People Watching

  Writers need people. People are a necessary component to stories. Unlike artists who can capture oceans, mountains, pastures, and all of nature’s majesty on canvas without having to include human beings, writers require human beings for their work.            I have always worked in professions that have exposed me to the many faces of humanity, so I’ve developed some decent people watching skills. I’ve also learned to take advantage of the opportunities to people-watch that come to me without invitation.            Take today, for instance. I’m traveling back to Boston from St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.  I arrived at the ferry in St. John at 5:30 a.m. this morning, where I was joined by a myriad of other sleepy travelers. I could tell that some of them make the journey to St. Thomas every morning to go to their jobs, but many were people like me, traveling home, or were they going to visit family?  Why, I wondered. I know my story. But what about the couple with the guitar? Or the gaunt gentleman who was escorted by a woman I imagined was a relative. Was he seeking treatment in St. Thomas where we were headed or going on up to the states for more advanced medical advice?             On the cab that took me from the ferry in St. Thomas to the airport, my traveling companions were silent, so I focused on the cab driver, who I guessed to be about sixty. He was more pleasant than most, but had little to say. He drove slower than any driver I’ve ever ridden with in St. Thomas, perhaps because his cab seemed older and more tired than he. It barely chugged up the steep hills while the radio blasted a deep zealous voice imploring us to “Give up cigarettes, give up alcohol, and embrace the Jesus who loves you.”  My husband was certain the cabbie’s choice of channel was an act of prayer that his vehicle make it to the airport. I took it a little deeper. How had our driver experienced the horrific two hurricanes that blasted his island less than a year before? Was his cab a casualty and barely coming back to life like the palm trees that had been striped of their finger-like leaves?            A three-hour layover in the airport in San Juan was filled with walking talking stories. We sat in rocking chairs in one of several newly constructed fake front porches within the Jet Blue terminal. A man I guessed was from Ireland turned out to be Mexican.  People watching is as good for disproving assumptions as it can be for the imagination. I was captivated by a beautiful couple, probably in their fifties. They were dressed as if they had money, and may have spent some of it on “work” as my friends call it. So maybe they were older. His paints were too tight, and his shirt and shoes too young. He was trying too hard. He strutted around the terminal while his tall blonde and painfully thin, but not sick-thin, wife sat guarding their Gucci luggage. From where I sat, I could see the bones in her shoulders.  I imagined all of the choices in restaurants and at dinner parties she had passed on, just to look like that. Why, I wondered.            On the plane, I sat next to a young pregnant mother and her toddler daughter. Where were they coming from and where were they going? Did they have family in Puerto Rico? Was she coming to Boston for her second baby’s birth? The woman in the row in front of us had long lavishly painted fingernails that were imbedded with faux jewels. I couldn’t stop looking at them as she waved her hands around. Why would you pay money to do that to your nails? What happens when she washes dishes, or was that it? “You do the dishes, honey. I don’t want to wreck my nails.”            The answers to my questions don’t really matter. What does matter that each of these people on my journey home piqued my curiosity and inspired me to imagine their stories, which then become mine. And my husband doesn’t understand why I can’t sleep on planes.            Where do you people-watch? What stories do you find? 

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