Keeping an Eye on Tom

I’ve had the privilege of spending a number of years in the company of the Anti-Social Writers Club.  Based in Edinburgh, they are a group of like minded writers (and artists in various media) who as well as writing, have been actively involved in publishing the works of new and aspiring wordsmiths in the now annual Antizine publication.   (see…   http://www.antizine.com)

As I’ve now moved to Aberdeen I have had to take a back seat and become even more antisocial.  This year my Antizine input consisted of helping wade through submissions and filming the day for posterity.  To my antisocial chums, carry on the good work.  I think about you every day, in my antisocial way.  And this is one of my efforts. (Picture by Mario De Biasi)

Keeping an Eye on Tom

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People watching rule no. 1 – Two or more people watching someone together is tricky as it looks suspicious…..

I’m not sure you’ll like me.  But you are free to judge as I would judge you.  And if you don’t know me, make no mistake, I will judge you.  Just like I judge people in and around my eye line all day long.  And you need to know that they are all peeping Toms, just like me.  Today I found myself in a cafe.  The cafe was deserted except for the waiter, me and three other people.  They all sat at different tables at opposite corners of the bright well decorated building but even when they are so spaced out it still looked as small as it was.  The sun shone in the window and the shadows danced across the back wall as the pavement dwellers passed out front, blocking out the light intermittently.  The heat shimmered and contorted the shadows into black lightening rods.

The first of my fellow coffee house junkies was a student who was sat to my right.  He had curly hair, clean but unkempt.  He read a comic book (an early Batman I think) and sat with a cup of coffee sat on the table in front of him.  The coffee hadn’t been touched.  Curly kept pulling the rare comic out of its sleek, black plastic bag, admiring it, handling it like the experts on Antiques Roadshow, then placing it back in the bag and sitting it on the chair, as if the show director had just shouted “cut”.  He would then scratch his arm and you could see him considering his next move but the bag and its contents called to him and he picked up the bag and started the process again.  This act of picking up his superhero seemed to be the only thing that distracted him from his itchy skin.  Flakes sat beside the untouched coffee.  He finally started to drink his coffee in between his magazine circuit training.

These observations might be repeated at a thousand different times and places every day, but these were mine and were unique to my panorama.  Each one is a story, some more made up or elaborate than others.  There are rules to people watching.  They keep you from looking stupid and also help prevent arrest and embarrassment.

People watching rule no.2 – Don’t stare at individuals for long periods.  The likelihood of capture increases the longer you play the voyeur.  And anyway, staring is for children dolls or mannequins.  

Time to look elsewhere around my vista.  The second of my fellow patrons was a young girl.  She had some kind of herbal tea, the kind that looks like she vomited it into her cup.  In reality I couldn’t tell what kind it was but as it was red I guessed raspberry.   She had a notebook and with her bic pen she furiously scribbled little notes.  In over an hour in the cafe she only looked up once and that was to answer her phone, which when not attached to her ear sat next to her notepad at the same angle to as the corner of the table.  This couldn’t have been accidental.  The call made her sit up.  She had dark hair which was wavy and her arm was locked into what looked like a really uncomfortable position on the table with her head and pained expression resting on her hand which in turn was being held up by the edge of the table.  It was like a coffee shop version of the skeleton song, where the cup bone was connected to the hand bone, the hand bone connected to the wrist bone and so on.

The third guest of this rather pleasant establishment was another man.  He looked shifty and the man’s bonnet and overcoat finished the look nicely and confirmed my suspicions that he was either a spy or a child molester and so I stopped looking at him and returned to the goodies on my own table.

People watching rule no. 3 – It’s always obvious to other Toms who or what you are watching.  

I’ll happily admit to you that I made a habit of this, peering at fellow members of the human being club around me and I justified it by pretending  I was conducting important anthropological research.  I had so many theories and questions I wanted answers to and some, although not all, were for the greater good of our precious civilisation.  They included:

  • What type of person would dye their hair pink and still walk to the shop without a bag over their head?
  • Why did she spank her child with that handbag when her hand would be more effective?
  • Who on the planet is a waste of space and ready for termination, Terminator-style?

Others were more personal and usually revolved specifically around girls.  They often weren’t even questions:

  • Is her hair really dyed blonde or is she a closet red?
  • She has gorgeous eyes….
  • I’d definitely invite her back to mine.

