I find myself people watching. Or person watching, depending if people/persons are found in groups or in solitude. I find, during my watchings, that women tend to be people – chatting, walking, dining, chatting while walking and dining in groups. And men seem to be persons, dining alone, walking alone, people-watching alone. Not that men aren’t oftentimes people and women aren’t many times persons. But most of the persons seem to be men and many if not most of the people are women.
So I’m at the diner eating breakfast and facing out the window toward ninth ave. Surveillance underway. Two women in similar outfits head toward each other across the road. Both are young, members of that vague mid-twenties age group, and dressed for brunch or in order to be seen brunching or in order to be seen and then to be invited to brunch perhaps. Unclear. The northbound woman surreptitiously tugs at the hem of her skirt. I imagine that she thinks her floral pattern skirt worn over black tights is too short. She could be right, but I wouldn’t press the point if asked to comment; it’s her call in any case. However, the similarly-clad southbound woman would be correct, if she were to also have the same thought as her compatriot. But she’s clearly not having that thought. Maybe it’s Zoe Deschanel’s fault? Make us creepy people watchers work for it just a bit more, sugar. At any rate, respect yourself.
The runners running – or those runners who have been running or those runners who shortly will have been running – pass by. I imagine they think themselves to be better than I – and with justification. That is, my supposition is unjustified and un-evidenced as they give no outward indication of having considered their value vis-à-vis mine, but were they to be doing so then they would be accurate in their evaluation. The self-assured dress as runners do.
In between runners, two men sashay past in fabulous red and blue cowboy hats – one all red, one all blue, not two mixed. As we all know, fabulousness can be distinctly ranked and is inversely proportional to the time of day. And so at 11:39am on a Sunday, they were the two most fabulous articles of clothing on public display. And fabulous clothes make for fabulous folks.
Nausea sets in. Two matching argyle sweaters – one pink on grey, the other grey on pink – appear. I assume there were people of some flavor attached to these clothes but couldn’t prove it. I seem to remember two argyle breasts so it may have been one woman and one man. I judged them.
And all morning and heading in every direction brown men on broken bicycles carried white bags of breakfast to pale people who don’t work on Sunday.
The only way to increase the level of violence inherent to people watching might be to write about it. Observation can be capacious – enormity beyond measure, ever expanding. My gaze wanders like a physical being over the surfaces of bodies and of faces, capturing poise and movement and expressions. I am the panoptic overseer – the [imaginary] person always watching you in public spaces. And then to take these captured moments and commit them to paper is simultaneously reductive and aggressive. I seize on that single facet of body/action/life and reduce personhood to a speck of beingness. You are fabulous, you are self-conscious, you are nauseating – in your everything. I also destroy past histories and future possibilities and expand my extrapolation relentlessly into them both, bursting boundaries of self-awareness, of self-pride, of self-love. You are, have been, and always will have been thus. Observation does not exist – everything is surveillance. Writers decide fates when they make you into a character.
Why do people wear sunglasses on the subway when they’re actively engaged in conversation? I get it, there are rules to transit with the masses. Rule number one: don’t make eye contact. But, I had always assumed that rule only applied to strangers or to acquaintances or to friends – yet not to your partner in chat. Conversation eliminates the isolation provided by obscured eyes. And the purpose of the don’t-look-at-me subway pact is to preserve dignity through isolation in what is objectively an undignified and insanely public space. No matter what you do on the subway someone will see it. And judge you. Harshly and with vigor and enjoyment.
There is a guy sitting thirty feet away facing me. He is wearing a black t-shirt with red lettering on the front left lower quarter: “Special Forces” – with a clever circle and crosshairs replacing the standard “o”. I pee myself a little inside as I think that his swarthy unshaven face and – let’s call it mocha – skin color make him look more like a target of and less like a member in or enthusiast of said Special Forces.
But since no eye contact was made and no isolation breached, he and I both maintain the farce of non-observation. He has not been judged, and I have not judged.
If there’s no such thing as a free lunch then why did a young lady in Union Square Park just offer me such – “Excuse me, would you like a free lunch?” – and hold out a brown paper sack containing, presumably, lunch? Surely this is a trap. Why does her dark blue hoodie say CIVIC TEAM on the back? Are there roaming bands of the charitable intently moving us all toward the goal of an involved and well-fed citizenry?
Two men as a couple, not necessarily a sexual couple but a couple nonetheless, walk by wearing the same brown shoes with white soles. Not similar. The same. Couldn’t be an accident, somebody here made an artist’s choice. I lose interest immediately and precisely when a portly gentleman strolls near with an American flag iPhone case and a camo trucker hat. This guy oozes earnestness. I can tell because of the plain, grey cotton sweatshirt. And because he’s looking everyone in the face openly. Everyone. Heathen.
I don’t find myself sitting in Union Square Park often. On Saturday mornings the park becomes a pulsing pit of shitty humanity because of the inexplicably well-attended farmer’s market. Usually, I pass through trying to reach any other destination with haste. But today is Sunday, so it’s nice.
Apparently, instead of going to the gym – not that you should but I suppose that you could – one of your other options is to walk laps around Union Square while talking on your cellphone. Despite my close attention, it remains unclear whether anyone else is required to be on the other end of the conversation.
I first noticed the girl with the authentic red – Crayola orange – hair in the black faux-leather jacket quietly speaking on her phone to someone whom I think she regrets about her many regrets. She did three meandering laps. A tall lad with brown hair dressed in a sloppy button-down and pretentious sunglasses bothered me. He spoke of business – “Cost of goods sold is key, bro” – in a nasally voice not frat but not Kennedy. Five laps. A thirty-four year-old woman – I didn’t actually ask her age but she’ll never read this so I fear not inaccuracy – did eight laps as if she were angry at walking. She had fake red – Crayola red – hair and wore work-out clothes and an unnecessarily-poofy poofy jacket. She was a professional at transmuting molehills of minutia into mountains of drama. Bully for her, though, it seemed to be quite satisfying.
Nobody needs to have their story told who won’t, in time, demand a telling through conviction or empathy or a refusal to be un-told. Individuals who demand a telling are mythic and as such have rules of myth-telling. Conversely, anonymity makes you free subject matter, a blank palate with one or two details filled in as a starting point but surrounded by empty space.
Is there a way in which writing based upon the observation of the anonymous is charitable? In between the capture, the imprisonment, and the exacting violence of judgment is there a manner in which a writer can make the mundane interesting without making it insulting? Setting aside fact or truth with either a capital or lower-case T, a semi-fictional extrapolation of honest observations creates spaces of possibility. And magic.
There is a romance to the anonymous. Always. People become characters become heroes. Anecdotes become histories become epics. Plans become futures become undeniable adventures. Deeply-felt dramas that have never happened and will never happen but are known to be real. If you untether observation from strict truth-speaking, everything is possible and becomes beautiful. I am far less interested in the truth than in the possible, in what is then in what could be.
And sometimes, you don’t need the romanticism, you don’t need the possibility. Sometimes events transpire on their own terms and don’t need embellishment. Magic is not always conjured by a wizard. Occasionally, magic appears of its own accord, fully-formed and ready to stop your heart.
Bagpipes? Yes, bagpipes. Bagpipes drone from across the park at a perfect distance. Any farther away and the hints of music disrupted by the wind would be exasperating. Any closer and I would be compelled to murder.
Then this happens directly in front of me:
The little brunette girl turns to the little blond girl whom she has just caught in an un-announced race and says to her friend in her child-voice: “Lydia, do you remember when we were fairies?”
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