Summer sun draws people from their homes like a siren call from Vitamin D. They are out and about in cities in vast numbers, visiting museums, roller-blading passed fountains, and sipping on lattes. Bifurcated, the horde falls into two groups, the larger being the watchees, while the people sitting on the sidelines, leaning against a tree, or resting on a boulder are the watchers. Watchees have always outnumbered the watchers, and lately the latter are dwindling along with the spotted owl. With human heads ever bent to iPhones, Pads, Pods, and Kindles, people-watching is becoming a dying art. All of the devices mentioned are effective distracters in the people-watching biz, props that gull folks into thinking that you aren’t, in fact, watching them at all. Professional watchers, like myself, often have a book open on our laps, thus providing a convenient excuse for our gaze to rise from the print and wander vaguely across the landscape of people. We are, they assume, thinking deep thoughts about whatever is on the page. For example, does Temperance Brennan ever throw up on the job? Or, are naked women intelligent, as Stanislau J. Lec posits in his handy-sized Unkempt Thoughts? Pondering these weighty issues, the clever people-watcher is considered innocent of guile whenever their eyes scan, focus, and move in a semi-regular circuit, always returning to the open book.
What watchees don’t realize is that people-watching releases the imagination, and in the space of a few moments, stories unfold that are easily as fascinating as what happens between the covers. Plus, it’s free. (The dangers that a male people watcher faces should not be overlooked, however, since, depending on his dress, comportment, and smile, he could be accused of ogling some nubile lass, scoping out families with cute young children, or signaling a gentlemen for sexual purposes.) As a middle-aged women, I face none of those concerns. Caught in the act, the object of my attention glances at the book in my lap and is calmed. Or, should I have forgotten the book, he or she merely thinks I’m weird. To people watch, I will gladly endure such censure.