I think you’ll get my drift.  I loved people watching and occasionally it turned into a more seedy appreciation of the opposite sex.  I’m fascinated by our similarities as humans, our differences and our physical and emotional behaviours.  I think I hope that I will gain a better insight into how the world turns.  It wasn’t all about checking out the girls in the neighbourhood.  Honest.

People watching rule no. 4 – If someone catches you looking at them, looking must cease, but do it in a relaxed manner e.g. checking the time, stretching.

A man came into the cafe and he was in such a rush he tripped over the step and tumbled into the room.  The man with the bonnet looked on, smiled and then turned as if hiding his face and played with his smartphone.  I had no doubt he was watching porn with the sound muted.  I looked at the girl and she was looking at our new customer with a face that shone in recognition.  That’s why she sat up earlier I guessed.  On the other hand he dusted himself down and assumed a more rigid, purposeful walk.  For a second I tried to guess at their relationship, a game I liked to play when intrigued by what I saw.  Could he be a boyfriend?  A brother or friend?  The smile suggested closeness but when he reached her table there was gentle acknowledgement of each other but no embrace or kiss.  The girl had uncontrollable ants in her pants while he had the look of a man getting ready to sign off on a big contract.  It was obvious they were meeting illicitly in some way.  They were both well dressed, business like in both dress and manner.  It could be an office affair or, at a stretch, industrial espionage, but since we were in Edinburgh, I plumped for romance over wheeler dealing.  It looked very sweet in a way.

People watching rule no. 5 – People you watch are NOT your friends.  If you treat them as such they will assume you are stalking them.  

The cafe lights went on.  I’d been here about an hour or so.  It was getting dark outside and the car headlights whirred past the window like fireflies.  The people on the pavement passing the front of the shop trudged past on their way home from work, off to the pub or on an errand.  I wondered what they thought about as they passed the window.  And if they looked in, what would they see and how would they interpret it.  I assumed everyone was like me.  The coolest of dudes.  If I was one of the guys from friends, I’d be Joey.  Fresh faced, well dressed, good looking and the ladies choice.  No problem with my self image, I concluded.  I picked up my cup and the smugness was punctured by the taste of cold tea swishing around my mouth.

There was still little in the way of heat coming over from the illicit stills in the corner but the woman regularly flicked her hair and the occasional smile spoke volumes as to her feelings for her companion and I could see what he saw in her.  She was very attractive and was slim and athletic.  He was a good 20 years older, salt and pepper hair but not unattractive.  He appeared to be the one in control, ordering 2 lattes but only one bun for himself, and dominated the conversation.  He leaned back in the chair while she eased further forward and I felt a little sorry for her.  She seemed to just stare at him in wonder.  They both had wedding rings on but she played with hers nervously while he gave no thought to his.  This gave the impression that his was worn for importance, not love or devotion.  This man was starting to grate on me so I turned my gaze onto bonnet man.

People watching rule no. 6 – Staring is weird in most circles unless you’re playing the staring game.  Staring at a loved one is still weird.

He was sat at the window with his back facing the outside buzz, the bonnet was pulled low and his jacket zipped high.  I could see his eyes, his slim black glasses and clean face which narrowed as it reached his chin.  He had a new shiny smartphone which he played with while eating his biscuit, a custard cream.  I loved custard creams and watched as he bit it in half with little majesty or thought.  There were far more interesting ways to eat one of those fine biscuits.  Looking at him a second time, he resembled someone I’d seen before, and because of the headwear and jacket assumed he must have been on Crimewatch.  It’s sad how you assume so much about someone based on first impressions.

At this point the guy with the comic book must have at last decided he needed some cream to help deal with his scratching and left the cafe, hopefully on route to the nearest chemist.  As he passed my table, I could hear music from his gigantic earphones and tried to guess the song.  I knew straight away, Perfect Day by Lou Reed.  It was a song I liked while also summing up my day in the cafe so far.

People watching rule no. 7 – Use what you learn for educational purposes only, not to become an unwelcome presence.   

