I Spy

What do fellow people-watchers wonder about you?

What do fellow people-watchers wonder about you?

Miles run today: 5

Temperature at 3:45 p.m. (in January!): 63

Stars I give to Carrie Rubin’s novel, The Seneca Scourge: 5 (It was so good. I know, I’m late to the party.)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m a little miffed I wasn’t recruited for the CIA.

Back when I was 10 or 11, my friends and I often wrote up elaborate spy missions. We devised long forms with official-sounding terms: Location. Description. Activity. Conversation. Action to Take.

We brainstormed about who we could shadow; someone who, when overheard, would provide scintillating tidbits for us to scribble in our notes.

My sister, four and a half years younger than we were, was often the quarry.

We would crouch in the guest room, the one next to hers, waiting for her to say something. Anything. But as she was usually alone, the espionage forms remained blank for long minutes, and our legs developed cramps.

Location: her room

Description: age 6 1/2, brown hair, brown eyes

Activity: combing her doll’s hair

Conversation: N/A (I learned that one from my mom filling out medical forms at the doctor’s office.)

Action to Take: Find a new subject. Who says stuff.

By high school, we were more mobile.

We drove to the MARTA station and took the train to the end of the line: the Atlanta airport, one of the busiest in America.

Back in the glory days of air travel, random teenagers from the ‘burbs wandering through the terminals weren’t considered a security threat. Out of sheer boredom, we watched families arriving from Europe, couples reuniting after long absences, and business travelers in rumpled suits retrieving their suitcases from baggage claim.

Sometimes we would play, “That’s Your Boyfriend,” a game that today seems horribly cruel but provided us with hours of free entertainment.

You would find the most unwashed, outdated, grizzly man at the airport and present him to your friend as a gift. “Hey, girl, That’s Your Boyfriend.”

To our credit, we never pointed.

When my dad found out about it, he was horrified. “You do know that those men are other people’s fathers, don’t you? A group of teenage girls looking in his direction, giggling? The poor men probably think their zipper is unzipped or something.”

Now at the ripe old age of many of our “That’s Your Boyfriend” subjects, I still watch people and wonder about their lives.

People are curious about other people. It’s in our nature. And if you are a writer, you’ll understand that we want to know why, and how, and what makes her tick.

A few months ago, I was standing in line at our local warehouse store. The man in front of me, age 50, brown hair, mustache, stubbly facial hair, jeans circa 1995, logo t-shirt, was fascinating. I wanted my old Spy forms back.

Here is what he bought:

One case of Corona

One 55-pound bag of dog food

Two 20-pound bags of Dixie Crystals sugar

I’m sure you can imagine what I wanted to ask him: what time is the margarita party, and how many limes will you need me to pick up first?

Was the dog food thing just to put me off the scent of the real story here? I imagined a Mel-Gibson-in-Lethal-Weapon existence for him.

Or maybe he was lonely and baked homemade brownies for the homeless each Tuesday afternoon while sipping a beer.

Or maybe he and his dog filled up a plastic swimming pool with colored sugar water and splashed around on warm days in late fall.

Or maybe he baked large cakes for prisoners with nefarious tools hidden inside.

I kept my mouth shut.

But I am glad that I’ve found a career and vocation that allows me to ask a lot of questions and then write about the answers.

With each person I meet, with each person I interview, I find I gain no more insight into what makes people tick. But I do gain compassion: I never, ever play “That’s Your Boyfriend” anymore.

And I gain many more questions than I’m able to answer, which makes me happy.

Do you people-watch? Where is your favorite place to go to wonder about people’s lives? What was your biggest surprise while people-watching?

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34 thoughts on “I Spy

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    I love to people watch. That’s the benefit of being an introvert–you keep to yourself in public and therefore have all the time in the world to observe. 😉

    Thanks so much for the mention of my book. 5-stars–yay!! I’m not sure if you meant you put that on an Amazon or Goodreads review, so I’ll go check over there. But regardless, thank you! Is wonderful to hear. 🙂

    • annewoodman says:

      No–I need to go put it on Goodreads now. Sorry. I’m slow. I’ll put one on Amazon, too. I really enjoyed it, Carrie! I loved the sci fi stuff… LOVED IT.

