The Benefits of People Watching

If you are going to talk to people at all, make sure they are people you do not know and are foreign as regards your class, tribe or social milieu.

Michael Mosely ran an excellent program on BBC about the benefits of doing new things. Even buttering your toast on a different side to the marmalade counts, so sitting outside Waitrose waiting for my Fulham hausfrau this morning made an ideal opportunity to dash into the unknown.

I detest socializing. I hate parties. There is nothing worse than the shallow cocktail party, swapping inanities with fools you don’t want to see and in whom you have an interest of less than zero.  Ditto dinner parties. Yuk. Small talk is such crap.

But the chance encounter with a stranger, ah, that is something to relish. To enjoy, to benefit from.

Whether your counterpart feels equal benefit, I am not qualified to say. I hope so, but who knows? It may well be that I bore the a**s off such unfortunates, who run home to tell their wives, partners, girlfriends, dogs, and children about this horrendous nutter who accosted them on the train/bus/pavement this morning.

No matter, it does me good and I will generously hope likewise for my victims.

I go out of my way these days to court the unusual. I find most benefit when at first glance I feel some measure of distaste or disapproval for my target. I am always aware that such distaste is entirely unjustified and so it inevitably proves to be.  The shifty looking foreigner on the awful tube journey from City airport, who shames me by offering some old bird a seat, while I jealousy guard my treasured spot. The smelly youth with a woolly hairdo (and equally awful dirty woolen hat) who performs some gratuitous kindness to some unfortunate in his path.

So this morning, sitting on the courtesy seats outside Waitrose, there trundles out of the store a bloke in a wheelchair. Laden with shopping, a Waitrose helper deposits him at a table on the pavement, where he re-arranges his purchases around convenient spots in and on his chariot of fire.

And out dashes a shop-lifter pursued and shouted at by one of the staff. Followed by some curious lady begging for mercy of some sort. An accomplice perhaps, intent on a free chop for her supper.  The poor woman was clearly not “all there”. She looked normal enough – cleanly and reasonably dressed in jeans and a pleasant top.  But she was a few sandwiches short of the full picnic. A burnished button on the blazer. One of the blunter knives in the draw.

I felt drawn to help her.  To speak to her at least, to try to calm her ravings. Happily the Waitrose staff treated her well and sent her on her way.  Perhaps she was not an accomplice after all.

And then the “Man in the Wheelchair” and I strike up discourse, both equally alarmed by the fracas and its meaning (if any). By any reasonable measure, the poor fellow had been well and truly dumped on by life.

A gay choirboy in some remote northern province, he had been interfered with by the choirmaster. Later in life he became a successful chartered accountant before being struck down by HIV some 30 years ago. He had recently had his leg chopped off at the knee (for reasons I failed to ascertain) and had suffered mental health issues apparently at the hands of a devious and manipulative partner (life, not business).

There was a mania about him, an edge to his voice, his demeanor. As if, like the accomplice shoplifter, he lived somewhere just on the very borders of sanity.

And my role in all this? My attitude? The benefits of the conversation? Well for one I hope I was kind to him, I hope I offered him a little normality, a no strings conversation in a world which for him had become increasingly isolated.

For me? He was new, different. He had a story to tell, his life a coracle on the rough and brutal reality we live in.   I felt gratitude, about all sorts of things. I had made a connection with a fellow human, where neither of us had any angle. No gain was to be made (certainly not financial). A chance meeting with a random stranger who seemed grateful to tell his story to somebody who was ready to listen.

My day has been made all the better for it.  I recommend you accost a total stranger somewhere near you today. You will both benefit, I promise.



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