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 isolate themselves.
I must admit, I'm one of those. I'm an observer.
I'm not sure why but 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 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. It was a perfect perch where I could observe the frantic tide of humanity as they went about their Christmas shopping on a street lit up with 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 was 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've seen it all before; someone who craves companionship, maybe even a pleasant exchange just to connect with someone else.
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 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.
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.
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 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. His response must have angered her because she shoved him in the chest, turned and walked off.
The woman in the red coat 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 was arguing, watched 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 her pick up her belongings.
I turned around when the door of the coffee shop opened. A little girl ran to the old woman who was sitting alone.
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 was 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 and all three repacked the bags.
The woman in the red coat held each of their arms as she spoke to them. She took a small parcel out of her shopping bag and tried to give it to the man. He shook his hands at her. She turned to his partner, 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 with a blanket draped across his shoulders while he talked to a man and a woman. The man put his hand on his back, 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 a blanket of... peace descend on me. What I saw today 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 and stood up.
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 and 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 was dumbfounded. I could only smile as I turned to go. The door opened and I stood aside for the couple who had been arguing; their argument now seemed a distant memory. I caught sight of the dog as he scurried away from the coffee shop entrance. I stepped out into the cold, intent on following him. He stopped and stared at me as I squatted down and offered him the pastry.
"Here, boy, you hungry?"
He stood watching me. He trembled slightly and looked around as though checking for a line of retreat. The morsel in my hand continued to draw his attention. He approached, then paused. I broke off a piece and tossed it to him. He flinched, sniffed it and then ate it. 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 him relax under my touch.