I like to people watch, there, I admit it, and subconsciously choose the best place in a café to do so, but I’m not nosy and never intentionally eavesdrop. In fact I get annoyed when I overhear loud or unnecessary conversations, or annoying voices, and throw a Paddington Bear stare in their direction, not that it’s as effective as the aforementioned bear although it has scared a few who have returned a sheepish glance. As a writer, you learn to observe all around you, and not to judge, but absorb it all in and let it inspire you to create characters and plots. Watching humanity as it unfolds, and how others behave and react makes me wonder at times if I’m normal, or has society changed so much and I hadn’t noticed?
Recently I ventured into a town center I hadn’t visited for decades, and like many smaller towns it has been in the throes of death and decay since major retailers have opted to move to retail parks where it can offer free parking and cheaper rents. Yes, it took me a mere 20 minutes to explore the entire town (twice, in case I missed anything) that could claim a few coffee shops and fast food chains, plus the usual banks, and obligatory pharmacies. There was a Post Office (inside a store), a bookshop, and a pawn brokers too alongside numerous stores that were either boarded up, or their windows smeared with old posters and dust lining the streets by the old market square.
The busiest place was a small shopping arcade with the discount stores all huddled together, whether it makes shopping easier for the customers or for stores to be more competitive who knows? That’s where I saw most people; mainly prams that took up the width of the pavement with at least one screaming toddler in tow, and I found myself behind several senior couples who were out doing their weekly shopping. That’s about it really; people looking to buy the necessities and as cheaply as possible, and all with their reusable shopping bags. Once upon a time if you were seen with them, people thought you were a crazy green, but since they introduced a charge for single use plastic bags, only the silly or disorganized buy a bag at the checkout. Those with their own carriers can look smug and shake their heads at the ones who have to buy a bag now, but you can still get caught out trying to cram everything into your bags and find yourself short. If you don’t have a spare bag and it doesn’t fit, well, it goes into your handbag or is shoved into a coat pocket because there’s no way you want to fork out for another bag.
Perhaps that’s just the circle of life; the elderly who go to bed before 9 p.m., then get up ridiculously early because they’re bored and need to pee, and their day out is often the weekly grocery shop, or to go and buy a loaf of bread or a pint of milk. At the other end of the spectrum there are the mothers with several children out shopping, who either work part-time, are stay at home mothers, or are on welfare and shopping is a day out for them too. Everyone in between is at work, or studying at school or college. Then there are the few odd ones out like myself; a writer on a sabbatical for various reasons who stands out amongst the crowds, or lost souls who haven’t figured out what their role in the world is yet. I don’t fit in, and I’m quietly relieved that I don’t.
I’ve lived in many cities, towns, villages, by beaches, and on islands around the world and fundamentally humans are the same regardless of language, culture, or wealth. Siblings fight with one another, the elderly are looked after by family members or the state, people love to stop and chat in the supermarket and obliviously block the aisles or pavements while shopping (a little guilty here too, but I move to the side), parents with prams walk around as if they have the right of way, and people talk on their phones and don’t look where they are going when they cross the road. People walk around in their own bubbles, and some interact, usually when someone is in the way, or to hold open a door. You’d be surprised at how many don’t keep the door open, and I openly tut and shake my head.
The worst is the queue jumper; do you say something or loudly sigh and frown in the remote chance they can read your mind. I have no qualms in speaking up. You can see people thinking about it when someone queue jumps with their agitated faces and slight head shaking, but when people have earbuds in or are on their phone, there is a fine line as to whether it’s acceptable to interrupt someone to tell them to get to the back of the line. Think about it, was it deliberate or a tactic, because most people know others are uncomfortable about interrupting a call or telling someone something when they have headphones on and do it accidentally on purpose. Again, I have no problem in interrupting them, but know others may do. Once I was in a queue at the airport in Dubai waiting to board a connecting flight when a family led by the alpha male jumped the queue ahead of at least a fifty people. Everyone looked at one another aghast, but daren’t say anything and in these situations you can’t wait too long to speak up because either you queue jumped or you didn’t, so I spoke up. Naturally, the alpha male looked shocked and surprised and looked at the faces of those around him for confirmation, who all nodded in agreement with me. I was very polite and just said, “The end of the queue is over there,” and pointed with a smile.
I wasn’t so polite with Hugh Grant in my local gas station convenience store when he tried to jump the queue mainly because I knew he was trying it on. I wasn’t rude either and said, “The queue is behind me,” and he sheepishly retreated. It’s a little sad that this is what human interaction has been reduced to when you are out and about, saying ‘excuse me’ or ‘sorry’ or in my case, ‘get to the back of the queue’, but there are the odd folks who smile at one another as they walk by, but in this day and age people avoid eye contact to stay safely in their bubble. I’ve been wearing dark sunglasses all year round for decades, mainly to protect my eyes (no wrinkles around the eyes), but also found it was useful to nap on a bus or plane without anyone noticing, plus it stops weirdos from making eye contact too as I seem to attract those too!
I decided to do more people watching, and as a writer it’s called research and it’s much easier to do when you are alone. We all get emailed discount codes, and often think it’s a great deal but then never use them. This time I decided to use a code on my app for a weekday meal deal complete with wine for £5.99, which is a bit of a bargain when you consider a glass of wine is a fiver. My mantra is wine is fine after midday! Gone are the days when using a voucher or an offer is embarrassing, and now you’re considered unsavvy if you don’t have a voucher. In some ways this breaks down the snob value of eating out, just as before no one dared admit they shopped at Lidl or Aldi whereas now they are quite proud to say they do. Not just for being savvy as a shopper by saving money and finding excellent quality steals, but also managing to navigate the stores that have tight aisles and figuring out which price tickets belongs to which item. Gone are the days when people would boast about shopping at Sainsbury’s, although Waitrose and Marks and Spencer still have some snob value.
I watched people in the restaurant eating; a rowdy family get together, a young couple on a date, co-workers grabbing a boozy lunch, friends meeting up, and then there was me in a booth alone and quite content. Eating alone in a restaurant to some can seem a strange thing, but because I used to work on the road a lot and travel alone and I’m used to it. You sit there and wonder why people are meeting up, and how they chose that restaurant, and I love looking at what other people have ordered. I got some excellent fodder for some future characters and plots, but maybe that was the wine! As I wandered around the retail park, I saw people rushing around in their cars not indicating and speeding. Everyone seems to be in a hurry and rules on the road don’t seem to apply in car parks. Retail parks have little character or life to them; just masses of car parking spaces and stores lined up around them. They are purpose built like social housing and exist for a reason, and are a convenience for humanity providing jobs and goods in a contained environment.
This is how humanity is shaping our society, and our living spaces and it’s a little sad. Characterless places that look identical to retail parks in other parts of the world for it doesn’t matter where in the world you are for what I have described above could have been anywhere. However, does anyone actually notice how humanity and the world has changed? Sometimes you need to stop and look around at the world around you, even though you are a part of it. Only then you can start to understand humanity and the meaning of life, well, only a little because you can’t truly understand something that is constantly evolving can you?