Social Engineering

All aboard at Grand Central with headless models and StoryCorps

'Is that a fashion show on the TV?" cries a little kid wearing nerdy spectacles and gold sneakers, standing in front of a giant screen in Grand Central Station. "Where are their heads? The head is missing for her!"

No, little kid, that is not a mere TV program. Those are high-definition holograms, and this is "Target's Virtual Fashion Presentation: the World's First Model-less Fashion Show," according to its promoters. In truth, it looks pretty much like a TV program to me, too. As for the models' headless state, these willowy Ichabod Cranes are, according to Isaac Mizrahi, one of six designers featured in the model-less fashion show, meant to represent a sort of mannequin Everywoman. "They're not intimidating like a real model can be!" he tells me. "They're not sultry or bitchy. They're as friendly as possible." Well, it's hard to be bitchy without a head, though not impossible—the fact that these headless holograms are far slimmer than probably 98 percent of Target's target audience gives them a kind of silent hauteur.

I've come to Grand Central to see this show at the special press preview, though in fact anyone walking by can see it, too—a 10-minute reel in which a variety of beheaded sylphs wake up, stand in front of an armoire while Target clothes swirl above the space where their heads would be, play in a rock band, get married, etc. According to Mizrahi, it's great to have a show in a train station because "the love of clothing is a human right!"

After the Target show, which is on a continuous reel and set to entertain commuters for two days, I walk around the station. I love Grand Central, though I am actually far more familiar with the revolting hellhole that is Penn. For years I had this theory that the reason Grand Central is so much swankier than Penn Station is that Penn's trains go to undistinguished, hateful little towns like Massapequa Park, where I grew up, while the majestic Grand Central services wealthier burgs. (I conveniently forgot that trains from Penn also go to the Hamptons.)

But, I mean, think about it: Grand Central has the Oyster Bar, while Penn's culinary fare doesn't rise above pizza and pretzels. Penn has its own entrance to the 34th Street Kmart—not that there's anything wrong with that—but Grand Central has Tumi luggage, the funny French gadget store Pylones, and even a lingerie shop that employs the unfortunate name Pink Slip.

As it happens, my theory, like so many other things I believed for years, turns out to be entirely untrue: The old Penn Station was at least as nice, if not nicer, than Grand Central, until it was ripped down in 1964 after a lost preservation fight. If any good can be said to have come from this debacle, it is that the wholesale destruction of this landmark was in large part responsible for spearheading the modern preservation movement.

Actually, I am wandering around Grand Central in an attempt to find Dave Isay at the StoryCorps booth. Isay, the founder and executive director of StoryCorps and its parent company, Sound Portraits Productions, is a good friend of mind, but fond as I am of him, I've always been a little iffy on this StoryCorps business, in which ordinary people—as opposed to famous ones—record the earthshaking events in their lives for posterity. So far, StoryCorps has recorded 15,000 interviews, which sounds to me about as appealing as being buttonholed at an endless cocktail party by thousands upon thousands of characters boring you to death with far too much information. Now, in addition to being broadcast weekly on NPR (which I never listen to; it reminds me of school), a bunch of these interviews have been compiled in a book called Listening Is an Act of Love.

When I finally find Isay, tucked away at his booth in a far corner of Grand Central, near Eddie's Shoe Repair, he is eating carrots out of an ever-present baggie, one of his more endearing traits.

"This room used to be called the kissing room," he tells me, because long-distance trains departed nearby. Then he ushers me into the booth, which is covered on the outside with little pictures of orange-and-yellow people. Inside, there are three big mikes, since most people come to the booth with someone close to them whom they plan to drag secrets out of. The third mike is for the facilitator, in case you or Grandma are suddenly tongue-tied. After you're done talking, you get a copy of the tape to take home; another copy goes to the Library of Congress.

The soundproof booth is slightly creepy, a cross between an old-fashioned listening booth in a record store and a confessional, and it probably functions as a bit of both. "This is a sacred space. People deal with the big life questions in here," Isay tells me. He says his fondest wish is to follow in the big shoes of Studs Turkel, whose famous 1974 oral history, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, was likewise composed of interviews with just plain folk. "It's such a simple idea. It's not rocket science," Isay says between carrot bites. "We opened four years ago, and now we're one of the fastest-growing nonprofits. It's kind of honoring the angels in your life. Lynn, wasn't there someone you met who really changed your life?" Um, no. None of your business.

Isay is undeterred by my skepticism. "It's collecting the wisdom of humanity!" he says. "They're the stories of everyday people's profound moments—the driver of the B26 bus on City Island is just as important as Britney or Paris. It's all about how lucky we are to be alive!"

Well, I say reluctantly, I guess I should listen to a couple of these things. Are they short? It turns out you can press a button on the outside of the booth and hear some of this stuff, but I don't want to stand by myself in a kissing room pressing a wall, so Isay suggests I go home and listen to the stories on storycorps.net.

So I do, and I am surprised that they are addictive as YouTube videos. And they feature real people, not holograms. I hear from a man talking about desegregating a Southern school when he was eight years old and a woman who helped a German POW find his lost Bible on her father's farm more than 60 years ago. And I am ashamed to say that by the time I log off, I am totally in tears.

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