DATE: 11/23/2003 08:07:00 PM
I'm a compulsive people-watcher, but a lot of people say that. It goes deeper with me. I'm an eavesdropper. I watch people, yes, but I also listen, and listen hard. And I don't turn away when the conversation turns to Mary's divorce or Joe's vasectomy or Susie's tonsillitis or the chlamydia Gladys contracted from a Persian steward aboard her Carnival Cruise. I don't politely retreat. I don't close the curtain.
Maybe no one else does, either. I wouldn't really know if this tendency is normal or extraordinary--I am coming more and more to the conclusion that I was not given the aptitude for separating the commonplace from the strange. Maybe every stranger I see on the subway, quietly reading his Boston Metro while I scrutinize his beard or his shirt or his Birkenstocks with socks (how could he?), he's watching me, observing my proportions (truly monstrous), my stare (quite creepy), my hair (quite limp), perhaps the cigarette pack peeking out of my coat pocket (how could she?).
But there have been times where I've been so caught up in the conversations, appearance or behavior of others that I lose complete track of my own. Nowhere does this happen more than in my city--MY city--Boston. And nowhere in Boston does this happen more often than on the subway.
This is, of course, somewhat obvious. The T is nothing but a string of grab-bags of humanity, a pre-assembled circus train of assorted starter-kits for a torn world. On this car we have two punks, two hippies, two middle-class blacks, two whites trying to be ghetto, college students and a bum with a truly impressive newspaper collection. On this one an Indian couple, one of whom, the woman, looks to be wearing the actual Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. There are two males of indeterminate age with dreds so matted, their hair looks like cotton candy that's been run over by a truck. An ultra-short man with a backwards Red Sox cap and a pugnacious expression. The smell of weed coming off the guys in dredlocks is so strong I wonder for a few shocked moments if they are actually passing a lit joint back and forth on the train, right here in front of people.
Steve falls into me as the train takes a lurch. I don't notice. I'm too busy looking at the man reading New Testament Mythology in one of the singleton seats. He's one of those men who crosses his legs at the knee. I desperately want to know what his book is about. I want to know what he uses to get his hair so spiky.
The mall beneath the Prudential Center tower probably has a formal name, but I missed it in staring at the two tourists hesitating by the escalator, appearing to argue about whether to board it. I wonder what language it is they're speaking. The mall is all glass and metal and wood, major designer outfits and metrosexuals by the truckload. Mostly tragic-looking young men in long black coats. This makes the other ones stand out--the hugely pregnant woman with milk-chocolate skin, bleached corkscrew curls, and strange freckles rubbing her hand over the arc of her belly by the elevator. The woman with a braying, tobacco-coated laugh letting her entire white-trash self hang out by the California Pizza Kitchen.
We have to stuff ourselves through the crowd, hurrying toward the movie theater, barely fifteen minutes before the show. I'm plowing ahead of Kellie and Steve, but all the time my mind's a mile a minute, looking at the glassed-in atrium over the ornately arranged produce section of Shaw's in the City, wondering why everything in the city has to be so carefully presented, why beauty is apparently less valued in the suburbs. I'm passing a lit-up poster of Reese Witherspoon as Elle in Legally Blonde II, her visage grinning next to the slogan--"Good news, girls! Laughter is very slimming."
Every once in a while I stop absorbing all the cuts and fabrics and styles on the tiny mannequins in the store windows, one after the other at prescribed intervals like subway stations, to look for Kellie and Steve. It's hard to pick them out when a woman in an honest-to-Christ leopardskin coat is flouncing along next to them.
The only time I stop with the ADD is when I sit in the controlled environment of the movie theater, and the world goes pitch black around images that flash so rapidly, you're forced to pay strict attention. We're watching Shattered Glass, about the writer for The New Republic, Stephen Glass, who fabricated stories, but before I can get caught up in it a woman in front of me, old, from the looks of her wispy-haired, stooped silhouette, barks "NO ADVERTISING!!" at the screen and a younger kid down front yells out, "SHUT UP!!" and she says "No, I don't want to!" and I want to say, "then go home!" because, dammit, I'm trying to concentrate, and I can't do that when she's being interesting.
Back on the T. We miss the inbound station at first--it's nestled in close to the public library. We're on the corner by the Old South Church discussing which way to go when a short, jumpy man in a black leather jacket saunters over and slurs, "Whaddyreya tryin ta figure out?" He's got this condescendingly predatory look in his red-rimmed eye. In three seconds I know two things: he is on some form of drug and he is preying on tourists. In the station we see a gaggle of girls all dressed in jeans, brown suede jackets, and big twists of white paper on their heads for hats. I wonder if they're supposed to be joints or hand-rolled cigarettes, or if they're a bridal party out for the bachelorette celebration or a sorority. Maybe Kellie's saying something about her foot hurting. She's sitting on the bench. There's a strange scrawled script on one of the green-enameled posts, though, and it says "G-Life". It's not so much scraped or washed off or crossed out as it is faded, as if whoever wrote it there conducts strange rituals in this particular subway station where they have to slap their palms against that word as they rally together. Maybe I'm still just a little bit crazy.