      • Carrie Rubin says:

        So nice to hear. Thank you, Anne! And for the reviews, too. VERY much appreciated.

      • Amy Mak says:

        I REALLY want to read that book – good to hear the recommendation! And I love to people watch. My husband and I both love it…and I totally agree, it makes for great writing! I had a friend who went CIA…totally jealous but probably totally overrated 🙂

      • annewoodman says:

        Yeah. I read a very interesting book about the CIA, and it was disappointing… the image that I had of things getting done out there juxtaposed with the former CIA guy’s story about how nothing really was. Sad.

  2. Christi says:

    I love people watching! I think the best places are weekdays during the lunch hour — people will talk to their coworkers about anything. 🙂 Makes for good story fodder.

    • annewoodman says:

      Hmmm. So true. I’ve found that with cell phones, people are even less careful about what they say. My imagination runs wild about who the person on the other end of the phone might be.

  3. Goodness…I am the QUEEN of people watching….can I admit I’d rather watch than interact or does that brand me a total wierdo?!! (Seconds paused before you answer that: 0……just keeping with your theme there!)
    But seriously, I imagine full scenarios about the most random of strangers and find it totally fascinating! I often think I’d have made a fab detective: I notice tiny details about people and have a wicked good memory.
    Seems we have much in common so I’ll ask a serious question. What DO you think checkout guy was doing with ALL.THAT.SUGAR!?!???

    • annewoodman says:

      Wow! Good question. I think he lives at home with his mom, and she bakes compulsively. He drinks so he doesn’t have to think about living with his mom at age 50. ; )

      You are not a total weirdo. Until you get a notebook and start writing: Location. Activity. Description…. oh wait. That’s me. ; )

  4. 4amWriter says:

    I love to people watch, and I’ll pick up on mannerisms or body language that helps me explain a situation I know nothing about. One detail I always look for is a wedding band, on both men and women. For some reason I need to know this about people. I know that some married people don’t wear rings, but I feel like it is a really telling detail — a lot of people I wouldn’t expect to be married on first glance wear rings!

    • annewoodman says:

      Huh! I remember both my husband and I being surprised, back when we were first married, that a few of our male friends chose not to wear a wedding band. “It’s the only piece of jewelry I’ll ever have!” my husband said, proudly. So I guess I don’t place too much stock in it… and I always forget to look!

      It is interesting when two or more people are together and they don’t ever look at each other, or they keep touching each other, or you get some vibe about them. My imagination won’t stop wondering what their relationship is like.

  5. Laurie Cox says:

    I like to go sit at Barnes and Noble and pretend to read magazines while covertly watching people. I’ll look to see what the person across the table is reading and then my imagination starts to churn.

    • annewoodman says:

      Oooh, yes! We used to go and read at B&N quite a bit when we were dating, back in the old days. The problem with my husband and me is that we’re pretty extroverted… so we ended up getting into conversations with the people instead of keeping them at a distance. ; )

      (People watching is easier when you’re by yourself.)

  6. People watching is SUCH fun. The best place for it was when I was living in Las Vegas. In the casinos, and actually anywhere on the strip. If you could find somewhere to just sit and watch it was great. Malls are always a good place to people watch too, you can make up whole scenarios about people, why they’re there, what they’re looking to buy, for who, and all that stuff.

    I’m very late to the party to read Carrie’s book too, definitely soon, really want to. It sounds like just the sort of book I would choose to read even if I didn’t know the author!

    • annewoodman says:

      Wow, yes, Las Vegas would be prime people watching. And I have spent many minutes sitting on benches in malls making up stories about the shoppers.

      You’ll love Carrie’s book!

  7. kabe1 says:

    Basically I am just nosy! I love listening in to people’s conversations on public transport (well, it’s like postcards right – if you don’t want to be overheard, then don’t talk about it) – it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, like being a detective – trying to work out how they know each other etc. Nothing more annoying though than if they are sitting behind you on a bus and you can’t turn round to look at them…!!

