As for the present young man, the last of the line, he did not know what to think. So he became a watcher and a listener and a wanderer. He could not get enough of watching. Once when he was a boy, a man next door had gone crazy and had sat out in his back yard pitching gravel around and hollering out to his enemies in loud angry voice….It seemed to him that if he could figure out what was wrong with the man he would learn the great secret of life. Walker Percy The Last Gentleman
Fictional tales of observers have always appealed to me. It is not difficult to tell why for I am not unlike the young man in Percy’s novel. Louis Begley has recently written a short story about an observer in the American Scholar (Autumn 2010). He calls the story “By Appointment Only.”
“I spotted her on Lexington Avenue, walking 10 perhaps 12 steps ahead of me, but really all I saw, all I wanted to see at first, were her legs. That was quite enough.” He followed her up Lexington until she entered a restaurant. What to do? What he does is wait. “This was one girl I did not want to lose.”
About an hour later she emerges, puts on her dark glasses and heads over to Park Avenue. “She was one hell of a fast walker.” He ponders where she is headed, why she was in such a rush, and gets a bit excited imagining what it would be like to be with her. Eventually she stops at a building and goes inside. Again he decides to wait until she comes out. But when might that be?
He imagines that if she lives there, she’d come out about five or so to go out to dinner, a film, or worse, a date. But that was over three hours away. He didn’t want wait that long; work piling up at his office. “You must understand I am not…someone who follows women in the street and stalks them and it was too late in life, I thought, for me to start that career.”
He returns to his office, his secretary gives him a strange look and tries to answer all his calls. At five sharp, he is at his post, staring at the window display of the flowers in the shop across from the building she had entered. Moments later she opens the door and appears on the sidewalk. “The beautiful child was going to hail a cab.”
He doesn’t wait a second. He hails the taxi of his dreams, tells the driver to turn around and keep on the left to pick up the young lady on the other side of the street. Hop in, he tells her and we’ll share the cab. She considers this for awhile, finally gets in and says she is heading all the way downtown.
He replies that’s exactly where he is going. They start talking. He notices her speech “was less distinguished than her face and her bearing.” He asks her why she is heading downtown. She replies, “I’m a sort of social worker.” “Oh, really, and what would I have to do to deserve being taken care of by you? It’s easy, she said. You pay money. With that she handed him her card. It read”
Dr. Nina By appointment only 917 333-5050.
“I do therapy, talk therapy and acting out. A lot of people need companionship. Don’t you think so?” Then she noted the appointments are at your place. “Your place wouldn’t work? She smiled and said I don’t have office hours.”
“I think you’ve got a new patient, I said to the girl. I’ll call you next week.” In parting, he asks her what was she doing on Lexington and 69th where he picked her up. “A double session, she answered…he asked me to stay. So I made it a double session and threw in a half hour extra.”
Bird watchers watch birds. Children watch their parents. Only a few do not watch television. Cats spend half their life staring at people. I sometimes think people are not far behind.
A few years ago there was an article in the Times about people watching. “People-watching is to New York City what visa-gazing is to the Grand Canyon…” And you don’t just watch people, its OK to follow them and apparently there are no ethical qualms. It is understood to be the norm. I am sure that the attorney in Begley’s story is glad to know this and no doubt Begley is too.
There used to be a television program called Candid Camera devoted to the fine art of watching people respond to pranks. And writers write about people watchers of all kinds. I am always on the prowl for such stories. Future installments will occur on an irregular basis.