Notes from People Watching

Congreve Street, Birmingham, showing Christ Church and the Town Hall, By Laurence J Hart

As I gazed out my car window one summer evening this week, I was confronted with how full the world is of activity, of movement. I passed little houses and claustrophobic apartments, sheltering the heads of people unknown. I glimpsed men and women walking, sweeping, talking, reading, engaging in quiet routines. Windows radiated with warm light, their interior flashing across my view for an instant before vanishing. Perhaps it is because I have entered a new setting or perhaps it is because I spend a lot of time wandering through my labyrinthine mind, but I had forgotten how vast the world is. How many people there are with stories hidden within their beings.

I’ve always loved to people-watch. In the past, I’ve done it passively, yet, recently, I’ve begun to grasp the edifying value of this activity.

Self-absorption and perpetual distraction are common ills in modern society. People-watching, comparitively, draws one out of the sphere of their concerns and focuses their attention on others. Through this act, I expand my understanding of humanity and deepen my empathy.

As a literature aesthete, I’ve found that people-watching is a form of reading. Although I often glimpse only a shadow of a face, without a subtitle or caption, I note small details and hints of people’s stories. People in the crowds, on the streets, lingering in front of buildings — I observe them from my bench, my window, or my seat. I notice the anguish that lines the faces of the poor, the men that lie asleep on benches and the women who loiter at bus stations. Their hunger, despair, and splintered dreams — poverty that, as George Orwell writes in Down and Out in Paris and London, “annihilates the future.”

I observe the men and women whose businesses have been devastated by COVID-19 and are slowly re-building them. Their quiet hope, their quiet despair. Their voices cry out to enter their shops; I wish my little feet could enter them all.

I observe the tired, downcast faces of children exiting their schools. Schools that do not have access to the same resources or utilities I have access to. Gratitude floods my soul in view of the education I’ve been granted. The capacity I have to learn, to read the literature, and to approach the world in a way so many individuals could never imagine. In this sense, people-watching extinguishes my discontent.

I hope I can always find a bench to sit down and observe from. To turn away from my life and observe another’s. To see both the pain and the tranquility that plays across their face. To take an interest in people, with compassion seated next to me.

"My People"
Langston Hughes

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

Do you people-watch? What are some details you notice? Let me know by commenting on the blog post. I love to hear your thoughts. 🙂

3 responses to “Notes from People Watching”

  1. Alas Thoreau’s famous quote — “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation” is what sprung to mind when reading your entry.
    Nevertheless, people watching can also be uplifting, as you say. I have to admit while watching people I like to look at clothes, shoes, accessories and the various trappings that they might be carrying with them.

  2. Yes dear Granddaughter! Keep looking outside of yourself, excellent! Thank you!

  3. Hey Abbi! I can tell you put a lot of thought into this post. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and observations. I agree that People-watching is fascinating and expands one’s mind👏🏻🙌🏻😁

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