by Myles Abroad
Standing back and watching people can be surprising.
People are People.
It's a phrase I've repeated often on my return from a foreign trip. It's true. We have preconceived notions of cultures and generally slot people into stereotypes, but in my experience, we all strive for the same things. We have friends, family and enemies. We work to improve our lot in life, and for those we care about. But ultimately, we all want to share our lives with others.
There are exceptions though: people who hang on the fringes. They watch others living their lives, perhaps longing to be included, but yet for some reason are unable to or chose not to.
I must admit, I'm one of those. I'm an observer.
I'm not sure. It's just what I have become. I can do superficial all day, but getting to know someone takes a lot of effort and usually leads to strife. Besides, it's hard to know what to say to someone. It's easier for me to sit alone in a pub or a coffee shop and watch others relate. I try to be discreet, but I'm drawn to how people interact: the quiet confidential chats, the boisterous conversations with forced laughter, the outbursts of anger or the quiet passive-aggressive arguments. Until that Saturday, two weeks before Christmas, I had always returned home, persuaded in my belief that getting involved with others just wasn't worth it.
That Saturday afternoon, I found myself, once again, seated in the coffee shop on the main street in town. I sat in my customary seat next to the window, a perfect perch. From there I could observe the frantic tide of humanity as they went about their Christmas shopping on a street lit up with enforced Christmas cheer.
It was one of those cold, grey days where the temperature hovers just above freezing and the frigid damp wind penetrates to the bone. Dusk was setting in, but there was a warm glow in the busy coffee shop. A murmur of voices was in the background accompanied by the occasional blast of the cappuccino machine. I stared through windows opaque with steam, requiring an infrequent wipe.
I couldn't help but notice an old woman sitting by herself at the next table. She had been there when I arrived, looking lost and out of place. Occasionally, she would check her watch, sigh and look back out the window. It was almost as though she was expecting someone. I knew better, though. I had seen it all before. She was alone but wanted to be in a crowd to alleviate her loneliness.
I took a sip of my coffee and peered back out the window noticing a mangy mongrel skirt in and out of the crowds. I always had an affinity for dogs; unlike people they are uncomplicated. I watched as someone tried to pet him. He shied away from the proffered hand and fled back down the street, his tail between his legs. It was apparent he had been mistreated and preferred not to trust anyone, a kindred spirit to me.
As I followed the dog's movements I observed a man sitting outside a restaurant, bracing against the cold. He rested his chin on his knees staring vacantly, not even reacting when a coin was dropped into his box. Oblivious Christmas shoppers passed by.
I looked up the street wondering where the dog had gone. A couple, standing in front of a jeweler's, was having an argument while passers-by gave them a wide berth. A woman in a red coat, laden with two full bags of shopping struggled to get past them.
The argument appeared to escalate when the woman faced the man, shaking her finger at him. He shook his head and said something. She shoved him in the chest, turned and stalked off. It was an experience I was only too familiar with.
The woman in the red coat caught my eye. She had just managed to get around the arguing couple but collided with a cyclist, the contents of her bags spilling on the footpath. As I expected, the cyclist kept going. People stepped around her parcels as she bent down frantically gathering her purchases.
The man who had been arguing stood still, watching his partner walk away. Head down, he shoved his hands in his pockets and turned in the opposite direction, bumping into the woman in the red coat. To my surprise, he bent down to help pick up her purchases.
The door of the coffee shop opened.
I looked around. A little girl ran to the old woman at the table next to mine. Her grandmother hugged her and lifted her onto her lap.
"How are ya, Brenda, my love."
A woman followed Brenda and embraced the old woman.
"Sorry I'm late, Mom. The traffic was awful."
"It was no bother, Angela. I was enjoying some time away from the house."
I smiled, pleased to have been wrong about the old woman. Glancing back out the window, I realized the woman who had been arguing had joined the two picking up the spilled shopping contents. She reached into her coat pocket, pulled out a shopping bag and gave it to the woman in the red coat. Together, they repacked the bags.
Her shopping secured, the woman in the red coat spoke briefly to them holding each by the arm. She removed a small parcel from a shopping bag and tried to give it to the man. He shook his hands at her. Turning to his partner, she placed it in her hand, picked up her bags and left.
The couple stared at each other. The woman went to leave but the man gently took her by the arm. She didn't resist. He said something and they embraced.
Something stirred in me. It felt... comforting.
Wiping the window, I looked back down the street. The homeless man was standing up, talking to a man and a woman. He now had a blanket wrapped around himself. The man put an arm around his shoulder, encouraging him to walk with them, while the woman carried his belongings.
I eased back in my chair and slowly drummed my fingers on the table. In spite of being surrounded by activity, I felt as though a blanket of... peace had descended on me. What I had seen today had put a dent in my belief. There is still some good in people.
Remembering the dog, I looked up and down the street but couldn't see him. I drank the last of my coffee. It was time to go.
At the counter, the cashier rang up the total. I handed her the change and for the first time in a long time I looked into someone's eyes and smiled.
"Thank you," I said.
A smile spread across her tired face. She put out her hand to stop me.
"Hold on." She placed a croissant in a bag and handed it to me. "Merry Christmas."
I could only smile as I turned to go. The door opened and I stood aside for the couple I had been watching; their argument now seemed a distant memory. I caught sight of the dog as he scurried away from the coffee shop entrance. Intent on following him, I stepped out into the cold. He stopped to stare at me. I squatted down and offered him the pastry.
"Here boy, you hungry?"
He stood watching me, trembled slightly and looked around as though checking he still had a line of retreat. The morsel in my hand continued to draw his attention. He edged closer. I broke off a piece and tossed it to him. He flinched. Wary, he sniffed it, and then ate. Encouraged, he edged closer and took my offering, finally allowing himself to be petted.
"Maybe there's still hope for us yet," I said, watching the dog relax under my touch.