People Watching in 2020

General musings by Ambre Pluta as she walks through the bleak streets of the city. London is a quiet place these days, and yet here, there is so much life.

“People watching: the action or practice of spending time idly observing people in a public place” 

― Oxford Languages 

“I like to watch people. Sometimes I ride the subway all day and look at them and listen to them. I just want to figure out who they are and what they want and where they’re going.”

― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The old man sitting in front of me in the tube has his eyes closed. He hasn’t opened them since I came in and sat down but somehow, I know he isn’t sleeping. 

Maybe it’s the way he breathes – as if he is focusing on every breath with a restful but very regular rhythm that can be seen with the ups and downs of the fabric of his mask. When you don’t think about it, you breathe naturally. But somehow the moment you start thinking about breathing, it seems like if you stop thinking about it you will forget how to breathe altogether. The second clue is the way his fingers are holding tightly onto the bag resting on his lap. On the front of the bag filled to the brim with toys, the word “Hamleys” scrawled in big bold letters. Perhaps this old man is a grandfather, who spent hours in Hamleys carefully picking out toys for his grandchildren and now cannot keep his eyes open anymore. 

The little kid sitting next to me is looking at the old man with his eyes wide open. In those eyes, there is this spark of vibrant wonder that children seem to carry everywhere with them. The kid’s eyes keep moving from face to face, with such awe written on his own features. Is it the blue hair of the young woman that makes him suddenly giggle? Or is it the sudden opening of the tube doors that startle awake a young man half-sleeping while standing up with his head resting against the doors? Could it be the couple that just came in with one of them holding a wriggling puppy in their arms? There is so much happiness written in their eyes, that I don’t feel like their smiles are being hidden away by their masks. 

Getting out of the tube and strolling in the street is also a nice way to people-watch. Looking at people walk by you. Some walk fast, determined, with a goal or destination in mind. Some wander the streets quietly, enjoying being outside like we had all forgotten how much we enjoyed it before the lockdown. 

A woman running with her earphones in rushes past me. I catch a glimpse of her before she disappears down another street, and I see such calmness written on her face. The calmness you feel in your own mind when the echoing silence of your thoughts can be drowned out by the thrum of music. Usually, this uttering silence is forgotten. You don’t pay attention to it, though it follows you everywhere; it exists on top or just underneath all the ceaseless noise… Between the voices of people talking and the puttering of the cars, and the whooshing of the wind in the tunnels of the tube, and the hurried steps of people walking by. 

A father, holding his kids’ hands as they cross the street catches my eye. He’s nodding, and nodding, and nodding again, seeming entirely captivated by the story one of his daughters is telling him. His eyes keep flicking back to her, watching her excited hands moving as she talks. Everything is an adventure when you’re a kid, so everything is a ready story to tell to eager ears. Judging by the smile lines etched around the father’s eyes, it’s quite a great one. But parents aren’t objective, there is too much love involved, too much adoration in their eyes, so really, the story could be about anything and the father would find it wonderful. 

Through the window of a coffee shop, I see the face of a student sitting at a table with books piled next to him, his laptop projecting a bright light on his face. He seems to be desperately trying to write something. You can see it in his eyes, the little glint of tiredness mixed with the evident struggle to keep on working. He closes his laptop and starts to pack; then suddenly freezes sets his backpack down on the floor, and opens his laptop again. He starts typing frantically and the frown etched between his brows eases up as he finally finds inspiration.

I walk past a bench where an old lady is sitting. Our eyes meet, and I see the twinkle in her eyes. She gives a little nod with her head, saying “hello”, saying “nice to meet you”, saying “I too am people watching, and aren’t people just fantastic?” Our moment of connection lives then soon dies as I move on.

With the masks covering half of our faces, I’ve learnt to read more into body language and other aspects of communication and social interaction that were perhaps a bit overlooked before. There’s a lot in the expression of people’s faces. Sometimes we might feel like the masks are hiding everything, taking away our ability to understand people. But, we shouldn’t forget how much our eyes speak. How much our gestures speak. The way our hands move, the way our heads tilt, the way we cross our arms, the way we jump up and down on our feet from excitement, the way we anxiously bounce our legs. 

Those days when I take the tube and walk through the streets of this big city, and get to watch people, I see this humanity that makes the whole experience of life so special and magical. Who they are and what they want and where they’re going is part of this gigantic clockwork of the seemingly never-ending ticking time of humanity. It’s the restful breathing of the old man; it’s the wide eyes of the little kid; it’s the smiling eyes of the couple taking their puppy back home; it’s the woman finding quietness behind the noise as the music empties her mind; it’s the father listening to his daughter’s story as if it’s a renowned novel; it’s the student finally finding inspiration; it’s the old lady people watching alongside me. 


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