I began people watching as a shy country kid when I was instructed to wait in the truck while Dad bought groceries, explained his needs to the blacksmith, or collected freight at the railroad station.
In those days, kids didn’t scatter through a store like oil on water, hefting things, running their nose along the edge of the cashier’s counter. My siblings and I were expected to sit quietly until Dad returned. Getting out of the vehicle or squabbling in it were forbidden.
But we all learned to observe the passing scene, such as it might be. We listened for scraps of conversation, compared our versions of what was happening out of earshot, and criticized those we saw remarking on any unusual features such as a hairstyle or cut, shoes, or anything out of the norm.
We didn’t know it, but we could have been training to become late-night comedians or writers.
Comedians make a comfy living crafting criticisms of public figures, often politicians, familiar to most TV watchers. Author David Sedaris finances homes in America, England and France publishing books filled with his daily observations. Both serve their work with a generous serving of laugh-out-loud humour that keeps patrons coming back for more.
Terrace council’s recent study of surveillance cameras as a means to reduce crime and nuisance in the downtown core has stirred up controversy over whether such cameras would be an invasion of privacy. I tend to agree with those who point out anytime a person moves about in town they can be photographed by anyone with a smartphone. And close observation is only one level below a photograph.
I own but never carry a camera. I prefer to listen and watch the interaction nearby, such as during my latest shopping trip.
My basket held 10 cans of tuna on sale, a 2 kg jar of Jif peanut butter, not my usual brand but also on sale, and a yam at a reasonable winter price.
I had a choice of several checkouts but picked the wrong one. Though only two young women were in line, they turned out to have a deceptive mountain of stuff to ring through, including an armload of enough knitting wool to make an afghan, two pairs of shoes (one pair with no visible tag which necessitated a thorough search for a barcode), several bundles of socks, a carton or two of briefs, and a heap of clothing. Due to the delicate fabric, the heap consisted of many, many items that took forever to ring through, fold properly, and layer gently into a plastic bag.
One woman began her wait exasperated, huffing, twisting around — until they and the cashier engaged in an animated discussion of knitting, their various crafting experiences, and the benefits of stocking up on wools while on sale, quite engaging each other — while I waited.
In the meantime, my basket had been collected.
I stacked the tuna on one arm, gathered the Jif and yam in the other, and dumped my choices before the nearest unoccupied cashier.
This anecdote is an example of a random interaction that both fascinates and irritates me. It fascinates me that people can be so oblivious to how their actions may inconvenience someone else. It irritates me because all three of these women were so absorbed in their own little world they gave no thought to the next customer standing waiting.
If I were Sedaris, this vignette would appear in my next published collection of people watching.