Practica – Observing passersby


Some years ago, when I was living in Hamburg with a friend, we would sometimes go down to the Reeperbahn for an afternoon coffee. As we sat at an outdoor table, we would observe passersby coming down the street in our direction. We would look at gait, dress, gestures etc., and guess from these clues where they were from. Most of the time we agreed. As they would pass our table, we listened carefully to what language and accent they were speaking to test our conclusions. Our hit rate was surprisingly accurate, about 80% right guesses, assuming the language as our indicator. Mostly this was with groups or couples. Occasionally we hazarded an individual and tried to check our surmises by stopping the person and asking the time, or for directions or some sort of information, maybe even about themselves.

Some years later in Chicago, another friend and I played a different game. Also camped at a café table, we focused on mostly on individuals and, again looking at movement, pace, clothing, and especially facial expressions, we took turns creating a sentence or a phrase that we felt represented their inner conversation about themselves at the moment we sighted them. We came up with such things as: "I've just been promoted." "I'm more important than you think." "I'm going to ask someone for a handout." And even, "I've got to hurry back and beat the orphans!"

These exercises are interesting indicators, more about ourselves than the folks walking down the street. They point out make plain the pleasures and pains of figuring out the people around us, and the margins of error and the vastness of the unknown which tempts us to fill it up, looking for Pokémon we can see what we think we are looking for and fail to see what we see around us. Horror vacui!

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