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REALITY TAKES A HOLIDAY : Life as Choreographed in Hollywood

My second day in town, a woman who was simply walking by a construction site on the Upper East Side was felled and badly hurt when a crane toppled over on her. The next day, a mail carrier shot one man, then took a second man hostage at the post office, resulting in a massive police blockade downtown. At midnight the same day, hotel workers went on strike, picketing hotels and marching through midtown with placards and chants.

What struck me about all this was not just the odd clustering of events but the way people, including myself, reacted to them. So accustomed are we to watching life’s horrors reported on TV or portrayed in film that many of us react as if what we’re seeing--or even participating in--isn’t really happening.

It goes without saying that the unexpected, good or bad, takes a little time to adjust to, but I think we also frequently draw our behavioral cues from the familiar images of film and TV.

There’s the freeze frame, for instance, when we get our bearings and adjust to the surprise event or news. There’s the long shot as we fuse with the environment again. We’re usually off-camera when we truly deal with whatever it is, but when life comes in for the close-up, we are often extraordinarily disengaged.

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Take the crane incident. There was extensive coverage here about the many other tragedies in the woman’s life--two bouts with cancer, deaths of a husband and child--but observers also dealt at great length with Brigitte Gerney’s composure in the face of terrible disaster. (Her legs were partly crushed.) According to newspaper reports, she not only heralded the policemen who tried to free her but worried aloud about their safety in coming to her rescue.

I first heard about the crane incident secondhand--two women got off an elevator complaining about how all the commotion had caused a huge traffic jam, trapping their bus--but I was downtown during the post office siege. And what amazed me in retrospect was that when I first saw that Church Street was blocked off, I assumed they were shooting a movie. The number of people standing around idly eating hot dogs, pretzels and God knows what else had only confirmed my suspicions.

As I approached my hotel late that night, I spotted another sizable cluster of policemen. Learning from experience, I concluded that another employee had another employer hostage. I found myself largely correct, in fact, because just minutes later, the clock struck midnight and about 200 hotel employees began picketing the New York Hilton, one of the main targets of their strike. Their chanting went on all night, and although I wasn’t lodged at the Hilton, I was staying just across the street, and missed little of the aural action.

Yet, much as everyone else seemed quite uninterested in hundreds of hotel employees marching down 57th Street surrounded by policemen and police cars, so did I find that the chanting soon became a sort of white noise to me. I talked with the doorman at my hotel about the strike in purely objective terms--what were their grievances, how did the strike affect him, etc.--rather than asking such piercing subjective questions as whether this meant I would have to haul my steamer trunks, hat boxes and bird cages down to the lobby myself.

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We journalists have always had justification readily available to remove ourselves from reality. (“Of course I’m doing a story on porno movies. Why else would I be here?”) But there are more and more laymen keeping us company. And given just the least bit of media attention, they’re reaching for their top hats and canes.

Considering how brief the limelight for most of us, we want to maximize it. We want to be polite and--above all--articulate during the 15 minutes of celebrity that Andy Warhol once guaranteed every one of us. The proverbial man in the street has seen so many TV interviews that he now has the snappy patter of a professional. (“Why yes, Walter, I felt bad losing my entire family during the tornado. You see, we’d planned to go to Florida for the summer and. . . .”)

Wherever we are becomes just a backdrop, and the way I see it, we’re all just extras waiting for film crews to land in our neighborhoods. So if they come looking for me, tell them I’m back in Los Angeles and headed for the beach. It seems safer there.


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