It was at this moment that an electron in my brain completed a journey that must have started as I entered the cafe and caught sight of Bonnetman.  Perfect Day was a song on the Trainspotting soundtrack and the man in the corner was none other than Spud himself.  The light bulb had been turned on and I was even more pleased with myself for working it out.  It seemed like a good time to observe the ritual behaviours of a celebrity as interest was waning in the other patrons of the shop.  I couldn’t stop grinning to myself and resolved to stop before I attracted the interest of another Tom.

The door opened and a woman came in.  She looked around the cafe and only came in a couple of steps.  She held the door behind her as she craned her neck.  She saw Spud but his stalker disguise protected him from being seen as anything other than a community nuisance.  Her eyes settled on the office romance.  There chat was more hushed now.  They hadn’t seen her, carrying on their pillow talk unaware of the oncoming storm.  She looked relieved to have found them but her face sank and she paused for just a second.  Our newest patron quietly let go of the door and walked the few short steps to the shop lovebirds.  As a shadow grew over the couple both faces looked up and while his face remain uninterested, the young girl finally moved her elbow from the table edge and made a feeble attempt to find something in her bag, knocking it over in the process.  The interrupter took no notice of her and stared at the man with a burning rage.  The man looking resigned to the fact he had been caught out, probably not for the first time, and I detected a hint of a sigh.

I tried not to make it look like I was hooked on their performance but I looked on in slow motion as I saw the woman raise her hand and slap the man across the face, a crack which caused reverberation amongst the other bodies in the room.  I scolded myself that I hadn’t seen it coming.  This was the moment where everyone in the cafe took their opportunity to watch the drama that was unfolding in front of them without having to peer over a paper or look from the corner of their eyes.  I always found it remarkable how people could ignore what happened under their noses until the drama was so great that they could all look on in the safety of a group.  The waiter looked unimpressed at the use of violence in his presence.  Spud’s eyes were fixated on the couple, especially the woman scorned.  He hadn’t looked so interested in anything since I’d first set eyes on him and he must have been using this as a learning experience for his next acting role.  I found myself admiring the blatant nosiness in staring at this trio of soap characters with unreconstructed fervour.  I found myself enjoying Spud’s reactions to proceedings more enjoyable than our poor soap triumvirate.

They seemed to be stuck in a time warp.  There was no discussion and barely any movement but the tension was thick and someone had to lead them out of the emotional maze.  Not me of course.  I was happy looking through the proverbial microscope.  The young girl was looking very uncomfortable, visibly upset and probably a little concerned about what her lover’s wife would do to her.  She got up, picked her belongings up from the floor and composed herself.  She walked over to the door, her heels tip tapping on the floor as she left.  She didn’t look back.  In fact she bumped into someone on her way out, such was her focus on getting out of there, and nothing was going to stop her escaping her embarrassment.  The man’s wife left soon afterwards, her anger having turned to dismay.

People watching rule no. 8 – Watching one person for too long will result in boredom, just like any other pastime.

I decided to move on from my seat in the cafe.  The cheater sat staring at the mirrored wall, a tear running down his face which when reflected in the mirror gave the impression of a china doll, still and expressionless and no doubt feeling a little empty inside.  Growing paler and inconsolable, he had frozen on the spot that his life had changed for the worse and he didn’t know what to do.  Some businessman I thought, Alan Sugar would have known what to do.  I felt like I’d intruded on his sadness enough.  I stood up and each scratch and scrape of the chair on the floor sent winces and shivers down my arm and leg and it was suddenly me who stood out.  I dropped my cup as I tried to drink the last of my cold tea and the crack echoed like a firework and I hurriedly gathered my scarf and shuffled out of the cafe.

People watching rule no. 9 – Watching from a car/moped can mean a quick escape from sticky situations.  Unless stuck in traffic.

My view for the last couple of hours had been very narrow and as I exited the cafe, my view suddenly expanded from single room to full city street to my left and right and for a moment I felt giddy as I tried to drink it all in.  The blur cleared and I turned to the right and moved off down the street at a gentle pace, doing my best to avoid the cracks and chewing gum on the pavement.

People watching rule no.  10 – In the street, its often a good rule of thumb to avoid eye contact by wearing a frown like a protective coat.  This gives you the control of what to look at as people avoid contact with those who look like hard cases.

