Recently, after an Indians’ game, some friends and I stopped at a bench near Progressive Field, taking a break in the oppressive heat before we made our way back to our parking lot in downtown Cleveland. Sitting on a rock, my nearest companions were two ladies of self employment, watching for potential, uh, clients, as the stadium crowd walked by them.
I had to wonder what stories they could tell, not of their profession, but of the people they see. Of course, when they scan the crowds, they’re not looking for interesting stories to follow, they are looking for uh, business, so their perspectives may be somewhat different than mine. As we got up to walk on, I had the urge to ask them “I bet you see all kinds,” but the small-town hick kid in me was just enough intimidated by their presence to simply walk away.
People watching has always been fun for me. As a child, I’d often watch people when my mother went to the grocery store, or the mall, on trips that seemed to take hours and hours. People watching was one way a restless child like me could pass the time and not get into (too much) trouble.
As an adult, I found on my first trips overseas that if I did everything the guidebook suggested could be done in a specific amount of time, and see all of the important sights, it was overwhelming, like a twisted race. There was not time spared for people watching or relaxing. I found that while I could say I’d seen impressive statues or paintings, or the Bog Man in the British Museum, it was more fascinating and memorable to watch the people watching the Bog Man.
On an evening with a gorgeous autumn sunset atop the Eiffel Tower, I got lost in the endless city of Paris. It was too much to take in and focus on. However, the couple next to me was more fascinating, as the man dropped to his knee, fulfilling a dream, and proposed to his girlfriend. Who could say no on a night like that, in a place like the Eiffel Tower? Those would be lifetime memories that would (hopefully for the better) change the lives of two people.
People watching was a necessity on other trips, because I am my father’s daughter when it comes to most forms of shopping. With the exception of shoes and books, I walk into a store, size it up, buy what I want, and walk out, all within minutes. Browsing is boring. It takes too much concentration. My father always claimed there was more to do than waste time looking around, and I’ve been waiting on the payoff of his wisdom. I have a friend who takes forever to look, and usually comes out with cool, inexpensive and fun kitsch that causes me to exclaim, “where did you find that?” She sighs and says, “Well, if you’d take the time to look, you would have seen it.”
Time is the endless commodity of people watching. A good people-watching experience means you don’t have a clock, or set schedule. This contradicts with the travel guides and their timed itineraries. When I’d finish shopping on our free day during mission trips to Honduras, I’d park myself in the central plaza that every Central American town has, pull out sunscreen, my bucket hat, a cold soda or water, and commence watching all angles that were within my sight line. Over the years, I even met folks who were town residents who would stop and talk to me in the park, remembering our previous visits. One hot day, I bought ice cream from a tired-looking vendor, buying for everyone sitting in the plaza. I even bought one for the vendor, who had tears in his eyes. After a couple of hours, my friends would show up, bags in tow, apologizing for making me wait. “Are you kidding?” I’d say. “We’ve been having ice cream,” or “my new friend and I were drinking pop, talking soccer,” or “this lady has itchy eyes. I gave her my last bottle of eye drops, showed her how to use them, and she just blessed me.” Those are moments you can’t buy in a shop. Once, in England, while waiting for a bus, I dragged my reluctant friend into a pub. We became the object of people watchers and were invited for a drink. For years, an elderly woman sent me a Christmas card, recalling our two hours of conversation in a small pub.
However, as much as I love people watching, I found myself angry with the sights I saw. On the hottest day of the year, July 7, some friends and I went to a festival. I pointed to a picnic table, bought a bottle of water, and told my friends to take their time playing games, and I’d be sitting at that picnic table, watching. I do realize it was the hottest day of the year, and I certainly looked horrible in the heat. However, what worried me and made me hotter under the collar was how people treated each other and their children. I began to realize my own viewpoints were changing. People watching became painful and no fun.
As someone who prides themselves more than they should on tolerance, I found my anger rising at the number of folks who didn’t seem to care where their children were, or selfishly consumed cold drinks and food while their kids at times got to the point of begging for a drink, only to be denied by their parents. I watched parents ignore their children or berate them. Adults berated or ignored each other. Children also ignored their parents, heads down, concentrating on phones, shuffling along in a bored manner. All manners of race, wealth and poverty levels, family units were observed. And while heat takes discomfort to a new level for everyone, emotions tended to run more toward the negatives: boredom, disrespect, neglect or anger. However, while I was angry, I was watching real American society. I wasn’t intruding, just watching, and it wasn’t as enjoyable as say, an afternoon in Newport, RI, or a baseball game in Cleveland, but it was people watching, warts and all.
I think if we spent more time watching, and not in a creepy way, we’d learn truths about humanity, including ourselves. We may not be the most tolerant person we thought we were, or we may be surprised at random and small acts of humanity of which we are capable. Too often, I think, we rush through or to something, and we miss the blur of humans around us. They are the real story, not objects at the end.
Published: August 10, 2012