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The Art of People Watching

by Cody Delistraty Dec 30, 2013

There are really two types of walkers: those who are just looking to get from place to place, and those who are looking while going from place to place.

Although Walter Benjamin would turn flânerie into a scholastic pursuit in the 20th-century, it was Charles Baudelaire who first established the idea of the flâneur. A flâneur, literally meaning a “stroller” or “saunterer” in French, is someone who falls into the second category. He is an urban explorer, a street connoisseur, a person who walks as a means to reflect on a city’s history, and, as a writer carries his pen, the flâneur carries a deep knowledge about industrialization, architecture, and urbanity with him everywhere he goes.

It was in 1863, during a time of rapid modernizing in Paris, that Baudelaire wrote,

For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.

You see, the flâneur is the original people watcher. He is at once a man of leisure who can afford to learn the complexities of a city, the ins and outs of its secretive history — what lies deep within the Catacombs, who influenced the architecture in the Marais — but he is also a surveyor of the interactions between man and city, adjusting his monocle as he mentally notes his dilettantish perceptions while perched at a café’s terrasse.

It is fascinating to think how much we can learn about people just by stopping to observe. Whether we’re people watching from within a train — noting the tattoos of the man across from us and the tiny circles the bespectacled woman is making with her left foot — or we’re seated in a coffeeshop — watching the world go by outside, no one aware of our existence or our brief window into their world — we transcend into a different state of being, one where we are looking within from without. It is both empowering and particularly lonely, as if we are ghosts noting the existence of everyone as they continue right past, never once aware of us.

When you are people watching you can see the peculiar perversity that, even amidst suffocatingly large crowds, people still somehow think they are isolated and alone. People watching gives you not just a new view on other people, but on the world. The people are the cogs, and it is only through removing oneself from the machine that one can see the whole splendid thing working away.

Like a mirror we hold up to ourselves in the morning, the art of people watching is a way for us to see ourselves in others.

Everyone works together to create the daily chaos that fuels a city, not unlike the rapid industrialization that first bred the pioneering flâneurs in the mid-19th century. Yet, there is also a certain beauty in the individual, in the details. Arms spread over a café table, one can watch the marching past of the important woman on her cellphone, the tired man with his head hung low, the young boy freshly finished with day school, his grin brimming with vitality.

In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd,” Poe’s nameless narrator notices the little idiosyncrasies of everyone walking by as he sits alone at a coffeeshop. In one instance, he sees that a man’s ear slightly sticks out and determines that he must be a clerk of some sort, his ear protruding from years of storing a pen behind it. In another instance the narrator sees a man “of dashing appearance,” who he discerns could only be a pickpocket. And so too gamblers supposedly pass by, given away by their “certain sodden swarthiness of complexion, a filmy dimness of eye, and pallor and compression of lip.” In what comes to drive the plot, the narrator sees a man that he cannot sufficiently categorize — a man that is in fact too different — whom he decides to follow through the dark streets of London for the rest of the story.

Yet rather than dark, Gothic mystery or the flâneur’s monocle and a bourgeois attitude, today’s people watcher is armed with a Moleskine and a latte. He holes up in a coffeeshop to look out the window and observe movements. He might choose to listen in on the conversations surrounding him, perking up when something particularly interesting is said. He is intentional in his displacement from the rest of the world, attempting to pry into the lives of others but only briefly and only from afar.

I recall sitting at Le Nemours in Paris, a particularly touristy café on the Place Colette, not too far from the Louvre, where two American women began to have a particularly odd discussion. My ears began to burn, and I dutifully picked up my pen to listen in:

“What should I get for my boyfriend? Part of me says to get him nothing. I mean, he’s going to jail on Tuesday. ‘Good luck,’ I want to say, ‘see you on the other side,’” to which her friend responded, “I mean, duh, your boyfriend was the guy walking around with brass knuckles. That’s all he wanted to do that night: walk around with brass knuckles.”

Now there’s nothing comically genius here, but the preposterousness of this conversation would’ve been impossible to even imagine. Had I been writing an absurdist comedy, I would’ve lifted these words from the table beside me and dropped them straight into a bit of dialogue. Perhaps you think it’s silly, but the act of people watching is a surprisingly informative activity. For writers, sociologists, or merely people interested in the weirdness of their fellow humans, it is a fascinating way to explore human existence and all of its discussions of bad boyfriends, bypassing gamblers and pickpockets, and the trove of oddities in between.

Yet, people watching is even more than that. As the flâneur gained pleasure from his knowledge of an industrializing city, so too the people watcher finds pleasure in disconnecting from his world so he can better engage with it. Like a mirror we hold up to ourselves in the morning, the art of people watching is a way for us to see ourselves in others. It is through a coffeeshop window that we can finally understand the bizarreness of what it means to live, watching life and all of its peculiar characters pass us by. This post was originally published at Thought Catalog and is reprinted here with permission.

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