Summer at Home: Thoughts from the Urban Promenade
One of the pleasures of summer in almost any city where the temperature isn’t meltingly hot and there’s no shrapnel whistling past your ears is sitting outdoors in a café. Maybe having lunch, maybe a succession of coffees, or a bottle of wine or a piece of carrot cake.
My wife and I regularly go to a high street café about a mile from where we live. We try and find seating that works for both of us. Me in the shade, and she in the sun. Either way, we both have to be facing the street. Because the essence of the experience is not the conversation. We manage to talk quite enough at home about the things that matter, and plenty about what doesn’t matter.
Also it’s not about admiring the view. That might apply on holiday for an hour or so, after which it’s been there, done that, time to look at something else. But if you’re sitting in your favourite local place, the scenery doesn’t change, unless you happen to be opposite a building site.
No, the experience is all about people-watching. Otherwise we might as well be at home in the garden watching as the dog dig holes in the lawn and dreams of foxes. People-watching is a sublime opportunity to project your likes and dislikes, your phobias and envy on to other people. To fantasise, to admire, to pity and to laugh.
You might think that you run out of mind fodder sitting off a main road in a small English town. Not so much variety as St Mark’s Square in Venice, the Medina in Marrakech or even Brixton High Street. Suburbia is boring in comparison? Not so. You just look at the little things instead of the obvious.
How people park for example. Yesterday we watched a little old lady make six attempts to align her car opposite the cafe. She stumbled out, blowing her cheeks with a mixture of relief and frustration, and probably embarrassment because she was being watched. Before she showed up to take the space, there was a guy who parked in such a way as to deny room to any car in front or behind him. He didn’t seem to care if he was watched or not. In fact it was pretty clear from his demeanour that he didn’t give a damn.
These coming and goings were a delicious opportunity for us to cluck to each other in disapproval, and agree that some people were too old to be allowed to drive, and others were too bloody selfish. I’m not sure if self-righteous condemnation gives you an endorphin rush, but it feels pretty good, so long as you don’t reflect on your own equally reprehensible shortcomings behind the wheel. People who live in glass houses should switch to armoured perspex before they cast the first stone.
Even if you’re not afforded the additional pleasure of overhearing the asinine conversations of your fellow customers, just watching the physical foibles of those walking – or running – past is enjoyable enough. If the traffic’s slow enough, you even get the people-watcher’s equivalent of tweets: a few seconds of drivers in their cars. Fat, complacent men in their Bentleys. Ratty, stressed women with a carload of screaming kids. People having rows, talking on their phone, picking their noses.
And young women who by rights shouldn’t have the money to be riding in brand new Range Rovers. Are they footballers’ wives? Do they have rich daddies? At which point the misogyny override switch kicks in. Perhaps they’re entrepreneurs or high-powered executives. How unfair to assume they’re kept women.
My wife and I often have different thoughts about the ordinary people walking by.
Me: how can that woman let herself get that fat? What is it about tattoos? Look at that pretentious guy in his linen shirt, panama hat and cream shorts; why doesn’t he realise how ridiculous he looks with his spindly varicose legs? Tell me, what on earth is the purpose of that dog the size of a rat with its tongue permanently lolling out of the side of its mouth? And why is it being lovingly carried along by the woman who looks great from a distance but whose weathered face up close betrays her age? Is it incapable of walking? Check out that guy – which bank has he just robbed?
My wife: how dare that woman have such a perfect body? Where did she get that blouse from? You (meaning me) would look great in that guy’s linen shirt, panama hat and cream shorts – why do you insist on wearing that tee shirt two sizes too small? Look how his shirt disguises his belly.
And other thoughts that we care not to share. Perhaps dark thoughts about wishing we were someone else, or in a different place, or were young again, or what might have happened if things had turned out differently. Usually fleeting thoughts, because really we have nothing to complain about, either between each other or in the quality of our lives.
Lately I’ve been focusing more on how people walk. I’ve noticed how young people sometimes shuffle along as if bearing an impossible burden. Some people walk like moorhens, heads popping forward with each step, like Margaret Thatcher. Women in heels totter along with their backsides swinging like church bells. Small men strut, striving for height with each dainty step. Tall men shamble, shoulders sloping and backs becoming increasingly bent with age. Fat people waddle, thighs chafing against each other, seemingly oblivious of how others see them as they display their massive frames in leggings and tight shirts.
When I look at how the elderly walk, with varying degrees of difficulty, they seem to be telling me not to get old, it’s not fun. It’s not fun being crippled with arthritis, having to watch every step to avoid hidden dangers like protruding paving stones or unexpected steps. Even in the summer, they walk as the rest of us do in winter when the pavements are covered with ice and snow.
Worst of all is when I realize that it won’t be long before I start to look like that. In fact, when I get up in the morning, for the first ten minutes I do look like that. Eventually, with the help of stretching exercises prescribed for me when my back went earlier this year, I start to walk in a manner I would consider normal. Maybe not to people-watchers like me, but for my own purposes, fine. Having done a bit of acting in my time, I know a little about posture and movement, even if I don’t always practice what I know. But usually I make a conscious effort to override the bad habits that come with age and preoccupation.
Sooner or later, though, the arthritis or some other ailment will take a grip, and if they don’t already, other people watchers will eventually see me as an old man walking slowly down the street. The worst thing about how you walk is that it’s a tell-tale sign of somebody who is at the end of their economic usefulness. More so than faces, I find.
I often play golf with people in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Often it’s hard to tell their age from their faces, but the walking is usually a giveaway. As a matter of respect I never assume that a person has retired, and anyway I don’t believe in retirement. Are you retired because you don’t have a job, don’t need the money, or because you are incapable of doing anything useful with and for anyone? Was a friend of mine who worked for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau well into his eighties retired? Not in my book, even though he wasn’t paid a bean for his work.
Yet we make these blithe assumptions about the usefulness of people, and the way they walk is one of the prime indicators. Shame on us, we who forget that our grandparents or elderly parents taught us to play chess, or helped us to decorate our first apartment, or looked after our kids, or were a rich source of experience and advice if only we would listen.
So people-watching is an addictive pleasure because we can make bitchy comments with impunity, make snap judgements without challenge and imagine lives for the people who pass by. But we should never forget that everyone has their own story, which most likely isn’t the one we’ve invented for them. And that even more rewarding is to engage as well as watch. Because sooner or later watch might be the only thing we feel able to do, on our own, through the front window of our homes, or maybe through blank eyes in an old people’s home.
So the moral of this post is never lose the art of conversation. And never make assumptions about that old person shuffling carefully down the street, because the chances are that they’ll have a few stories to tell that might surprise and amaze, as anyone who reads obituaries will tell you. And one day, if you make it that far, that person will be you.