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People-watching is a good habit

Graffiti+on+the+wall+beside+Greenberry%27s+Coffee
Graffiti on the wall beside Greenberry's Coffee

Graffiti on the wall beside Greenberry's Coffee

Martin Beck

Martin Beck

Graffiti on the wall beside Greenberry's Coffee

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There’s a parking garage downtown with two levels, the upper of which overlooks a small shopping district. I often climb up there to watch the people walking around below, each unique, as they stroll baby carriages and eat ice cream and rummage through alligator skin handbags. They lead their lives and I spectate.

It’s not exactly a normal hobby, people watching. It’s not an extracurricular activity I can list on the Common Application, like debate or fly fishing. I wouldn’t even be writing about it if I weren’t sure this little website, in its little backwater of the internet, gets less traffic than Garber’s Church on a snow day. So consider this a confessional. A voice on the other side, coming through the lattice.

No matter how hard I try to equate people to bird watching, which is by contrast an exceedingly normal hobby, my friends still give me funny looks when I bring it up. They make a face probably not so different from the funny look you, the reader, may be giving this opinion piece right now. Such behavior, watching strangers, is surely reserved for the mentally ill.

I humbly ask you consider what funny looks birds would give people if we told them that we watch them through binoculars for fun.

The fact remains, however, that beyond their titles, bird watching and people watching have very little in common. When I’m up there on the parking garage, I’m not looking for chickadees, nor red-headed woodpeckers, nor redheads, nor men with beards, nor anyone of a particular race, sex, or style of dress; I’m searching for the little signs of humanity exchanged between strangers. Too often I ignore the people who surround me in public spaces or, worse, resent them as hindrances to my well-oiled modern life. How often have I stood in the checkout line at the store, resenting the person in front of me for loading their groceries onto the conveyor belt a bit too slowly? It’s at these times that my hobby comes in handy.

Hurry up, old man.

I start to question whether I should have used one of those self-checkout machines. Like coal, time is a commodity, finite. I remember that those self-checkout machines almost always require an attendant to come over and fix them, and then they’re more of assisted-checkout machines, really. Besides, in the time I spent cursing the guy in front of me, two people with hazardously full shopping carts have gotten in line behind me. I’m trapped. Sandwiched. Me, the protagonist of the story, the-no-doubt-most-important-guy-in-the-Universe, who has potential and aspirations and a doctor’s appointment in 45-minutes, head honcho, caught up in a grocery store checkout line.

This anger, this frustration, indicates to me that it’s an excellent time to people watch. I reflect upon the well-known but seldom considered fact that everyone in line has a life no less textured and complex than my own, that they too have pressing concerns, hopes, joys, pets, worries, sex lives, and they definitely have better things to do than standing here, next to some bushy-haired teenage kid, waiting to buy laundry detergent. I look at them. Their expression, their clothes. Notice any mustard stains. Suddenly, a complete stranger has the starring role. Looking at them, my frustration gives way to fascination, extending love to them in that stupid grocery store checkout line. I wonder where they come from and why.

I’ve spent most of my life hunting success – academic, athletic, social – with the ruthlessness of a wild animal, without the compassion that makes us human. From middle school forward, my peers and I have marched to the drumbeat of achieve, achieve, achieve: achieve so you can go to college, achieve so you can be happy. These messages made me selfish, self-serving. I forgot to watch the strangers shopping downtown, but I neglected, actively neglected, to watch my own friends and family, to show them the love that one human can extend to another, fearing that love would eclipse my success. Thus, we arrive at a cliché: the happiness that escaped me for so long hid not in myself, as I suspected, but in the ecosystem of lives all around me.

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