We learned today via the Amy's Robot Link Factory™ that George Plimpton, who throughout his prolific career wrote books on everything from baseball to Shackleton, has left the Upper East Side of this world and moved up to that penthouse in the sky. Upon hearing the news of his death, I couldn't help but wax reflective on the time I met the famed author, editor, and occasional actor. He was buying a camcorder at Circuit City on East 86th Street.
As I watched him question a sales associate about the advantages of MiniDV over Hi-8, I knew I was watching a master at work. Throughout the interview he plied the the associate's knowledge with the same avid curiosity we've seen him use a hundred times in The Paris Review. As he soaked up the differences between optical and digital zoom, it seemed as if he were discussing with Phillip Roth the more difficult social metaphors of Portnoy's Complaint. His learned avuncularity elicited responses of surprising depth from his subject, who expounded on the virtues of 10x optical zoom much more, I think, than he ordinarily would have, and we were both left with a profound comprehension of the matter.
When he said, "So -- let me understand -- I can hook this up to my computer?", I was reminded of his earlier delicate exploration of the poet Marianne Moore's imagination -- as Plimpton implied, each in their own ways struggles to capture the transient, the fleeting, the momentary, and isolate and preserve it for a more studied analysis at some later time. True, I already was impressed, but even these subtle gestures couldn't have prepared me for what came next. When Plimpton reached for the camcorder and held its viewfinder to his eye, I recognized the moment for what it was: a coda to Plimpton's career of participatory journalism. "Let me see how this thing works," he said, seemingly shedding the role of the journalist in favor of a new one, that of "Consumer Electronics Purchaser." But I knew that although he appeared to be a mere customer, beneath that facade the passionate heart of a journalist beat steadily, and his mind registered each element of the experience: the feel of the zoom button on his forefinger, the weight of the unit in his hand, the visual chaos of the camera's demo mode, which applied a dizzying array of video effects to everything that came within his line of sight. "I see, I see," he said, expressing an almost intuitive understanding of how 1-touch sepia tone could add a bit of pre-emptive nostalgia to any special family memory. By the time he got around to placing a Memory Stick in the camera's magnetic media slot, he and the sales associates were more than just reporter and subject: they were friends, teammates, partners.
When Plimpton finally committed to the purchase, having explored all his options with the alacrity that had aided him so much when bullfighting, boxing, or figuring out William Styron, everyone silently applauded yet another Plimpton masterwork. As he signalled the end of the session by autographing his credit card receipt, he reclaimed the mantle of "George Plimpton, Reporter" (as opposed to "George Plimpton, Consumer") and marched up the escalator, camcorder in hand. There was no doubt as to the impact of what we (the sales associate, the cashier girl, myself) had witnessed, and we were united in awe of the consummate journalist. Capping the extraordinary time we had spent as part of the story we imagined he would simply title "Buying a Camcorder", the cashier girl was the first to speak:
"That man famous. He's in the movies! I seen him in Good Will Hunting!"