A Gentleman's Guide to Surviving North by Northwest

by Erika Schmidt

So you’re on the run. The bad news: you’re being pursued by both international spies and by the American police. The good news: you’re a wealthy, white, American male with a snappy tongue and a certain God’s-gift panache about you, so even with a couple of strikes against you, you’ll likely still come out smelling like a rose. Congratulations on that! Still, there are some essentials you’ll do well to remember if you want to escape with that chiseled mug intact.

Do carry cash. You never know when your day is about to be interrupted by a potentially deadly case of mistaken identity. You’ll need to be able to buy tickets willy nilly, hail cabs, bribe bellboys, and execute all sorts of other spur-of-the-moment maneuvers. An empty wallet just won’t do, and with your pedigree, there’s no excuse for having one.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Do maintain a friendly relationship with your mother. Much like your wallet, your mother may prove an important resource, should you find yourself in trouble. In jail? Charged with auto theft and driving under the influence? Being chased by shadowy kidnappers? Call your mother. She’ll at least come over and pay your bail. She may not believe a word you say, but if you bribe her, she may also use her feminine wiles for your benefit. And see? There’s another good reason to carry cash!

Don’t ask why your mother appears to be approximately the same age as you are. Just leave it alone – there’s no good answer for this.

Don’t pull the knife out of a strange man’s back and then stand in the middle of a crowded room over his dead body, especially if the press is there. In fact, if a man is knifed in the back just as he’s about to clear your name and solve the mystery, it’s probably best to not touch the knife in his back at all. You’re better off just freaking out like a normal person would and remaining the allegedly intoxicated car thief you were known as in your simpler days.

illustration by Hallie Batman

illustration by Hallie Batman

Don’t trust women. Anyone who looks like Grace Kelly but isn’t Grace Kelly and uses that many double entendres is probably not your friend. Some things are too good to be true.

Don’t roll around while standing up against the wall of a compartment of a moving train.That doesn’t seem safe or sexy.

Don’t go out to the field. If someone tells you to go out to a remote field of some sort in order to get important information, don’t do it. Seriously: why would you do this? This should go unsaid. Haven’t you ever seen Seven? This never, ever ends well. Just don’t do it.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Do steal a farmer’s truck. It’s not like he needs it or anything.

Don’t trust women (cont.). If “Grace Kelly” is the one who gave you directions to the remote cornfield where you narrowly escaped being killed by a hail of bullets coming from a low-flying crop duster, you should consider reclassifying her from “lady friend” to “mortal enemy.”

Do close the bathroom door and run the shower so your mortal enemy will think you’re occupied. Works every time.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Do use the police as your personal chauffeur. This is not a move that will work for just anyone, but as a suave, clean, white American male, you can and should be so bold. Need to get to the police station? Cause a ruckus at an auction to purposely get yourself arrested so the police will take you directly there. Heck, if you’re really lucky (which you are), when you reveal yourself to be a famous fugitive, they’ll hook you up with just the person to clear your name.

Do roll with the punches. Just when you think your problems are solved and you can go back to Madison Avenue and being on the lookout for the future ex Mrs. You, you may be enlisted to help foil an international espionage plot. When this happens, use your natural charm and the confidence you get from your recently sponged and pressed suit to fall right in line and perform convincingly. Remember, as a high-stakes operative, you probably won’t be briefed on much, and you won’t really know what’s going on, but just go with it.

Don’t underestimate the savvy of your enemy’s “housekeeper.” When sneaking through the house of shadowy spies, remember: just because the spies are out doesn’t mean their “housekeeper” won’t be around to spot you in the reflections of their tchotchkes. She can and will hold you up just long enough for “Grace Kelly” to be whisked away to her death.

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Do be open to reevaluating your relationships. You know the person who can clear your name - the bespectacled CIA type? You might want to prepare to be surprised by what he has to say about “Grace Kelly.” She might not be quite as much of a conniving tramp as you thought (and loudly proclaimed) she was. No need to apologize, or anything. Just, you know, maybe you could eventually marry her, after all.

Do appreciate the power of an unmistakable visual metaphor. A train thrusting itself into a tunnel only means one thing, and we all know what it is.


Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.