Visit to New York City

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(Host) Commentator David Moats reflects on handbags, cell phones, Walt Whitman, and becoming a character in your own story.

(Moats) I had one of those self-aware moments recently on a trip to New York City when I suddenly saw myself in an aisle at Macy’s. For someone not used to this sort of thing, Macy’s can be pretty overwhelming. You’d think the world was suffering a shortage of handbags – the handbag section seemed to stretch for miles.

I might have experienced sensory overload, just taking in the people and the things, until I had that moment of self-awareness, and I saw myself as the Vermonter who had wandered by chance into a weird and interesting place.

In the women’s makeup section, there was the young woman perched on a stool, her boyfriend or young husband waiting patiently beside her, as the cosmetician brushed makeup onto her face. At another counter a middle-aged woman sat glumly waiting for someone to help her. And there I was, taking it all in.

These moments of self-awareness have a way of putting oneself into one’s own story. Rather than being overwhelmed by everything, I could make a story of it.

I think people have a hunger to be part of a story. That explains the mania to be on television. People wonder what they would look like on TV, as if the TV camera would give them a reality they didn’t have in ordinary life. I think that explains the interest in what is called reality TV. People cross over from the ordinary mishmash of daily life into the magical world of television.

Whether it’s magical or not is another question. But there’s a natural desire to see oneself as part of a larger story. So I had a couple of days in New York City, and I tried to take it all in.

I happened to be reading a book about Walt Whitman, the great poet of New York and America, someone who celebrated the teeming variousness of life. Whitman liked to ride the streetcars up and down Broadway. I thought of him as I took in the variousness of what I was seeing.

As I walked uptown, I saw the barons of finance coming and going from their gleaming high-rise palaces. And I saw immigrant Asians at their peddlers’ carts on the sidewalks. People walked down the street jabbering to themselves, and then I realized they were talking into those phones that plug into people’s ears. It was hard to tell them from the ordinary jabbering lunatic, except that, presumably, they had someone on the other end of the line.

I went to Carnegie Hall, circulating among the crowd at intermission. Suddenly someone was talking into my ear. “Oh, it’s a fabulous concert,” she said, “really terrific.” I turned and saw she was talking into a cell phone.

I walked by someone else who was saying something about the orchestra. “Technically, they’re very good,” he said. “Technically.”

Technically, I thought he was a big sourpuss because as far as I could tell the orchestra the orchestra was, actually, terrific. This all became part of the story I was in. It wasn’t TV. It was reality. And I was glad come away from it with a story to tell.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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