Friday, September 27, 2013

A Writer's Untapped Paradise: People-Watching

 "I'm just people-watchin', watchin' people watchin' me..."
-Jack Johnson "People-Watching"
I like to shake things up a bit in my class and give the gals writing assignments that aren't your run-of-the-mill short stories. Since I am working from my own resources and not following any set of curriculum I get to choose each week's topic; having taught them the versatility of Action Beats Vs. Dialog Tags, I thought it'd be a fun assignment to go out to lunch and have them people-watch in order to add originality to their action beats. We piled into the van at lunchtime and headed off to Panera where I assigned them each a position in different corners of the restaurant to eat their own lunch quietly and observe everyone else eating theirs. (On the ride over I instructed them minutely on how to people-watch without detection so the poor customers don't feel like butterflies on pins. "No Customers Were Harmed In the Making of This Post" and all that.)
"He ain't a 'tec, he's a bloomin' busy-body!"
(did anyone get that reference?)
Even I, a dedicated people-watcher was surprised at the variety of descriptions we came up with as we scribbled madly and tried not to let our soup go cold in between. There was a woman who had grown up in Japan and been abducted for half an hour because of her white-blonde hair. The same women's parents live in Ireland now, and the rest of her family in Tuscany or Tuscon. (This pupil wasn't quite sure which) Another has a step-daughter who married a man who earned $75-80,000 a month and spent oodles at posh clothing stores.  Other scraps we got down were just bits of description of peoples''s amazing the stories you can unearth just by sitting there and not-quite minding your own business...
And because we came up with such random gems, I thought I'd show you the notes I managed to get down in the hour we were people-watching; it's like a different sort of Snippets post because I wrote them all in third-person...heehee.

She leaned on her fist and ignored her meal, focused instead on the screen of her iPhone.

The woman tore pieces of bread from her roll and dipped them into her soup one by one.

"Feel free to open that." She shoved a packaged cookie toward her friends.

The woman seemed to be at odds with her ponytail, always flicking it over and tossing it behind her shoulder. Babies and long hair do not, apparently, mix.

He left his plate and soup bowl at the table while he got a refill as if, she thought, there were no hungry beggars in the world who might descend upon it like buzzards while he was gone.

The expression on her face as she crossed her arms was meant to pronounce definitive judgement on the thing of which she disapproved. 

She wiped each of her fingers between bites in what seemed a strikingly fastidious manner, considering she had been eating bread.

"Him? Oh he's not married."
"Did I hear he beat you?"

The woman folded her receipt after she had been seated and took an age filing it in her purse where it probably now lay cheek-to-jowl with a coupon for 50 Cents Off Tomato Soup and a pamphlet from her granddaughter's ballet recital.

"What did you have to eat for your birthday?"
"Uhhhhh-huh....her usual."
"Well they were good...OH! I forgot to tell them to put that stuff over it!" (what stuff, we wonder?)

When she laughed, her head jerked down and her shoulders forward like an eager, strutting pigeon taking halting jerks across the pavement.

The manager refilled the baskets of cookies and squeezed out from behind the counter with a fawning smile for a passing female customer. His grey hair was pulled back in a slick, respectable ponytail and when he walked it was with a certain feline grace that she knew, somehow, was part of his act.

The boy had an uncomfortable manner of fastening his eyes upon you as you talked and chewing rapidly like a concentrated and famished hare. Also, one of his eyes stared slightly in an alternate direction which only heightened his rabbity-ness.

"He put up his great big paws and WOOFWOOFWOOFWOOF he was out the door and I was chasing him and I realized I was naked. I hid myself but next time I was outside cooking fish, my neighbor said, 'That was some show.'" (now I am scarred for life.)

He used a form of God's name instead of adjective which somewhat marred the impression of an educated man.

He crossed his arms across his large belly so his elbows looked like hams and stared like a large and somewhat disgruntled genie. 

One half of her mouth appeared to be permanently hitched up in a snip of a smile showing a few white teeth in the left corner of her mouth.

She held her drink while she talked and it was fascinating--if you were bored enough to notice--to watch the slosh of liquid in the cup as she punctuated her conversation.

"She gets herself in more predicaments."

The old man possessed a humped back so that his head appeared to be glued to the front of his neck instead of the top.

"My wife's daughter spends spends spends all his money."

"He used to earn $75-80,000 monthly."

"They used to go to a place on Taylor Rd--it's closed now, thank God--but it was called Madamoiselle's and it was the kind of place you'd buy three outfits and it would cost $2,500. I told her, 'You do not take your mother to Madamoiselle's any more.' So she called her mother one day and said, 'Come on and meet me in front of Madameoiselle's--Steve put me on a budget and I have to stay within the budget.' " 

A pretty good catch for a single lunch-hour I think.


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

"He's no gentleman, he ain't! Why can't he mind his own business and leave a poor girl alone?"

This sounds like fun! Out-of-context bit of conversation can be either intriguing or downright hilarious. I'll never forget the time I was in the grocery store and a man walked by me talking on a cell phone—all I heard was, "Well, it's really a question of the cheese."

Joy said...


Really, I had a lot of fun reading these busy-body snippets, and I do declare, sometimes it can be harder to describe present reality with the same tongue-in-cheek cleverness and wittiness as sometimes happens in fiction. So I applaud you highly, because each line either sent me cracking a smile or imaging a sinister murder mystery...

What fun, I shall definitely try to do that one day :))...