People watching on a winter day


Out running errands and had a few minutes to sit around while Terry ducked into a store. Took in the sights as people wandered along.

Man in a suit seems to be having a rough go of it at home. Walking with a burger from a nearby fast food place in his hand, finishing his lunch and then tossing the wrapper into a can just before pulling open the door on a flower shop. Came out with what appeared to be two dozen roses. Sure seems like the far side of some type of trouble in progress, given his lack of a smile and apparent rush through a meal in order to gather this item.

Another older man is battling his home. Has a broken piece of wood in one hand and something metal in the other as he enters a hardware store. Cold day ahead, and I hope he doesn’t have that much work to do outside on whatever project he’s facing.

Woman appears to have had a great New Year’s Eve. She emerges from a dry cleaner with two items wrapped in plastic. The clear bags reveal a tuxedo in one and something a very glittery blue in the other.

Ever let your mind wander as you watch people move around? What does this person do as employment? What does that person have for a home? Does a minivan always mean children? Do flowers always mean an apology?

More likely then not, we’re very wrong in our assumptions.

Several years ago—actually, a few decades ago—I was at work when a friend invited me and a few others to attend her birthday party. As she offered the invitations, she told people that we had been talking about going out, so she was using this as a reason to set a date and name a place. But I knew a bit more.

She and I found ourselves working together somewhat often, and I knew she had gone through a miserable few months that included a bad relationship breakup. She had let it slip about a week earlier that she was thinking of throwing a party because there was no one else that would and she really wanted a fun night out with her friends. I say slip because at that moment, at that point in our conversation, it was clear this little bit of detail wasn’t being offered as a joke.

As the day of the party approached, another co-worker made an announcement. Turned in her resignation. She was moving. Across the country. Pretty much immediately. As in… after the last day of work, head home, bags into the car, drive off immediately. Absolutely no warning it was coming, and no time to throw a going away party.

(You might see where this is headed.)

Not wanting to say that her birthday was anything important to her, our close friend had tried to downplay the birthday angle of the party. It was an announced but hidden theme. She didn’t want presents (she said). Didn’t want balloons (she said). She just wanted a night out with friends (which she did, and everyone else wanted a night out as well). So, she moved increasingly into the background as whispers built between people to hoist a second banner at the birthday party wishing good luck and safe travels to our other departing friend. For some reason I noticed that when people mentioned the night out, she smiled and added comments. When people mentioned our departing co-worker, she smiled and turned away. Never said or indicated anything was wrong.

The party arrived. People dancing, karaoke selections being considered, smiles and drinks and laughter. Except in one corner.

She was smiling, and laughing at all the right moments. But if you took the time to really look, there was a sadness in the eyes. I took a moment to sit with her. Asked how she was doing, and offered her a hug. She laughed a bit and wiped away a few tears, saying she was hoping nobody had noticed. And that brings us back around to the start of this essay.

We all like to think we know what is going on around us. All like to center events based on what is happening to us personally, and then extend it out in waves that includes the people we share our lives with out to those we don’t even know. And we’d like to think we understand what others are facing.

We don’t.

It’s fun to watch and thrilling to guess. But it’s just a guess. Unless you truly observe, unless you interact, sometimes you’ll be right but often you’ll miss a few clues along the way.


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