A Conspicuous Coffee

Let’s just say it had been a very testing hour in the mobile phone shop!   I needed coffee.  Immediately. Lots of coffee.  Intravenous.  ‘Would you like that to go?’ asked the assistant.  Given that I was clearly having such a problem answering him, due to my still reverberating head, I thought I had better take a seat, calm down, not inflict my condition on anyone and regroup myself.  In fact, all of my selves at that point.  And anyway, ‘people-watching’ was not only one of my favourite hobbies, it is what I teach and I need very little encouragement to indulge.

Large coffee in right hand. Comfy seat.  And a vantage view of the whole shop.  How happy could a girl suddenly be?  Conducting an observation isn’t really about just watching what people are doing, it is about watching what people do not realise they are doing.  All those little unconscious behaviours that are oblivious unto them – that is the real focus – to look at what is really happening underneath.

I smiled at the predictable recognition of five single people on five separate tables eating five separate cakes pretending to be engrossed in five different electronic devices and reading material.  None of them looked up for the entire duration. The first lady swapped an iphone for an ipad then got a book out.  Blimey.  The second lady crouched over her phone on the desk as she scoffed her cake and coffee.  The third scrolled her phone like people do when they are not looking at anything in particular.  The fourth … oh good Lord, I was done with all their embarrassment, and for why?  Because everyone was gripped by the same life-long paralysing thought of mind imprisonment, that I had thankfully unhooked myself from years ago – they were all in varying stages of ‘what will people think?’.

The ‘what will people think’ thought stops people leaving the house, going for the job they want, trying something new, speaking to strangers …  enjoying their coffee.  And what is the terrifying consequence they are all trying to avoid?  Somebody looking at them … and thinking. The real issue, of course, is that they are the ones thinking, thinking something negative … about themselves.  A whole group of people with indigestion.  A whole group of prisoners with the dungeon key in their own pocket.

By contrast, I had nothing on my lap, nothing in my hand, except the coffee – and I was the only one looking up and around.  As I contemplated my companions’ condition, a young man wearing a backpack sat down in front of me, placing his coffee and sandwich on the table.  He looked up at me uncomfortably and I saw his eyes dart around the room.  There was one other table free.  I could tell he was weighing it all up.  ‘Shall I sit down in front of this weird woman who is just looking around, or shall I join the other five single women?’  He decided to tough it out, and I decided not to make him feel conspicuous by looking elsewhere in the shop.

Jack the lad then entered.  Whilst he waited for his coffee he looked about and noticed I was facing in his direction.  He suddenly took his jacket off, puffed up his muscled chest, collected his coffee to go and swaggered out of the shop – most likely hoping, unlike the women, that I was watching, or at least, hoping somebody was.  I smiled to myself.  The man with the backpack still on his back for a quick get-away, noticed.  I decided to leave and release him from his anxiety.  What a strange spectacle I must have looked?  Just sitting, drinking my coffee.

As I took the last sip I noticed I had not let go of the cup handle the whole time.  Observation requires self-scrutiny.  Was it my comfort blanket?  No, it was however an indication, coupled with my return to calm, that the coffee break had done the trick – I had a grip.  I got a handle on it.  I left the shop.

Wishing you liberty … and coffee,