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The subtle art of people-watching

  • 29 November 2022
Sometimes it pays to sit still in a central business district, the aorta of any city, and nod in recognition to life as it passes you by. Bypassed from the stream, you watch and learn as the passers-by flow around you. Mystery and revelation. Connection and dissing. Peace and discord. Meaning, transcendence and futile, random pain. It’s all there if you look close enough. Pause long enough to witness the mysteries.

The barista proudly decanting her latest and greatest offering. The oldish bloke feeding a child (a grandson?). The woman laughing hysterically as she navigates her realm with a friend, all the while dissecting her partner. The parking inspector arguing the toss with his victim. The man talking to himself, anger fluctuating with regret. Eyes, mouths, noses, eyebrows; shoulders shrugging, hands dismissing, voices rising and falling as cadences and blood sugar levels wax and wane. 

Our bodies and personas tell a story, if an incomplete one. A chapter perhaps, or a few pages, depending on the pace of the reader and the narrators. There’s a toddler finger-painting on his mum’s jeans with the crumbling remains of a Mars bar. His chocolate face is a delight, absorbed with questions of pattern and design.

A 30-something woman, lettuce-leaf thin, adorns the arm of a thick-set magnate. Tasteful suit, combed-over coiffeur. He pronounces, she grunts back, non-committal. Her eyes suggest there exists some other, preferred venue. Or company.

At a crowded table, a uni student of indeterminate major, gender or age, talks in rapid fire discourse, illustrating their thesis with animated hands. Assorted fellow diners, a diverse microcosm of multicultural Australia, laugh and encourage the performance as hands dance in rhythm with the speaker’s thoughts. 

 'Their presence is inspiring and reassuring. We are not alone in our story. We are not alone in our search for grace.'

Faces in a crowd, focused and blurred, fixed and passing, both catch and elude the eye. Some remind you of friends and family. Faded stellar celebs. Lost loves and half-remembered foes. Some love their moment in the conversational spotlight, singing for their supper. They possess and display a spark, others cringe and shed attention. Some look back to the observer, radar and sonar attuned to another’s notice; others blink, dismiss the rest of humanity while closing to their respective punchlines.

Perhaps the eye is drawn to beauty, to forceful tones, or sartorial courage, or recognition of aural lustre. H.G. Wells suggested that beauty