Thoughts of an Author in Training
I didn’t realize until the conclusion of a Chicago trip that I’m an inappropriate gawker. You know the awkward character on the bus that when you make eye contact they divert their whole head in a different direction to pretend that they weren’t starring? Yep. I’m that character.
In defense, I live in a small college/cow town where public transportation is a bus that goes from the mall to the college. It doesn’t allow the individual commuter to practice their public skills. I realized I had a problem when I continually ran into the business commuters on the city streets, left my wallet on the L line because I was distracted by a preaching drunk man and honked at for jaywalking because I was taking note of the girl with leopard prints tattooed on her face. I’d like to excuse it because of my profession reassuring people, “It’s ok. I’m a writer, we’re allowed to stare.” But the obvious reaction to that would be fear that they’ve become a character in my story.
As much as I may be abusing the allotted time for glancing, I’m not burning in to anyone’s soul. I’m not passing judgment and twisting someone’s day because my mouth is wide open or my face is scrunched in disgust. I’m just a stranger to the idea of encountering hundreds of different people in one day. Everyone on a mission headed to fulfill different lives in the city. On campus everyone looks the same, backpack, cell phone out mobbing in a heard from building to building. I’m generalizing extremely here, but what I mean is that in the city you don’t know the outcome, you get brief seconds to observe that this person in front of you is human. You don’t know if they’re rich or poor, disgruntled, lonely, a writer or a doctor. You can guess by what they’re wearing, but you can tell more about a person by the way they look at others. The way someone discerns passing strangers gives away a moment of thought that I like to catch.
This is where my starring is the worst. I want to catch this moment but the ripple effects of staring are quick. The rules of looking at others are pretty much outlined that you don’t. That you stick to your own, that you look down or away to avoid discomfort. If you do look it’s only for seconds and only as a survival instinct to know your surroundings. Those allotted seconds don’t allow me to capture how others are looking and reacting, so I take multiple glances and note the behavior of others: the man with a Louis Vuitton bag and flashy phone cover who holds his belongs tight as a black man takes a seat next to him, the drunk homeless man that converses desperately to the man next to him pretending to sleep, the older disabled couple yelling at each other across the bus asking how to work their smart phones making the girl between them struggle to finish the pages of her book. It’s impossible to lump 40 individuals in to one area and believe that no one’s looking. Though most individuals want to be alone anyways, they still comparatively judge their situation to those around them by looking.
I’ve figured out some guidelines for appropriate glances and when it becomes inappropriate how you can save yourself.
Do not take the child approach. Children have an excuse. They can stare as long as they want at someone or something they don’t understand. Though it can be creepy at times if you’re being stared at by a child helpless to their big eyes, nature gives them a free pass to openly stare. I’m jealous mostly because they’re able to believe they’re invisible when staring. You wave and say hello to try and break the awkwardness, but they just keep looking not reacting. They pretend you’re crazy and that you’re waving at nothing. Sadly this affect doesn’t work on adults both because you can’t openly stare and you can’t cutely wave and say hello in your high-pitched-baby voice that everyone seems to have. People will just think you’re crazy.
Do not take the cartoon approach. You know in the cartoons, at least the good kind from Warner Brother’s Looney Tunes, where the wolf stiffens up, his eyes bulge out and his tongue hangs loosely from his mouth? Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that in real life. A double take can be flattering for many people but once your eyes get big, your head nods up and down and you start hollering then you’ve made someone feel like a piece of meat. Nobody wants to feel like mom’s pot-roast or Lady Gaga’s VMA dress, so keep the excited eyes conservative.
There’s no real way to be sneaky when you’re curious. I’m guilty of trying a few different types of sneaky stares but I’ve found they’re just going to make you feel like an insufficient detective. Staring while wearing sunglasses, through a phone while it’s on camera, over your newspaper or in the reflection of the Plexiglass on the subway, they feel secretive but they don’t work. I get caught looking at people more than I should.
If you’re caught you have two options. One, you can quickly divert your attention. Much like in Super Bad when Michael Cera gets caught looking at a nice set of boobs, he pretends to be contemplating math and suddenly his “indirect gaze” has given him the aha moment and solution to the problem. Nice. Or two, you can own up and acknowledge that you broke the code. Smiling and nodding are good signs of acknowledgment it’s like a universal “woops” didn’t mean for you to catch me. You could also engage in conversation. A polite hello or compliment to try and excuse your lingering gaze is always a good save.
The point is we’re all human. Whether you’re the weirdest looking human being in the world, the loudest, or the most generally manufactured model of humanity, people are going to stare, you are going to stare. If you’re the stare-er, keep it in moderation and have a crisis plan when you’re found guilty. If you’re the stare-ie, take it as flattery, maybe make some obscene or sexual faces to freak the person out, you’ve already got their attention so make them feel uncomfortable, or you could make a new friend today.
Good luck and happy staring.