I love to people watch; I can do it for hours and not get bored. I look at strangers on the street and wonder what their life is like and what their reality is, and I genuinely want to know. I try to pick up little clues about them and see what deductions I can make about them or their life. I don’t think I’m actually good at making those deductions – unlike Sherlock Holmes who was the master at it, making seemingly simple deductions from the shifting of eyes or the scuff on a shoe – but I still enjoy it anyway.
Airports are great places to watch people and that’s where I’ve done most of my people watching to date. But the New York City subway, which is always teeming with people, is a positive treasure trove of people watching opportunities and it keeps me endlessly fascinated because I find it pretty difficult to draw conclusions about the people I see there. So before I move on to talking about my next (unplanned) JEXIT stop, I want to talk about New York City just a little more.
One day on the subway, I saw a guy wearing 3 hoodies, worn and stained Timberlands, no coat, and carrying a small plastic bag. I knew he was wearing 3 hoodies because he had all 3 hoods pulled up over his head and I could see the 3 different colours. He sat on the seat across from me so I could watch him without obstruction. He slept for most of the time that he was on the train and my heart broke for him just a little. From what I could see, I figured that he likely didn’t have a coat (it was 32 degrees that day – no one would willingly walk around in 3 hoodies instead of a proper coat if they had a choice) and therefore was likely poor, and that his personal items that he needed for the day were in his little plastic bag. I couldn’t tell from his shoes if he worked construction or if it was perhaps just the shoes that he had. He got off the train before it was my stop and I said a little prayer for him as I watched him go.
Then there was the lady with the permanent frown. She was also people watching so I watched her while she was watching others on the train. At first I was wondering if she was hurt or sad or angry but then I realised that the frown was her resting expression – that’s just how she looks. At one point she seemed to have had a funny or sweet memory because her mouth turned up even while the deep furrow stayed between her brows. I had to keep watching her for a while to figure out that she was actually smiling. I wondered what had happened in her life to make such an unhappy look her permanent expression. But I couldn’t really tell anything about her because it could have been a nerve condition causing the frown and she could have been the loveliest, happiest person you could meet. I didn’t pick up any other clues from her attire so I just couldn’t tell anything else about her.
I saw a doppelganger for someone I know on the train one morning. The person I know is black, has short, straightened hair and light eyes, and is an English-speaking Jamaican, while her doppelganger was white with a head full of blonde locks styled in a wrap, a stud in her nose; she also spoke French. I couldn’t stop staring at her even though I tried to do it discreetly. The resemblance was astounding. The similarities were as plain as day in the cheekbones, the lips, the eyes, even the expression on her face when she was thinking. She was travelling with what seemed to be her family – a tween boy, an older couple and a middle aged woman – and, like the Jamaican woman I know, she seemed to be leading the pack as they navigated New York City transit.
On another afternoon, I found myself in a seat across from a young woman who kept popping gum after gum into her mouth. In the 30 minutes we rode the train together, I counted about 8 sticks of gum that made their way into her mouth. Was it a nervous habit? Was she trying to quit smoking? Was she battling a severe case of halitosis? There were no signs that I could see on her person or belongings that helped me come to a conclusion about her but it was fascinating to wonder what was up with her.
And finally, the lady in the blue high heels. I noticed her at the bus stop one morning as I waited to catch the bus to the train station. It wasn’t biting cold that morning but it was pretty cold, definitely less than 40 degrees. She was wearing a business skirt suit, no hose or hat and blue high heels, and her coat was open. Along with her handbag stylishly slung over her forearm, she also carried what looked like an executive portfolio. I noticed her immediately because I wondered if she wasn’t cold, since the rest of us were pretty well bundled up. At the train station, she got on the same train as me and I got a chance to watch her for a little while longer. I came to the conclusion that she was going to a job interview because there is no way that anyone would brave a day that cold dressed like that and in no stockings for anything less than a job. I got the impression that she was putting her best foot forward, and that did not include heavy, unflattering winter wear.
As I sat and watched the Rockettes and Lion King, I wondered even more about the people on the train. Had I unknowingly shared a train car with people who are Broadway performers? What are all the walks of life that are represented in one train car? When people look at me sitting on the train, what do they think? What clues am I giving about the person I am and the life I lead? What assumptions do people make about me?
Whatever someone on the subway back in New York may have thought of me, they would likely be wrong. Just from looking at me, I see no evidence that would show the life I’ve just finished leading or the life I lead now. And that thought alone showed me that I may very well be just as wrong in any conclusion I’ve drawn about the many people I’ve watched. I can’t tell who someone is from just looking at them, anymore than they can tell who I am from just looking at me. Unfortunately, I can’t get to know every single person I watch so I’ll continue with my little hobby, and maybe I’ll start saying a little prayer for each one.