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The Impolite Pleasure of People-Watching

Category: Fashion & Style,Lifestyle

the look

Observation is, at once, a glorified lack of activity and an invasion of privacy. But there’s so much to see in New York.

Photographs by Daniel Arnold and Andre Wagner

Text by Darcie Wilder

Produced by Eve Lyons

Before cellphones were fun, when the idea that anything may distract you from New York’s never-ending street theater was unimaginable, I would watch the world happen around me. Observation is, in many ways, a glorified lack of activity, focused attention without a clear purpose. But then again, purpose is so seldom an explanation for behavior.

Is there a good reason for scrolling through Instagram, an endless array of grids and Stories and now “TV,” all of the ways people want to be seen, or the performed ugliness, everything stretching toward something other or else? I often have to be reminded that there’s so much beyond the screen and all the other physical and psychological confines of my life.

On mornings when the guys outside my building hose off the sidewalk, pools of water gather and flow down pavement into the gutter. An old man yells at them, but no one can hear him over the sound of the spraying hose.

The owner of the flower store gesticulates and rolls his eyes at a dog messing up the sidewalk just outside his door. I recognize some of the other dogs: Bambi, a tiny Chihuahua whose owner will give away treats to any dog who engages with her, and a German shepherd I remember by the sound of its deep bark. And then there’s Liam and Skip, my neighbor and his dog, who, surprisingly, is the one named Liam.

Sometimes I’ll stretch out the outside time and go down to Washington Square Park. The fountain is on again now that it’s hot, and the only way to really see what’s going on around it is through sunglasses, or squinting hard beneath a brimmed hat.

Light bounces off the water from each of the spouts, spraying in all different directions. The water pressure is highest in the center, with the four biggest jets shooting up at least 10 feet. They burst out whenever someone steps onto the centerpiece. Somehow, it’s always a shirtless guy in cargo pants and sandals, the water cascading around him, morphing and molding to his shape.

Another constant in the park: someone underlining every sentence of Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael.” And then clipboards, and students, and people with nowhere else to eat lunch.

Then there’s the aging acoustic guitarist strumming Blink-182, and then Tom Petty, and I think about how old he must have been when Blink-182 started being everywhere, and how it’s still everywhere now that it’s canon, and how even pop-punk has a canon. Something about the passage of time or whatever, I guess, the things that saved me years ago. Would I notice them if I saw them now for the first time?

A woman to my right grimaces as she dives her face into the spraying water, which splashes my paper notebook. It smells like chlorine but also forest, and mixes with my perfume that mimics pine and dirt — a scent that’s natural but not my own.

A toddler wades in the pool chasing a salt packet, his father repeating, “It’s not a pool.” The tone changes each time, from informative to argumentative to scolding to trying very hard to be soft. The other kids splash. I see a woman balancing beauty products on the grass of the lawn I know to be rat central at night. The whole city is, I guess, always only a few hours away from being covered with tiny scurrying paws.

Later that day, once the sun sets, my friend Andy and I lie down on the benches with no backs, splaying out separately with both knees up. “I thought the netting covered the whole arch,” he says. I don’t know what he’s talking about. “You see the notches, the indents where the birds could go, but aren’t?” he says. “The nets.”

Now I see them, nearly translucent, but you can see them webbing depending on light and proximity. “I thought it covered more of the arch,” Andy says. I imagine the whole arch enveloped by a web; it makes sense that it’s not. My heart pangs for the pigeons, that they can’t sit up there.

The police come by to tell an older man to stop playing the ukulele. Then they tell a man who looks more like Abe Lincoln than anyone I’ve seen to stop playing the acoustic guitar. A third, instrument-less guy asks, “What? They can hear us up there in their ivory towers?” And the police just shrug, say it’s after 10 p.m.

I always feel like I’m intruding by people-watching. As if I’m breaking the rules. That in some way we’re supposed to be minding our business, and that it is somehow disingenuous to observe with the intention of just observing. As if observation is unnecessary or unbecoming if done without consent. As if it’s impolite to see others, or see yourself seeing others. As if we shouldn’t look behind the curtain.

It’s a different branch of the same tree that tells me to stay very quiet, keep to myself, remain separate and different and isolated. I forget and remember, only to forget again, that the way to be lightest isn’t to take up the least amount of space, but to circle back and redistribute that energy into other people.

What a relief it is to look up at the sun in the wide open sky of the park and feel the sun beating down with that intensity and heat that causes goose bumps and a shiver. As if enclosed in a warm blanket that at first feels too harsh but then grows into comfort, the way that fear of people softly wanes and wilts away, conversation gets easier, more frequent, even necessary. The way a stranger delving into the whole story of her latest back surgery becomes, unfortunately, second nature, and then she’s flipping through her phone showing off pictures of her deceased dog. And the way you know she has all the time in the world for you, a stranger.

Then to notice the waves of people, coming and going, rush hours and empty 11 a.m. trains, the cold smell of the air-conditioning on any of the orange-seated ones, the initial discomfort of the temperature shock.

That gust of air always reminds me of my first summer working in the city, every day on the A until it met the F. Those little bits of sense memory jolt us back and keep us going, forward and backward at once, carrying a mixed fragrance with notes of all the people and places that ever made a dent blended together and compressed into one bottle, a spritz that we wear unknowingly and notice only when we catch a whiff in the wild.

But then Manhattan’s specific summer musk cleanses the palate, and the day proceeds as usual, part garbage, part refreshment, and I get back on the subway. I used to memorize the numbers of the train cars, always ending up in 5252 with the orange seats, as if it was somehow special to situate myself in that exact plastic curve where I listened to that one Refused album over and over.

But there are other little reminders. The pins on the familiar backpacks we see every day on the train, the loiterers with the same schedule, the hands holding the D.M.V. tickets before and after ours. The patterns we assemble and break, rewiring our observations with changing scenery, evolving people. A brain that keeps falling back on the same behavior — observation — and leaning into the sprouting thoughts.

Looking out the window of an aboveground train, the rumble of the tracks jolting and bumping and crashing the side of your forehead into the window, the way eyes try to keep up with a moving landscape. Finding a fixed point, and sliding along with it, horizontally, before restarting and finding another object, like a resetting typewriter shoved back and forth, each line falling in the same vertical place on the page, revisiting the same page but falling further down, building one whichever line has come before. It’s only when one I lose track of where I was looking that I notice anything has ever changed.


Daniel Arnold and Andre Wagner are photographers in New York. Darcie Wilder is a writer in New York. Her novel, “Literally Show Me a Healthy Person,” was published by Tyrant Books in 2017.


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