My favorite place to do these is on the metro in Washington, D.C., right near the part of Maryland where I live. It’s particularly interesting on a metro because it levels the playing field — everyone is in the same place, riding to wherever they’re going. People’s differences (not just those as a result of their different locations) really leap out. One of my favorite things to do is to figure out what animals people would be if they weren’t people…
I always wonder whether (and what) people are thinking of me in places like the metro, and during times when I turn around to lock eyes, for a moment, with an unknown person. If I could tell what people were thinking of me, would I? Examining my own mind propels me to think that no, I wouldn’t.
These studies were done in the town of Middlebury and at the Middlebury College library.
He looks as though he’s completely contented in his mother’s arms, being held close and occasionally tasting some of the ice cream. His upper lip sticks out a bit over his bottom lip – the better to eat ice cream with – and he gets so excited when he gets to “stand” up on Mom’s lap that his whole body launches into quick up and down movement. He looks a bit like he’s trying to take off from the lap and fly around the restaurant. He wears multicolored booties, a red shirt with dogs and bones, overalls, and a fuzzy blue hat with a bear peeking out the top. His diaper is dirty, so in he goes to the carrying case that hangs off Mom’s shoulders. He wiggles his feet and stares, completely unabashedly, at strangers.
He fills a space with cheerful talking and constant movement. “Ethan, what’s up, bro?” He stands on a ledge and reaches over the register to shake hands. Ethan is a vested man with very little chin. “You like seafood at all? Not so much?… Yeah, obviously steak and cheese is awesome… hot pastrami’s really good.” Ethan’s words are lost in the activity, but not his. He refers to people by their names as he’s talking to them. He’s inside, then outside, then back in, lightly kicking a wooden stand with bread on it, crumpling cloths and throwing them back behind the register somewhere. His arms sway as he walks; he’s gone again, then back and pacing back and forth, talking to the guys behind the counter, joking. He reaches and picks something from a salad after moving the dish, eats it, spins a pizza dish around, and shows his teeth in a smile.
He’s wearing a black shirt and a white apron, which is folded down so that it covers only his legs. His goatee matches his shirt, and his teeth, which he shows frequently, match his apron (minus the stains). His battered San Francisco baseball cap matches his apron also – stains and all.
He moves constantly and energetically: twirling the pizza pans, walking out, walking in, shaking hands, picking his teeth, and tossing dirty somethings out of view. He swings his arms and walks with a bounce of energy, even when he’s only walking someplace so that he can turn around and come right back.
I wonder if we’d be friends if we met outside the restaurant, or if he’d be part of a much more rambunctious social scene. He looks like the kind of person I could really enjoy DOING things with. He seems to be a cheerful and active doer – even when what’s he’s doing is wiping spilled food off a counter.
She’s an old, slender woman with gray hair that suggests blondeness, whose eyes look as though they’ve sunk a centimeter or so into her skull. When she looks down to type, the skin under her chin gets all wrinkly and her eyes look as though they are closed. She gets very repetitive. She takes a sip from the white and green mug, and then she replaces the mug on desk. She puts her hands in her pockets, which pushes her shoulders into a shrug. Up comes the right hand to smooth the short hair on the back of her head. As long as it’s there, it might as well rub her neck. Smooth and rub, smooth, smooth, smooth. Her index finger comes up every so often to pet her lips. Left hand smoothes and rubs. Footsteps to the right draw her attention and she smiles at the person, who smiles back but does not stop to talk. My view is blocked. When it clears, she’s just where I left her. To a person who does stop by, she speaks in a voice just above a whisper. She’s sorry the snow is gone. When he leaves, she looks out the doors ahead of her and down at the computer. She smoothes and scratches for an uncharacteristically long time aaaaand… there’s the rub.