People call me a voyeur. I prefer to think of myself as an observer of life.
Every week, I spend at least three days at my “Panera office,” starting from the wee breakfast hours until mid afternoon. In between the taunting aroma of carbs and bacon hides a treasure of human behavior and stories.
Regulars saunter in, waving at the staff who greet them like Norm from Cheers. Most are retired and linger for hours as they read the paper and swap tales of days gone by.
After almost two years of sitting alone in a corner table with my Mac perched in front of me, one of the regulars strutted over and asked if I wanted to join them.
I felt like the not-so-new girl at school who the cool kids finally notice.
As I sipped my coffee, I listened to stories of near-death experiences, gambling outings, and grumbles of the economy. At the retiree table was a liberal educator, a conservative car salesman, a supermarket manager, his widowed father, a cop who ended his career at the Attorney General’s office … and me.
I wished I could whip out a memo pad without making them nervous. Sad to say, most of my memory cells attached themselves to the placenta during childbirth, leaving my body for good. But for today, I'd have to trust the few cells I had left.
There they were, a cast of characters who would never have come together if not for their love of conversation and caffeine. They were strangers but for this magical place. Strangers who now shared stories they most likely didn’t share with their own spouses.
There’s a safety in anonymity.
As writers, our job is to create authentic, original stories that move people. Who better to get inspiration from than the people who lived them?
But to do that, you need to shut your mouth and hone your skills of observation.
How do they hold their silverware? Do they use a napkin or their sleeve? Do they sip from paper cups or drink out of ceramic mugs? Are they watching the door or unaware of their surroundings?
The ex-cop drinks out of a paper cup, so he can be “on the go” in an instant. He’s mindful of everyone who walks into the room. The car salesman talks to anyone walking past, every person a potential customer in his past profession.
These are character traits their life experiences have tattooed on them -- all details we need to bring into our stories.
Watch not only their body language but also listen to their dialogue.
From my lonely writer table, I witnessed a new, insecure divorcée, on a horribly mismatched blind date, cry in her car moments after said Neanderthal blind date insulted her. I cringed as a morbidly obese man spoke too loudly about how he’s had explosive diarrhea for five days … then ordered a bagel with six pats of butter on the side (as if "on the side" would aide his digestive issues). I’ve seen a blissful wife fall apart as her husband bluntly demanded a divorce. Her response was simply, “How about steak for dinner … it’s on sale.” A single dad made up an imaginary friend to help his scared daughter get through her first day of kindergarten. As I watched his face, his eyes welled with tears, knowing no imaginary friend would keep her from growing up.
I witness slices of life happening all around me.
Sometimes I am the one being watched. I call the observers my “creepers.” As of today, there are four men I keep a close eye on. The reality is, any time you develop a pattern in your routine, you open a door for a lunatic. There’s a reason I let it be known publicly I have a black belt. If that doesn’t work, there’s always pepper spray. Just sayin’.
One day, after observing my first creeper’s 18-month obsession with my habits, I marched over to his table, sat down, and introduced myself. He turned out to be nothing like I expected, and I created a new character in my files full of flaws and insecurities, tortured with social awkwardness.
I wouldn’t catch these moments working in my home office. Here, I sit still and appear to absorb myself in my laptop so people don’t realize I’m watching. My job is to pay attention – to study life.
Mostly I listen, but then there are times I talk.
This morning, I sat with the liberal educator, the only other female regular in our group. “The Boys” had already left town for Thanksgiving. She wanted to know what today’s writing assignment was. I sheepishly told her I was sharing my Panera office regulars with my readers and discussing the value of voyeurism in a writer’s life.
It’s always risky to tell a subject they are now going to be a part of your words.
She admitted when she found out I was a writer, she was apprehensive to open up to me, but somehow couldn’t stop herself. “You’re the soul that makes people want to say the things they have trapped inside them,” she said.
I’ve always had the gift of making people comfortable. In my past life, I was either a therapist or a call girl. But the truth is, people want to tell their stories and often welcome talking to a stranger. It’s liberating. They somehow feel no consequence or guilt spilling secrets if they may never see the person again.
She asked how I do it ... watch people, that is.
I motioned to a group of men behind me and dared her to make up their stories based on appearances, gestures and discussion. She beamed at the thought of playing God.
Her eyes darted between the men and me, as she leaned in and whispered, “I see a house full of animal heads … an elk, a moose head … and I hear the banjo from Deliverance.”
I discreetly turned around and looked. She was dead on. In my mind, a pig squealed. We laughed until our sides ached.
Right before we parted ways, I asked what the regulars assumed my profession was these past two years, alone at my Panera table.
She smiled, “A spy.”
Maybe that’s how we writers should think of ourselves. We survey our surroundings, crawl into people’s heads, draw conclusions and profile them, all to find out what makes them tick and how to manipulate that knowledge into our characters.
The next time you’re out, just sit and watch. Pick a person and pay attention to every minute detail. Make up a story about them. Why did they choose those pair of worn shoes? What does their purse say about them? Where did they just come from? Where are they headed after they finish that roast beef sandwich? You decide. That’s your job.
Speaking of characters, a group of loud, stoned teenage boys with the munchies are scarfing food at the next table … and one of their father’s just stormed in: uptight, in a suit, and looking none-too-pleased.
It’s time to put on my Sherlock Holmes’ hat and take dialogue notes.
Stories are hidden in the most public of places. Pay attention, and you’ll find them.
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writer/producer of HBO's 'Band of Brothers'
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