(Watching) All the Lonely People


Last week I was at a shopping centre and it occurred to me that it was a perfect opportunity to take an artist date that I’d been planning to do for a long while and had not gotten round to doing.


The idea I had was to go to some public place with a pad and pen and just watch people, but also to write down snippets of overheard conversation that caught my ear (stuff like “one of my kids goes 8 times a day” which I heard on the day in question), or to just imagine what people’s lives were like and try to figure out specific things about them just by observing them from a distance.


The venue for this ended up being an open-plan starbucks. You know the type where it’s just a sunken space in the floor surrounded by shops on all sides.


I don’t like starbucks, and their coffee sucks, but it was the perfect place to mingle with the beast.


I wanted to find a table to sit at so I’d be in close proximity to as many people as possible, but a combination of poor luck and judgement found me a seat between two tables of people speaking foreign languages I didn’t understand. On one side, an asian couple (Korean possibly? I’m terrible with languages but it didn’t sound like Japanese) and on the other, I couldn’t make it out. They could’ve been Spanish but I had no clue. It drove home how ignorant I am about so much in the world, and how I’d like to be less so.


On an unrelated note, I’ve been feeling this lately when walking through the park and wondering what the names of different flowers and trees are.


Back to my seating – to make matters worse, I sat down to realise I was in the direct line of fire for one of the speakers on the in-store sound system, getting blasted with yuppyish coffee shop tunes. To be fair the music soon got pretty good actually, but when Joni Mitchell was playing and I thought to myself – “She deserves more than this”. I’m not an elitist but I guess I feel irritated when great music gets ignored, even if it is necessary. Plus I suppose it’s preferable to hearing current Top 40 nonsense.


Then Van Morrisson’s Sweet Thing came on. Sweet Thing! In a coffee shop! Such sublime, intensely personal and beautiful music, just spread out like furniture or cheap incense from a stall in Camden market. I don’t know how people can just go about their business while a song like that is playing. Maybe that’s why the staff were so friendly? Such a good playlist.

I zoned out and couldn’t focus on people anymore.


I started swimming in my own thoughts and the people around me were just triggering different currents rather than me observing them. It seemed like that was the instinctual thing to do so I went with it. I can look outside another time.


I was writing down silly observations and ideas, like:


“The only thing I have against money is that the people who have it are so crass and unimaginative about what they do with it.”


Lots of off the cuff reactions and occasional judgements of my fellow humans. I actually felt strange and peaceful amongst these passing waves of suburban housewives, young worker drones, bored school kids and elderly couples slowly navigating their way around what passes for modern life, thoroughly confused and surprised at what any of it means or what they’re doing in it.


It felt a bit like meditation. Whereas most of the time with meditation you go as far away from people and noise as possible, and you close your eyes. This was like the flip-side of the same coin in a way. With my eyes open, surrounded by crowds I was having a similar feeling of awareness, of self, of place and time, and concurrently at the complete irrelevance and absence of all of that. How it’s all just a continuation of motion, flow, little droplets of life foaming up against rocks and sand. Everyone seeing everybody else’s mistakes and not their own. Pretty girls spending their looks and youth on their jobs working in the make up aisles selling stolen dreams and aromatic white lies.


Surrounded by the almost religious ritual of nurturing the appearance, the body via clothing, food, make up, perfume, scented toiletries and cleansing products – you know the drill, we all live in it.


As I scribbled down in my pad, in this context, hope is sometimes the denial or rejection of that inevitable decline of organism, the body working. Or maybe it’s just what happens when you realise that the soul is the winning horse, not the mind, the senses, the heart, the wallet.


Know what I mean?


Anyway, I also went out and did it today as well. I stopped into a little place for some fresh mint tea they had and sat and watched the people. Strangely, again I was sat listening in on foreign tongues (greek and Arabic this time), as well as being somewhat removed from the masses.


Perhaps I need to think this out a bit more and find some places which are more packed with people to watch and listen to. Hopefully one day they’ll make some sense to me.




2 Responses to “(Watching) All the Lonely People”

  1. Sounds familiar! I do that kind of thing all the time, when I’m not too busy working on stuff in solitude anyway. I actually find I write a lot easier and more fluidly when I’m surrounded by people going about their lives. It’s like going to a place where thoughts are flowing in a strong current down a wide river, instead of the one narrow trickle you have to rely on when alone.

  2. Maybe that’s what it is. I’m afraid my attitude is a lot more misanthropic.

    I find in some ways it seems to be my equivalent of what Bukowski used to do at the race track in terms of finding out what other people were betting on and then betting something else. Those people are going to be losers their whole lives anyway, may as well at least try and avoid all the mistakes they are all making.

    I think it’s more that my thoughts have something to bounce off in terms of what appear to be other peoples’ actions and thoughts, which can be more provoking than sitting alone in the dark scratching away with a pen and paper.

    It’s not solely for writing, I just find it helps me realise things sometimes.

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