematurely ejaculating like a 16-year-old is supposed to - to rent all the famous movies we could find and get caught up. We grabbed Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Raging Bull, the essentials. Then one evening, Tim suggested a film called Annie Hall, which I had heard of mainly because I knew Paul Simon was in it.

We brought it back to my home, and it was like nothing Iíd ever seen. Here was this nebbishy little man, ethnic in some way I didnít quite know but certainly understood - there are no Jewish people in my hometown; Catholic is about as eclectic as you get in Mattoon - who was disarmingly smart, roaringly funny and achingly sad. He was a guy like me, a nerdy bookish type who was trying to figure it all out - relationships, life, death, family, toasters. I was intrigued but not yet hooked. I then, on my own, rented Play It Again, Sam, Woody and Herbert Rossí 1972 valentine to Casablanca and the movies.

Now he had me. Woody played Allan Felix, a film writer who was, in turn, klutzy, ridiculous, smart, funny, perverted, weird and sweet. When his on-screen wife left him, complaining he was a helpless dreamer with no real concrete plans to do anything, I could have cried. I had found him; there was another like me. Woody Allen was saying, analyzing, living parts of my life before Iíd even realized they had occurred. And yet, somehow, he was a hero, attracting beautiful women and doing the right thing in the end, trying to find a way to make it through the day when he knows it all ends in death anyway, kvetching all the way. Suddenly, seeing Woody Allen, I knew being the way I was was OK, that it wasnít so strange. I was 16, but I knew Iíd found my muse.

Oh, was I ever hooked. After Tim and I saw Husbands and Wives - my first Woody Allen movie in a theater - and I realized that Woody had ideas about the darker sides of life that made as much sense as anything Iíd ever even considered, my friends began to notice a distinct change in me. I began to talk like Woody Allen, stutter like Woody Allen, gesture wildly like Woody Allen, walk hunched over like Woody Allen, think like Woody Allen. My obsession dominated every aspect of my life, and, well, I guess it still does.

Right before Tim - who was a huge Woody fan but seemed to be intelligent and self-assured enough not to let him take over his entire life - left for film school at the University of Southern California, we got together for a marathon viewing of all Woodyís films, 22 at the time. We watched them all, straight through, with occasional conjugal visits from sympathetic friends who wondered what, exactly, had happened to Tim and Will. But we made it, we saw them all, even September, and my mom wonders if it might have forever messed me up even worse than she and my dad could have.

And itís actually gotten more extreme. Iíve been idolizing Woody and his films for so long, I donít even know where my developing his persona starts and I end. Every fall, when his new film inevitably comes out (except for this year, when Small Time Crooks, with Hugh Grant and Tracey Ullman, comes out in March ... yippee!), itís like a trek to Mecca for me.

The best birthday Iíve ever had was my 20th, which I spent in a crowded theater in Champaign, Illinois, watching a sneak preview of Mighty Aphrodite with Roger Ebert and other Daily Illini alumni. (At the end of the film, Ebert, who through e-mail correspondence knew I was a psychotic Woody fan, waddled over to me and asked what I thought of the film. Ebert, a fellow Southern Illinois boy, had always been an example to me of how hard work and talent can get you out of the twisted cycle of small towns, and he was a secondary hero. When Ebert asked me my opinion, my head exploded and my body burst into flames.)

I can tell you who, where and when Iíve seen each Woody Allen movie for the first time (including in the three biggest cities in the country: Sweet and Lowdown with Jami in New York, Deconstructing Harry with Tim in Los Angeles, Everyone Says I Love You with MDS in Chicago). My first published writing was a review of Manhattan Murder Mystery. Once, in a fit of extreme boredom and dementia, I even organized an In Defense of Woody Allen club to fight off anybody who dared to smear Woody for that whole Soon-Yi scandal thing. (Tim had moved by that point, so the club had an enrollment of one.)

Now, for the first time in my life, Woody is not just a figment of my fiction world anymore. Heís right here, here in town, the town I live in. I reside in Manhattan ... the same place Woody does! He doesnít play at his Monday night jazz club as often as he used to, so Iím not sure I can find him there. Iíve frequented a Greenwich Village place called Chumleyís - where Woody filmed a scene in Sweet and Lowdown - thinking he might show. He hasnít yet.

OK, Iíve been here a month now, and thatís too long to live in the same city as Woody without finding him, telling him how heís changed my life, how lost I would have been, would be, without his films and his words and his life. Yeah, true, itís called stalking in some circles, and some people even consider it illegal, but sheesh, Woody should just be happy he has crazed fans, considering how little his movies have been making at the box office lately.

Woodyís getting up there in years, and heís recently flirted with the idea of moving to Europe with Soon-Yi. Itís clear Iím running out of time. Is it unreasonable for me to think that someone who has meant so much in my life, for better or worse, should cross my path at some point? Doesnít he deserve to know? And if I have to push it along ... so be it.

So, the 6 Train at 14th and Park Avenue South, to 96th, five blocks south, two blocks west. According to the new issue of The New Yorker, Woody and Soon-Yi just moved into a ďhandsome, double-width Georgian town houseĒ in the Carnegie Hill neighborhood. Easy.

Maybe if I approach him nicely, with my hands in the air, telling how much of an effect heís had on my life, maybe he wonít call the police, maybe he wonít be freaked out, maybe he wonít be scared.

I donít know ... would you be?



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