People watching

I like to watch people. It is something that I have enjoyed for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was amazed and occasionally embarrassed by my dad’s ability to talk to strangers. I’ve developed a few of his skills, including the ability to embarrass my kids, but most of the time I’m just as comfortable with watching other people, without feeling a need to talk to everyone.

During our recent trip to Japan, we had a lot of opportunities to watch other people. We had time in the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia as we waited for our plane to depart, time in Tokyo waiting for trains and our return flight and many other opportunities to watch people.

Often, when I am watching, I like to imagine the stories of the people I am watching. Of course I often watch people whose stories I don’t know and might never learn. That doesn’t stop me from imagining. I may be imagining scenarios that aren’t accurate, but I suspect that I get some things right. Fore example a pair of grandparents saying good bye to their grandchildren at the train station are pretty easy to spot. A mother traveling with three children is likely heading either towards or away from a family visit. Sometimes, however, it is a challenge just to imagine what the relationships are. Is that a couple of business partners or are they somehow part of the same family? Do those people look that way because they are tired, or are they grieving? Are the crutches being used temporarily as that person recovers from an injury or does that person live with a permanent disability?

I am fascinated by people. There are a lot of stories of people’s lives that I know because of my job or my volunteer activities. I’ve been with people in some of the best and hardest moments of their lives. I’ve walked journeys of grief and adventures of celebration with many different people. Still, I enjoy thinking about other people.

Yesterday I arrived a bit early for a farewell meeting for a colleague at a local restaurant. My timing gave me a few minutes to sit and watch the people who were coming and going from the establishment. A couple came in. They were both completely bald, with no visible hair on either head. They seemed to be having an enjoyable outing, laughing and talking animatedly with each other. There are a lot of possible stories that could be behind their appearance. One could have shaved a head to match the other’s appearance. They could both have lost their hair to medical treatments. One could be undergoing treatment and the other naturally bald. One or both could have shaved their heads for convenience of care. Because of the time of day, it is possible that they were having a meal on their way to or from the hospital or a clinic for treatments. Whatever the story, it seemed obvious to me that this was a moment in their lives that they were enjoying. If one of them was experiencing cancer or another life-threatening illness, they were making the most of the time that they had. It was a treat and a joy to them to be together on that particular day. I saw a couple of other folks giving them a second look, as I am sure I did, but that wasn’t bothering them.

I am frequently challenged with knowing how to respond to extensive tattoos. I want to ask about them. It seems to me that tattoos are public art, in a way, applied to places where they are clearly visible. The person with the tattoos must have been intentional about choosing their appearance. In a way it seems fair to ask the story behind the symbols. On the other hand, I don’t want to be rude. I don’t think that a tattoo is the whole story of a person’s life. Perhaps it would be best to get to know the person better before asking about their body art. I have some friends whom I’ve known for a long time who have been very open and eager to talk about their tattoos, but what is the appropriate response to a clerk in a store or another stranger? Should I ignore tattoos and piercings and pretend that I don’t notice? That doesn’t seem quite right. The person seems to want to have them noticed. Sometimes I’m bold and ask a question, trying to be polite. Sometimes I say nothing. When I say nothing, I tend to make up a story in my own mind. Perhaps a tattoo is a sign of rebellion against an authoritarian parent. Perhaps it is an attempt to draw attention by someone who feels like they are ignored. Perhaps a tattoo is a symbol of a cause that is very important to the individual.

The bottom line is that I often catch myself making up stories about people without any way of knowing whether or not those stories are even close to reality. It could, I suppose, color my thinking about people whom I haven’t gotten to know. I don’t want to become judgmental or prejudiced based on what I see. I’ve been with enough people in enough situations to know that their lives are generally more complex and more interesting than first appearances. There is almost always more to the story than initial impressions.

I’ve concluded that there is little harm in watching other people. The stories I make up are a simple form of fiction. I’m not a novelist and it seems unlikely that I will ever publish any of these stories, though they entertain me. Sometimes, when I am with another person, we will have a brief conversation about the folks around us and I’ll share some of my speculations.

For the most part, I feel very fortunate and grateful to live in a place with such interesting people. The infinite variety of human beings is fascinating and entertaining. Who needs television when there are so many real stories worth observing?

When my colleague arrives, a bit late for our meeting, he apologized. I thought that no apology was needed. I enjoyed the brief time of waiting and watching.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!