"That was weird,” I said. I waited politely for David’s inevitable “What?” before continuing, “This guy came out from the alley, stepped behind that utility box, in that corner where it meets the dumpster, and was there for, like, I don’t know, 30 or 40 seconds, and then popped back up, turned the corner back to the alley, and went inside that building. You think he was, like, peeing or something? He went back inside, so he must have access to a bathroom. Maybe he hides something out there?” I turned from the window to face David. “It’s perplexing, isn’t it?”
“Whatever you say, Gladys.” Gladys (a nickname he appropriated from the nosy Bewitched character Gladys Kravitz) is what David calls me when I’m watching other people and speculating about their behavior. In other words, he often calls me Gladys. Especially in our new home, where we have windows that look out over a busy street and where, just one floor up, I can see and hear most anything that occurs on the sidewalk below.
The other day I witnessed a drug deal. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was. I was sitting by the window in the kitchen (my new favorite place to perch) when I noticed something peculiar. “David, come check this out. This guy just pulled up to this car on his bicycle, turned his bike upside down on the sidewalk, and got into that car.” David casually approached my side, glanced out the window, shrugged, and walked away. He may not have found the situation interesting, but I was enthralled.
I watched from above as the man who’d arrived on the bike gestured animatedly as he spoke to the blond woman behind the wheel of the luxury car. Things got more interesting when I noticed, through the windshield, the wad of cash the woman was now counting. She handed a portion of the cash to the man and he got out of the car. Once he was out, I could hear him clearly. “I’ll be right back,” he said before turning his bike right-side up, hopping on it, and riding along the sidewalk until he was out of sight.
I waited along with the woman. It was a hot day, close to 100 degrees. She got out of her car a few times, sipped her Starbucks, got back in, checked her phone. It might have been 20 minutes, but it could have been 40; I didn’t think to check the time. Eventually, the man rode back into view, stood his bicycle upside-down on the sidewalk again, and, through the passenger window, said to the woman, “I told you he was a talker! Sorry it took so long. I was really trying to get out of there. I told him you were waiting.” Once he was seated in the car, I could see him clearly through both the passenger window and windshield. He fished a white medicine bottle from his pocket, waved it around as he spoke, and then opened it and dumped several pills into the palm of his hand, which he counted, and then handed over to the woman.
David thinks my obsession with watching people has to do with control. “You like to know everything that’s going on,” he said. I was about to balk when he added, “You’re always trying to find patterns in everything, and that gives you a sense of comfort.” It was true that not knowing what the guy was doing behind the utility box made me uneasy and that I had felt a certain satisfaction — I think I even nodded and smiled — the moment I figured out what was going on with the chick in the fancy car and the dude on the bike. David was right — I do find comfort in patterns, but there was more to it than that; while he was charting the summit, I was discovering the mountain below.
The escapades I’ve witnessed (counterfeit money-making, hit-and-runs, drug deals, etc.) have been few and far between. I’m not watching on the off chance I might see something extraordinary. I’m watching for the ordinary. The dealer counting pills in his hand was entertaining, sure, but what really interested me was the way he fumbled to get in and out of the car; how when he first opened that door, he accidentally scraped it on the sidewalk and gushed his apologies, then scraped it again when he got out, and again when he got back in, always apologizing and becoming flushed; how, on his final exit, he remembered his previous three scrapes and was histrionically cautious, as though demonstrating to the woman how much he cared about not scratching the door a fourth time. And though my eyes widened a bit when all that cash came out, I found it just as fascinating to watch how the woman passed the time as she waited for the guy to return with her goods.
The sight of ordinary endeavors — a woman adjusting her lipstick in the rearview mirror, a man dropping his keys and looking around to see if anyone noticed — make me feel connected to every person I see. It may seem banal, but this stuff of life, to me, is akin to poetry.
One of my favorite poems is “The Suitor,” by Jane Kenyon:
- We lie back to back. Curtains
- lift and fall,
- like the chest of someone sleeping.
- Wind moves the leaves of the box elder;
- they show their light undersides
- turning all at once
- like a school of fish.
- Suddenly I understand that I am happy.
- For months this feeling
- has been coming closer, stopping
- for short visits, like a timid suitor.
Kenyon knew how to celebrate the ordinary and pinpoint the patterns. Maybe David’s right. Maybe my constant watchfulness is all about control and my quest to obtain it. Maybe I do, as he says, “like to be up in everyone’s shit.” I won’t deny that. I may not know what it is, exactly, that I’m looking for. But that won’t stop me from looking.