People-Watching

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Time ticked away as we waited for my grandma.

“Mom! Seriously, can we call her? It’s been seventeen minutes! I’m hungry, I have homework,” my list of whining complaints trailed off as my mom picked up her phone. She checked to see if there were any missed calls.

“Give her a few more seconds; she’s probably getting off the train now,” my mom responded, gazing out the window and adjusting her misaligned sunglasses, as the persistent sun reflected off the metal sculptures at the entrance of the Trenton station. I sat up from my slouched position and adjusted my nylon shorts that stuck to the leather seat, while kicking off my mud-filled cleats from softball practice. I turned to glance out the window, pressing my sweaty forehead to the cold glass, humming. I transformed into my actress self, my sporty apparel dissolving off of me and becoming a tiered dress as I cleared my throat, about to break out into song.
My momentary dramatic interlude melted away like the steaming asphalt in the harsh rays of sun. The growing, feeding, and malignant humidity outside drained the moisture from my body and lips, and I shriveled in the heat of the Thursday afternoon.

My grandma was coming to visit from Maryland for Grandparent’s Day at my school. She had come a day early so we could go out for a nice dinner together and catch up before the busy Friday of performances and tours. She took the train up from Baltimore and was set to arrive in Trenton at 6:17, or so we thought.

To pass the looming time, I decided to people-watch, an activity I often use to soothe boredom. Fun and imaginative, it required me to be the anthropologist I am in all aspects of my social life at school, watching people’s actions and drawing conclusions from how they present themselves. I intently studied the commuters, imprinting footprints in the soft asphalt, leaving their both insignificant and important marks. Their footsteps combined in concert with the clicks and slams of doors, of squealing trains, of horns honked by distant cars to form a rhythm that summarized the constant movement of the station.
A woman, emerging from the double doors of the inside waiting room, threw herself at her leather-jacket-wearing boyfriend. She walked with a hobble in her high-heeled step that indicated drunkenness, and a personality as wild as her leopard-print pants. The black gum imprinted in the sidewalk was definitely hers, as she chewed a wad, cow-like in her pink lipstick-stained mouth. She limped past laughing, her gum welling up with saliva that filled her loud mouth.
Another innocent woman stood near our car, not part of the parading safari that had just passed, she was wearing normal clothes, work pants and a blouse. She held her phone nervously, calling some number. On speaker, the symbol-like rings drifted past the ears of oblivious commuters, barely catching their attention. The call went to voicemail. She tried again. And again. I watched her as nerves crept up through her eyes, her hair, swallowing her body; her expression was blank but twitched as fear grew in her blinking eyelashes and welled up in her glossy eyes.
Squeak! A sports call pulled in front of us, screaming to a sudden halt. The smell of exhaust filled our car, leaving me coughing at the fumes. A man ducked out of the low-to-the-ground vehicle, shades on, walking with what was clearly a love for himself. It made me happy that the commuters stood still oblivious, ignoring his walk of pride to the trashcan near the double doors; I smiled at the thought that such an arrogant man got no attention or confirmation of his selfish beauty. He walked with an attempt at “swagger” to the trashcan, where he tossed out a McDonald’s meal bag, before returning to his car and skidding off again, leaving in another cloud of his own vain exhaust. I shook my head.

“Jerk,” I muttered, and my mom nodded in agreement. I lowered the volume on the radio and turned back to watch the scene of people once more.

The double doors opened slowly, and I saw her, this stranger. Wrapped in a plaid blanket, she hobbled down the stairs, not with a drunken walk, but with a walk of shame, of pain, and of loneliness. Her hair blew cobweb-like in the wind, thin and wispy, and her cracked lips bled. On her arm a few plastic bags sat heavy, weighing her down slightly to the left. She hung on to the bags with all her might, and I assumed they were her only belongings. The light lit her skeletal frame, her body a bunch of thin and wearing bones draped with wrinkled skin. Her holey shoes ripped at the seams, catching on cracks in the sidewalk, on small trinkets left behind by the moving sea of people. She stood isolated in the crowd; I focused solely on her. She limped to the trashcan, where she set down her bags. My mouth dropped in awe. The woman proceeded to dive into the trashcan with her arms, her fingers clawing at the leftovers of others, their waste. She searched around, leaning in, until her chapped hands came across something satisfying. Her arms moved like a puppet, lifting effortlessly from the plastic container to reveal a McDonald’s bag, white, glossy, and grease-stained. Without the slightest bit of hesitation, the woman began to eat some of the french fries, her eyes gleaming evilly like an innocent child acting naughty. I shook my head, pain filled my heart, and my stinging eyes forced me to look away. People chatted. People talked on their cell phones. No one took notice to this poor, elderly woman, resulting to a trashcan to feed her empty stomach. Anger welled up in my sweaty, clenched fists at the commuters passively watching; the satisfaction I felt as they ignored the young twenty-something man dissipated. As limply but quickly as she had come, the woman disappeared into the parking lot, leaving nothing but a now-empty McDonald’s bag. Guilt made my toes cringe.
Ring ring, ring ring! My mom’s cell phone shattered my focus, my angry rant. In a quick exchange of words, my mom hung up.

“Your grandma is waiting inside,” she told me. Hesitantly, I crawled out of the car, feeling dizzy. I walked up the stairs and up into the station. Down the long hall I saw my grandma’s fit figure walking spryly, the exact opposite of my female stranger. I ran to her, embracing her in a big hug and kiss. As we turned and walked together back to the car, discussing school and holding hands, my face went blanker than the distressed cell-phone lady. For a moment, my body crumbled underneath the weight I felt, the woman’s heavy bags she carried without complaint, sitting on my heart.





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