The old man is initially defined by the curve of his spine. He’s bent almost double by some malady, and I feel the warm prickling of guilt as I watch him roll one sleeve up, and look over his shoulder. But I’m over the other shoulder, at a window seat in a busy cafe with another dozen pairs of averted eyes. He tilts his body like a crane and drapes his hairy arm over the bin. Then he draws something upward, a brown, moist-edged paper bag. He shakes his head as he parts the paper packaging, drops the disappointment back in the bin and draws a slow, visible breath as he wipes his fingers on his chest. I warm my fingers on my coffee cup as I wonder when he last saw the horizon, what his mother’s name was, on which shore he left the love of his life, in order to chase a dream he thought she’d never understand.
I lean back a little in my stool, and steal a glance at the young man seated next to me. He folds a page of his sketchbook over gently, rests it on the counter. He leans back on his seat to lift pens or pencils from his day pack, and the end of a tattoo on his neck is revealed. Just a spiral really, a couple of twisting grey lines, but enough to allow me to continue drawing them down, over his chest. A tentacle maybe, from a squid, wrapped about a tall ship. Perhaps his father was a fisherman, but this thin young man didn’t enjoy the drawing of fish to the deck, the stomp to the head, the curl of the sea against the roll of his stomach. But cancer took his old man three years ago, and the myth of their connection now wraps about his heart.
When I was young I couldn’t imagine a world occupied by uncountable billions of people. By the last year of high school I knew the faces if not the names, sometimes a story, what type of bike they rode, their sister’s horse’s name. Two months later I found myself at university, trying to understand how I could be amongst so many people and yet feel so, so lonely. On the third or fourth day of lectures I sat in the Mt Street Cemetery, wondering what my options were. As I watched the shadows thrown by the lowering sun, I noticed a woman in a long, dark dress, walking slowly down the hill, picking her way between tombstones. She wore her thick auburn hair in a loose bun, her feet were tied into tall leather boots, and her eyes were on the sky rather than the path. And I began to tell myself a story. She knew a mermaid once, or at least a trans-gender Greek man who professed to have been half salmon in a previous life. And before she moved here to study Philosophy she had dated a musician, and hopes that she was responsible for a line in one of his songs. And for her Wellington was a temporary home on the way to somewhere she dreams of, writes poems about, draws sketches of. Probably somewhere with windmills and moats and scarecrows. She eventually passed out of view, but I remembered her as I walked to class the next morning, and I kept an eye on the crowd, my eye focused on possibilities rather than disappointment.
Some years ago I sat with Linda in a crowded outdoor market in Singapore. At first we are the only two white people in a spiral of Asian humanity. But the longer we sit, sipping at cool fruit juices, the closer the spiral twists about us. A young boy is concentrating on unwrapping a balloon string from his hand, and suddenly his eye catches mine. I smile gently, his head tilts a little and he reflects the curl of my happiness. He turns to his mother and lifts his arms, looking up at the red bubble above. Was the balloon a bribe, a gift, a location-detector? And as I pick out the faces and forms in the crowd, I feel the place seep into me. The strong brown arms of a vendor tying a rope under his marquee, his glance across at a women in the stall opposite, his motion pausing for just a second. And that brief pause is another story. When I take time to consider others in a crowd as people, as lifetimes, as part of a bigger family, then loneliness doesn’t make as much sense. Nor do anxiety and mistrust.
So I have learnt to enjoy sitting still and watching others. And sometimes I wonder if my observations are two-sided. Am I in turn being watched? Does the old woman in dark glasses at the other end of the cafe counter see something in the way I pause between writing paragraphs? Does she wonder why my eyes are drawn to this person or that? Does she notice my glances are often to younger women, but that I quickly shift to other targets? Does she wonder if I am embarrassed to let my stare linger on those more obvious attractions? Or is she hoping I leave that half croissant on my plate, that she might gently gnaw its buttery sweetness once she draws it from her pocket in another hour?
And at other times I find myself considering the other counterpoint to my scrutiny, what do my observations say about me? Why do I presume that the beautiful, artfully dressed girl carries the awkward longboard merely as a prop, an unwieldy attempt to be a part of an alternative crowd? Is it my own pretences that are the seed of this judgement? Or simply jealousy of the gentle perfection of her features, the grace of her stride? What right do I have to be so silently outraged at the three couples staring into their phones, rather than into each other’s eyes? Am I really so fortunate to have experienced uncomfortable first-date silences in the Facebook-free millennium?
I feel there is something useful in imagining myself in someone else’s shoes, or burka, or domestic dispute. If I remind myself that others have their own choices to make, their own mothers to please, their own dreams to chase (or abandon), then acceptance of difference is not so difficult. If I try sitting inside their thoughts, imagining their troubles, then tolerance is not such a stretch. And I’ve found that over time I have built the self-confidence to bridge that gap between myself and the stranger. I find that empathy gives me the power to overwhelm by traditional shyness.
I finish my coffee, lower the cup and press a finger to the counter in front of the young man’s slow-forming sketch of a big-eyed woman. His first girlfriend? Or a character from a dark Japanese horror? ‘She’s beautiful’ I say, looking to his hesitant eyes, imagining his anxiety, but also the warmth of pride. I leave the half-eaten croissant on my plate, and slide it gently in the direction of the old woman as I sling my bag to my shoulders and shift toward the door. I can’t see the bent man, but if I walk to the bottom of Cuba Street, perhaps I’ll be able to offer a kind presence, or a tray of sushi.
I met the woman from the cemetery again in my second semester, and she invited me to a party, a celebration of the release of The Cure’s ‘Disintegration’ album. She went on to study in Germany, and to write prize-winning novels. She inspired me to try out black lipstick, read Edgar Allan Poe, and to use a thing called electronic mail to send fantastic stories to my fellow students when I should have been studying. And her success in story-telling inspires my writing today.
So I dedicate this piece to ‘Cath the Goth’, to my fellow people-watchers, and to all those I’ve watched and never quite had the nerve to smile at, or wave to, or buy a coffee for.