The other night, I was coming home from Queens with a couple of friends when a loud, round woman clad in a clingy Rangers jersey and her equally loud be-mulleted son charged onto the train. My polite friend nervously started talking to avoid staring at this unself-conscious woman. I marveled at that instinct, as I am oppositely inclined. I love to stare.
Staring has been a life-long passion, but moving to New York has helped me refine it into an art form. Staring on the street is nice, but nothing is as satisfying as a side-eye stare over a book I’m pretending to read while riding the subway. I like to stare at all the different people who enter and exit the cars, from the handsome guy in a tailored suit to the crazy woman I saw yesterday carrying a Viola Swamp tote bag while dressed just like Viola Swamp herself. I was transfixed.
In my defense, I never stare at the endangered or the potentially dangerous. Like sneak petting a dog on the sidewalk, staring undetected takes practice. I would never stare at the schizophrenic on the crowded rush hour E train screaming that someone broke his crank radio or at the old guy sleeping in torn jeans and a hospital gown with his sensors still attached, though I did tell the conductor about him before I left the train.
I stare because I care. I want to know things. It’s the same impulse that made me a horrible gossip in college, but a purer form. I will stare at the guy who is so drunk when he gets on the train that he has to ask the girl next to him if he’d wet his seat. Incidentally, he had and she was not thrilled to be sitting next to him. I will stare at the guy who brings his dog on the train and uses her to start conversations in baby talk with other adults. I will stare at the people sporting white jeans in January, the lady in sweatpants and platforms who asks her boyfriend to poke her stomach roll, the toddler who is fascinated by the tunnel rushing past the car.
I’m not staring just to judge. I want to know why people do what they do. Is the guy with the dog lonely, or does he just think his dog is that interesting? Does the woman know she looks like Viola Swamp, or is that irony? Are the people in white jeans European?
Someday, maybe, I’ll find a way to make a living off of my fascination with the minutiae of other people’s lives. In the meantime, I never worry if I leave my book at home, because I know there will be someone on the subway to read.