People Watching

Lila HazanJuly 2, 2018Storytelling and NarrativeFeatures

New York City feels drab in January. Even though the days are shorter, they seem to take longer to end.

The sky is colorless and the streets are bereft from the lack of holiday excitement that had manifested in fairy lights strung across trees and utility posts only two weeks prior. The smell of the city has a suggestion of winter lingering in noses, a kind of chill that settles in your bones, and the wind whistles down sidewalks, peeking under skirts and flipping ties.

Ellis Martin likes people watching. He likes seeing the cogs and gears in their heads as they grind and rust over. So, every day he sits at the bus stop, observing the lives of those around him.

The heat of the coffee clasped in his gloved hands permeates the frost. The avenue is gray. The city population shuffles through the chill, wrapped in black coats and swaddled in scarves.

Ellis often lies awake in bed in the middle of the night. An hour drenched in shadows. He calls it the witching hour, when the sky is a deep purple-black in color, leaving the city underneath dipped in a layer of darkness. A streetlamp gleams a pale yellow and presses its face against his window, shedding a circle of light onto the wooden floorboards of his room. The city hum pours like cement over his ears. His chest rises and falls with each breath, but it feels like he’s part of an audience, sitting in a cinema, or perhaps, a sort of ethereal being, peering down from above. The people still scurry beneath him, illuminated by the glare of headlights from passing cars.

He takes another shuddering breath now and clears away the cobwebs that have settled in his limbs, embracing the biting wind that tears across the back of his neck. It’s much easier to watch people during the day.

A man walks by. He cannot be older than 30, but at a glance he appears aged. Ellis thinks it’s the way he carries himself, curled in at the corners as if bracing for a blow. He has lines entrenched in his forehead, and his face is square, with a hard edge to his jaw that gives him a certain soberness.

Ellis sees him often when he sits on this bench, notices how he seems to bear the weight of the world. Last week he had been walking with a small child, their gloved hands clasped tightly together.

The man walks up to a woman before breaking into a smile, eyes wrinkling so that his face is a single crease.

“Thanks for waiting.” He scratches the back of his neck, fingers twitching. “Are you ready?”

Ellis imagines this is a first date. Pictures his sweaty hands and awkward grin, her flustered nod and the odd way they set off down the avenue. He can imagine exactly how the afternoon will pan out for them. At first it will be stilted conversation, but the two seem to have a natural affinity, even from that small moment.

He returns to observing, eyes focused on his fingers curled in his lap. He thinks that gestures are always the most important part of a person. A twitch of the hands displays everything there is to know about someone: personality, age, intentions.

An old woman sits down next to him on the bench and he looks up, surprised. No one ever takes the bus from this stop. She turns to look at him, and the first thing he notices is the color purple. It’s seared into his eyelids from the hue of her hair and the deep plum of her coat. She grins at him, violet gloves pulling off a pair of lavender ear muffs.

“Is there something you want, boy?”

He chokes. As much as he likes to observe, he’s never been much good at conversation. Words always feel too heavy on his tongue, warped by indecision.

“I — uh, sorry, no.” He looks away quickly, focusing intently on a mailbox across the street, feeling a deep burn creep from the nape of his neck.

“I’ve been wearing purple for 50 years,” she grumbles sourly, “and for 50 years I’ve gotten people looking at me the way you do.”

Ellis hears her words shallowly through the buzz in his ears, still replaying the glance he had given her. He flounders again, hearing his mother scolding him for being dismissive.

“Yes ma’am,” he says, still looking elsewhere, “but I quite like it.”

She jostles him in the shoulder and he jumps a little at the contact. “You look at people in the eyes when you talk to them.” She sniffs. “I quite like it, too.”

He can feel the tension charging the air and he likens it to that between the woman and the man from earlier — a conversation on the cusp of becoming something more. He searches for the right thing to say, paces the hallways of his mind to find the right words.

He discovers he doesn’t need to to say anything, for she starts again, “I was stuck in an office job 50 years ago, a nasty little company that dealt with the export of books. It was dreadful. There wasn’t much to do except for paperwork, and so that’s what I did. ” She pauses to make a disgusted sound from deep in her throat.

“I had brown hair back then. It was long and limp and it defined me—and my personality! No wonder I worked in the most awful company. I only ever wore neutral colors, anything else felt much too daunting. I never wanted to stand out back then.”

Ellis takes a moment to imagine her half a century ago. He comes up with a mousy woman, drowned in grays and browns, tucked into some cubicle in the back corner of an office building.

“But then one day,” Ellis turns back to observe her, and notices a passive smile. Her hands are completely still. He finds it unnerving. “I decided on a whim to change things up, and I’ve never looked back. Purple makes me happy.”

He’s decidedly unimpressed. But as the bus pulls up and the purple lady gathers her purple things, he thinks that maybe he should begin to talk rather than observe.

Lila Hazan is a 15-year-old high school sophomore. She lives in New York City. Her favorite things to do are write free form poetry and play soccer.