    • annewoodman says:

      Ha! Have you ever tried to figure out what the people will look like (behind you), and when they get up, they are nothing like you imagined? So fun!

      Yes, I do think that loud conversations or cell phone conversations in public are like postcards… I am continually shocked at what people will talk about on the phone IN A STORE… they think no one can hear them.

  8. Daryl says:

    I like to play “mystery science theater” in my head at the airport.

  9. Oh it is one of my favorite past-times. I think most writers can’t help themselves. It’s part of who we are. Guessing about relationships and creating interesting back stories keeps the mind fertile and can make for some interesting characters. I personally love airports and train stations, typical hubs of espionage. 🙂

  10. David Gentry says:

    I have a lot of spy experience — reading spy novels. John LeCarre and Len Deighton are must-reads for writers, I think. Try The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or to be spun on your heels by a contemporary spy novel try The Little Drummer Girl. After the latter, you will never look at the Mid-East in the same way.

    I like watching people in restaurants. One can tell a lot from body language and whether or not they converse or how much they converse and whether or not they smile or laugh. Hearing them is not required. Can you spot which are the good relationships and which are not? It’s a fun game.

    Anne, I will repeat myself from another comment: If you have learned compassion at your young age, you have learned a lot.

    • annewoodman says:

      Thanks, Dad.

      I agree, watching people in restaurants is fun, too. But usually when I’m eating with other people, it’s too difficult to concentrate on my own table conversation as well as other people’s. ; )

  11. Melissa says:

    I love to people watch. I worked at a bar in college and that is the best place to people watch….and laugh…and cringe. Even though not everyone in the bar is drinking, they can do some really ridiculous things to catch the attention of the opposite sex. The drinkers ranged from hysterically funny to just down right sad. It was never a dull moment.

  12. jmmcdowell says:

    I love people watching, and especially listening, on the Metro and in DC. Although one of my favorites was walking along the C&O Canal, some miles north of DC, and passing two guys speaking Russian. Damn, why did my husband decide not to take the language in college?! What were they saying in such an out-of-the-way place? 🙂

    You can’t beat this area for spy/intrigue scenarios! 😉

    • annewoodman says:

      That’s cool! My friend and I took Russian in one of those continuing ed classes when we were in high school. The only thing I remember from it was a poem called “Ti Y Vi,” which was “You and You.” Really. I would be no help deciphering out-of-the-way conversations. But I really want to be. ; )

  13. It’s too funny that you stalked your younger sister, waiting for something to happen!! For me, when stalking, I love the moment where the subject does something, and then you can see that a split second later they’ve thought: was anyone watching that? and then they look up and catch your eye. I was standing behind a man on a train platform and he farted. I guess he didn’t think it would come out as loud as it did, or the trains would blanket the sound. He turned around and stared right at me and there was this moment between the two of us where he knew that I knew, and I knew that he knew – oh, it can go on!!

    • annewoodman says:

      Oh, how horrible for that man! I guess there’s the comfort in believing that you’ll never see that person (in this case, you) again, right?

      People will definitely surprise you; you just have to be ready for whatever unfolds. ; )

  14. I am a diner spy. I just love to surreptitiously analyze folks in neighboring booths and invent dialogue for them. It’s a great way to spend a lunch hour.

    • annewoodman says:

      I had a horrible dinner one time with my college boyfriend and another couple where they made fun of a couple at another table… I find it difficult to enjoy it now; it makes me feel edgy. But imagining their lives? Their challenges? That can be very fun.

  15. My favorite place to people watch is definitely pubs. People just tend to be more unguarded and entertaining then. That is one place where I can just sit back and observe people, without wanting to participate in their conversation (which I do more often than not..).

    • annewoodman says:

      Pubs are fun. At the ones we go to with my husband’s dad in England, though, we always seem to be right in the thick of things, playing conkers and listening to jokes. I wish we had an equivalent place to go here. ; )

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