People are chameleons -changing colors on the hour. If we catch someone in a red moment, we can easily dismiss him as a bitter, angry individual. That mom who bawls out her kids in the grocery line. The wife who tosses a too-loud snide remark in her husband's face. We can roll our eyes and call her a shrew. Or, we can wonder - what's going on behind the scenes that's making her act that way? What happened in her yesterday?
We're human though. Even the kindest of us simply can't stop our thoughts from going there once in a while. A few weeks ago, I caught myself in the thick of people watching. My curiosity landed me on a journey that took me from feeling red-faced anger to blue melancholy. For me, it revealed aspects of humanity I don't always appreciate - in others and in myself as well.
Starbucks on a Sunday night.
A few teens and college students working on what seem to be school projects.
A few moms out after dark, grabbing a gab and a post-run chai tea latte.
And one old man, all alone.
I notice the fellow as I walk toward the coffee counter. He’s asleep, or at least he appears to be, in one of the four easy chairs, across from the trio of gabby geese. Dressed in dirty, too- long- for- his- legs khakis and worn out shoes, he’s slouched over, his body curled into a ‘C.’ He’s drooling a little and quietly snoring, while a pair of teens, a girl and a guy, sitting caddy corner from him, smirks and snorts, gawking unabashedly at the man from their perches.
My husband immediately wants to kill the teenagers, but I, matter of factly urge him to restrain the growling beast that is his temper. I’m not in the mood to post bail for simple assault. Inside though, I want to strangle these two crapheads until their eyes pop out and they beg for mercy.
An hour later, the fun poking hasn’t grown tired for them. They continue to point, stare and giggle without reservation. The old man finally wakes from his nap. He stands and stretches, reaching absentmindedly for the empty or at least now cool cup of coffee on the table next to him. The crass teens watch him carefully, whispering to each other in a manner that’s probably only obviously rude to my husband and me because we’ve been spying on them.
Maybe they’re hoping for new material for their lame comedy act, maybe they’re gearing up to bully a little more overtly. I’ll never know, because the old man leaves, walks out of the coffee shop without making eye contact with anyone. A trio of young high school girls looks up from their project work to watch him walk out the door. Each one is, for a moment, taken away from her notebooks and pens, flyaway flat-ironed locks, and lipstick. For just one moment, each of them, in her own silent space, takes notice. For some reason, this disheveled senior with his strange cowlick and his three-day old stubble seems to give everyone pause. I wonder if any of them will consider him later.
I’m stuck thinking of the old man intermittently throughout the evening. Where does he go when he leaves the coffee shop? Is he a widower who hates to be at home with his memories? Can’t stand how very lonely ordinariness can seem?
Did he just receive a frightening diagnosis? His own? His daughter’s?
Is his wife a clean freak with plastic covers over all of the furniture at home? Does he come to Starbucks simply to relax in a comfortable chair, sans plastic?
I can’t know why the man chose to take a nap in such a public place, under the scrutiny of so many, but I love to imagine his life beyond this glimpse.
And, the bullies too. What are their stories?
What gave birth to their cruelty?
Is the girl victimized? Does someone call her ‘dike’ when they pass by her locker? Does the laughter press on her ears like a vise?
Does the teenage guy with her feel invisible in the hallways? Is that why he’s wearing bright red rain boots pulled high over tight black and grey check jeggings, a faux fur Russian hat and a lip ring? Is he pleading to be noticed without saying a word?
Victims, preying upon a species they deem to be lower than themselves on the social food chain. I get it. I don’t like it, but the spin of the cycle is easy to follow.
Crisp November night kisses my cheeks as I exit the coffee shop. My husband, having forgotten his previous fervor toward the meanies, takes my hand in his and walks us toward our vehicle.
A man with a stark white collar passes us. The large gold cross around his neck glints in the glare of the streetlights, and the sweet smell of whiskey overpowers the air.
“Nice,” my husband says, his sarcasm landing like a heavy stone in my belly.
“It’s just a glimpse,” I whisper, and wonder, once more.