Dinner goes ok, but I find it hard to ignore other people's conversations, particularly the sordid debate going on among an adjacent party of what looks like about a dozen about dessert recipes. Kellie, Steve and I are sharing recollections about the JFK assassination (or, rather, our observations of recollections since none of us existed at the time) and then, in a natural segue, the Sept. 11 attacks, when I notice two people at the table on the other side of Kellie stand up and leave what seems rather abruptly. They don't appear to have been talking to one another very much. The woman is ashen-faced. They leave without acknowledging us, but I can't help but wonder if they're offended by our conversation. Maybe they knew someone who died.
The waiter is looking at me expectantly. I am startled to see him there. He wants to know what I would like to eat. I haven't even considered it yet.
Afterwards, standing outside, smoking a cigarette, there's this woman. She's so long of leg, so ample of ass, so slim of waist that she could be a cartoon. Her hair is blond, long. She's smoking a Virginia Slim (ever hear how people look like their cigarettes?) and her feet are encased in the most delicate, complicated black stiletto heels I've ever seen or heard of. The shoes grip me. They bend her feet into exactly the same angle as those on the Barbie dolls I once played with. Steve and Kellie keep trying to talk to me about something I forget about now. I try to maintain the conversation but fail. The shoes. Do they hurt? What kind are they? What extravagant sum did they cost? Steve and Kellie laugh exasperatedly, finish the conversation without me.
Later, Steve is telling me he doesn't know what's going on inside my head. How he feels like I withhold things. How he doesn't know what I'm really thinking. It's a comment I've heard before. At work a few weeks ago I was apparently thought of as standoffish, even rude. I have had to work continually and consciously to reverse this image, and believe me, it has been work. My outside does not function with my inside. It's a handicap I have.
But thank God no one else seems to. I am constantly in awe of the bravery of people with their entire identity spread out in front of the world. Or maybe this isn't so brave. Maybe there's only a few of us looking, and the rest are hurrying along worrying about the mortgage. Or, like the two men I saw kiss one another passionately on a street corner (a sight I nearly stopped in my tracks upon seeing, so beautiful and enigmatic did I find it), they're lost in just one other person. I get lost in everybody.
I have whole conversations with strangers inside my head. One girl, all tarted up in platforms and a short black skirt and beestung lips, I guess I was jealous of how she looked and how she flaunted herself, and I imagined her saying to me, "What are you looking at, fat bitch?" and my various witty retorts about how I'd rather be fat than a woman with no standards and her pointing out that at least she could get a man and...what stop are we at again? What train do we take?
We took the wrong one. Thanks to me. Kellie doesn't usually take the Red Line and Steve hardly ever comes into the city. So I had to be the fearless leader. The train said "Ashmont/Alewife." Good enough for me. Then I got so caught up looking at people and the trash on the floor and wondering who left that burst-open Snapple bottle to leak all over the floor that I barely noticed when we got to Downtown Crossing, which was in the wrong direction. We got off the train thanks to Steve, and wandered around the station. From the moment we left the train, we heard an awful wailing, echoing down the corridors from somewhere near street level. Kellie and Steve were spooked, but I wasn't. I've heard that screaming before--a kind of toneless scream, a defeated scream, a detached scream--an insane scream if I've ever heard one. Several MBTA workers in reflective vests are conversing in a tight knot about the police being on the way, and then we're on the right side of the tracks.
I'm wondering. I'm wondering if the woman really is crazy, some psychotic crack addict bum like I picture her having a breakdown and seeing gigantic bat-things swooping at her, or if she's maybe a mugging victim who's been stabbed, or even a woman giving birth unexpectedly. It burns me that I didn't see her. Now my imagination is left to its own devices and that's never a good thing.
This is probably at least a clue toward whatever is wrong with me: when I was in high school, one of my classes was given the Meyers-Briggs personality test by a teacher. The test, often used by companies to gauge the personality and compatibility of their employees, measures personal characteristics in four categories: Extroverted vs. Introverted, Intuitive vs. Sensory, Feeling vs. Thinking, and Perceiving vs. Judging. I was an ENFP, a recollection you can attribute to my junk drawer of a brain, which stores up ridiculous tidbits like that like an old woman keeping little bits of yarn and cloth to use in a quilt. Anyway, what that score doesn't tell you is that though I was deemed an E--Extrovert, it was completely arbitrary--I was one of the few people since this teacher had been trained to administer the test, he told me, that he had seen score 50.0% in one category and 50.0% in the other. I was precisely halfway between E and I--Introverted.
On a day like Saturday, this seems to manifest itself in the fact that my radar's always up, but if you're in my immediate presence you're too close for me to pick up your signal. I feel terribly that people think I shut them out deliberately, but--let's be truthful--maybe I do. But it's not meant as an insult to them. It's easier for me, I suppose, to exist with other people hypothetically--to watch them walk and talk and move like I'm not one of them, not part of the show. To imagine what they would say instead of risking finding out what they will say.
Maybe I'm also looking for some kind of magical affirmation. Like one of these people will look back and see me the way I'm seeing them. Maybe all of them will. Maybe the world will become a mirror, and I'll look into it and figure something out. The logical side of my mind knows that this is, of course, a preposterous idea. The rest of me keeps on looking. Keeps on finding and cataloguing people like the Audobon Society observes birds.
How interesting, and ironic, and appropriate, that I have found so many of my phantom companions beneath the skin of the city.