The Simple Pleasure of People-Watching

I like people who are engrossed in something. I like watching them. They behave differently to people who are conscious of an audience, or chasing their thoughts around while staring into space. People who are in a conversation are one kind of engrossed: they’re trying to present themselves to the other party, with some degree of mask, even if they’re on the phone. Exceptions: people who are very deeply in love (and I love watching them, the way they catch each other’s eyes or smile with the whole of not only their face but their body too), parents of brand new babies, exhausted but drowning in joy at this tiny human they’ve acquired and adore with every fibre of their being, smiling to something too small to really understand that he or she is being smiled at.

I like people who are reading, and they’re really into their book, and maybe she’s chewing her lip or he’s frowning, or they’re giggling at one of the lines. I like people who are intent on the motions of the pigeons by their table. I like people reading the menu who don’t quite know what one of the dishes is and don’t want to ask; I like people doing up their shoes. I like people who throw themselves entirely into what they’re doing, even when what they’re doing is stubbing out a cigarette or picking a spot.

I like would-be artists making ghostly, inky shapes in their talismanic sketchbooks or on paper napkins in Macdonald’s. I like revising students sprawled over their notes in the park. I like the patient unpicking of headphone cables by chipped nail polish hands and the quiet “fuck you” of despair at the knots they’ve mysteriously formed. I like the lone tourist with her headphones (finally) on, peering up at the peak of some monumental building with selfish wonder at the architecture. I like the man who is crying into a bunch of wilting flowers he is laying down at the edge of an unremarkable street corner. I like the drunk girl distracted by the motion of the river who is watching the reflections of the National Theatre’s lights upon the surface of the ancient Thames.

I like the way people watching sports on big screen TVs lean towards the action and mimic the people they’re watching without realising it. I like the way people dance to their own music. I like people playing games with the cracks in the pavement. I am wildly smitten, hopelessly in love, with people in museums of any age who are completely absorbed by learning something new, their faces splitting with that priceless moment of “I get it”.

There’s a pleasure, guilty, perhaps, when you lock eyes with someone because you’ve both been ogling the same beautiful individual, a moment of comradeship as you grin sheepishly and look away.

But people who are engrossed: they make involuntary facial expressions. They smile and twitch and sigh and lean towards their engrosser. They are alive and self-contained, nakedly so. They show you themselves without a mask, and under those circumstances everyone looks the same, we are all children, bending to yank a damp branch out of the stream; we are all children, captivated for a moment by the dancing colours reflected off window glass.

I think it’s impossible for anyone to look ugly in those moments.


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