Each little step which avoided one of these obstacles was a victory for awareness of my surroundings.  I egotistically considered myself the most observant guy in the city, if not the world, I’d even made myself an award out of an old bird watching trophy, I thought the binoculars were an appropriate symbol for my all-seeing eyes.  It gave me pride and a sense of job well done that I usually avoided all of these obstacles that other people lay before me.  Which is why I was distinctly unimpressed when I absent-mindedly stepped into the local dogs unofficial toilet block.  I never saw that coming and for a dark moment, my trophy was taken away from me.

As I continued my dander down the road I leered at people and buildings.  My eyes bounced around the street like a pinball machine and each focused and interesting view added a varying points total to my daily score.  Yes that’s right, I kept score.  It roughly broke down like so:

  • 50 points for spotting an object that interested me, even a quick look.
  • 100 points when I had to look at a greater than 45 degree angle from the street.  The extra points were for extra effort obviously.
  • 200 points for spotting a girl I found attractive.
  • 50 bonus points for bravely checking out a girl I liked.
  • -50 points when I stared too long at a girl I considered to be less-than-attractive.
  • A nice 500 bonus points if we exchanged a smile, this was a day maker in many ways.
  • A whopping 1000 bonus points if I got her number.

I should point out that I’d never ever had the chance to add 1000 points to my daily total by just walking the streets but I tried manfully most days.  However, this was usually only possible when out to play after dark.  And on nights out, an additional scoring system came into play, like playing for big money at the end of a quiz show:

  • -50 points if you and a mate both get caught looking at a girl.
  • 200 points if I get a girls number for a friend.
  • 10000 points for a kiss.
  • 20000 points for sex.  Or any sexual act if I’m honest.
  • -25 points for each drink I have to buy, and that includes if I get nowhere later in the evening.

People watching rule no  11a – Looking at breasts, bums or legs is completely pervy and will be met with by  a look of derision or fear.  Neither will keep you out of a police cell.

People watching rule no.  11b – As above but with a guy, you don’t need to worry about a cell, the stiff shoeing will guarantee a hospital bed instead.  

Now before you think I’m the worst possible kind of human being, you need to consider two things.  Firstly, every man plays this game.  If they don’t, they do.  If they say they don’t, they definitely do.   And secondly, every woman has their own version of this game but the points are scored for other more romantic criteria, such as if a man holds a door of if he talks lovingly about his mum.  Everyone plays this game to a greater or lesser degree, I just clarified the rules under which I play.  I like rules.  They give me a code to live by and without that I fear my voyeurism would take me to far more dangerous places and get me into a shed load of trouble.

The pavement and street was busy now as I hit the city centre.  Horns, steps, talking, scrunching of rubbish, birds swooping past you.    They made a wall of sound Phil Spector would have been proud of.  After a while it becomes a drone, 200 aircraft playing chicken with your ear lobes, you learn to block some of the din out.  Yet when you find yourself in the country, you search for the sounds which will put you to rest.  It’s a strange world my friends.

I’m single.  No surprise there I hear you say.  And I’ve made myself sound like a guy of little talent.  I would say there have been no takers.  I’m personable, funny and friendly.  I play sports and can drink a yard of ale with little fuss.  What is there not to like?  I also know people.  But for all that knowledge, despite my dedication to the cause of people watching, I still don’t feel like I understand my fellow humanoids.  I sometimes think this makes me a little autistic.  The world is full of clouds that get blown across the planet, bump into each other, and then move on.  People are the same and despite our greater control of where we travel, the results are the same.  I looked up (less than 45 degrees of course) and could see the dodgems of the skies looming so I popped into a close for shelter.

The close was typical of what you see around here.  Full bin bags sat beside the overflowing bins, dark enough in places to need a torch and give you goosebumps.  Rats roamed and gave you the eye.  I hid under a shop back entrance, glad to be out of the impending rain even if the surroundings were less than impressive.  But this close was different to any other at that moment because of what was happening at the far end.  I heard a wallop and a moan, looked to the right and squinted my eyes to see what was happening.  I saw one man and one woman, and the woman clearly didn’t want to be there but had no power to leave.  Her jacket was ripped and she had blood on her face.  She was barely conscious.  He had scratches on his face and knuckles.  I recognised them.  It was the cheater and his wife.  They both looked at me.  And when a Tom looks at you, what do they see?

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