It was just a sunny Saturday, just another uneventful sunny Saturday. The usual. The first day of the weekend that allowed for some relaxation, which was really more like unwarranted loafing about. At least with weekdays, there was structure to life, things to do, people to talk to, or at least a sense of direction. Even Sundays had direction, most of the time. But Saturdays, they felt like a waste of 24 hours.
So I sat on a wooden park bench, worn smooth from constant use since the park was opened probably thirty-something years ago. I was all by myself, observing the people surrounding me. Located in a rather urbanized area somewhat out of the way, yet still allowed for skyscrapers to be seen in the distance, the park I typically stationed myself at was full of joggers and environmentally conservative hippies constantly whining about ‘going green’ and advocated for more bike lanes, and amongst the park regulars, the occasional young family who decided to drag along the family dog to play a pointless game of Frisbee.
One family in particular I noticed had brought along a tiny Chihuahua that was small enough to step on, a tiny quivering thing that jumped erratically and scampered around mindlessly. It weaved in and out of its owners feet so swiftly, I almost thought the little boy would accidentally sit on it. This family had just sat down to a late-summer picnic, red-checkered tablecloth laid out on the grass. The husband looked extremely well-groomed— carefully slicked back hair, clean shave; even his salmon-colored button up shirt was neat and tucked into his wrinkle-free slacks—must be metrosexual. Even with an obsessive wife who showered her man with lavish care or nagged incessantly for proper personal hygiene, no ordinary straight man would put that much effort into his appearance. That is unless his wife was brainwashing him. Always a plausible explanation, brainwashing, I mean.
First glance made me think this family was fake—everything looked too good to be true. Beautiful wife, cute kid, and it was obvious from the way the family dressed that they were financially well-to-do, but this wasn’t a rich neighborhood. This park was mainly for all of those college kids and young families cooped up in their apartments that needed some space to breathe. What were they doing here? The more I stared at them and watched them talk to each other, the more it felt like I was in a ridiculous sitcom. Their reactions looked forced, everything was an act. They certainly weren’t acting for me; I wouldn’t watch any mind-numbing family drivel like this. So I changed channels, and focused on someone else.
To the left and right of me were additional park benches, each equally worn from use. On my right-hand side, an old man of ambiguous age (could be anywhere from late 50s to early 70s and I happened to be particularly poor at guessing ages) sat in the park bench slumped over, a loaf of bread entangled in its plastic wrapper in his lap. He was tearing bits and pieces off of it every so often and tossed them rather lightly, most likely because he didn’t look the picture of health. A swarm of pigeons flocked around him, cooing noisily and gawking stupidly. Just another old guy on a bench, like me.
Why was he here, I wondered. I bet his wife died, and with his kids all grown up and out of the picture, he was a lonely old coot, with only the pigeons in the park to keep him company. It was the old man variant of the crazy cat lady, yet somehow this version was 100% more social acceptable. I toyed with the imaginary situation of relocating myself to sit beside him and strike up a casual conversation, but just a moment later I questioned myself. He’s at least feeding pigeons, what am I doing here?
I just sat on that park bench, in my old pair of dress pants the color of cardboard with a navy and white striped polo. I looked like an utter disaster, but no awkward gawkers came my way, so watch me care. And even if they did, a snarling glare would send them away pretty much immediately. I was doing nothing but sitting and watching, just an observer. Most of my life has been spent observing. Not in any sort of creepy, stalker way, but just in a fascinated sort of way.
I would come up with conversations in my head, mentally imitating and mocking however I pleased. This particularly amused me, and I remember one time I had a fantastic mental conversation between an older Asian woman with a cigarette in one hand, her other on her hip, dressed in a floral-print dress suit and a younger Asian man in a wife beater, shaved head and covered in tattoos. I had no idea what their affiliation between each other was, but I could sure tell that the Asian woman continued to give the man condescending looks between each drag. He looked defensive, for whatever reason.
Without thinking too much about it, I had decided her excuse was, “Smokin keep mah figah. Without cigarette I get fat.” Completely disregarding if she had an accent at all or not, (to be honest she was too far from me to hear her if she had said anything at all, and I thought it more amusing to give her any sort of absurd voice I pleased) I made up a conversation about the Asian woman’s smoking habits and the other man’s—who I decided was her delinquent son—alcoholism.
As I furthered the conversation within my head, I decided that the son was begging his mother for money, because he was a month or so behind on rent. His mother decided that he had shamed the family, and was being ostracized. I thought my timing was pretty spot on because as soon as I mentally voiced for the Asian woman, “Never come home”, she snubbed out her cigarette in the ash tray on top of the nearest trash can and walked away from her ‘delinquent son’. Although I would never know, I wondered how close to the truth I had become. I’ve gotten so good at it that things were typically what they looked like more than they were not.
No one ever got offended when I kept it in my head; no one ever called me racist, or sexist, or a predator or some sort of other offensive name for an old fart who sat in the same spot on the park bench for who knows how long, every Saturday, every week. True, I probably did creep some people out, causing them to wonder who I was, why I was there, or more importantly, how long I’d been there. But no one ever talked to me, visitors were either too busy or too enamored in their own affairs to notice me for more than a couple of seconds. But I didn’t mind, no one had to know who I was, or my name, or what my favorite movie was, or my favorite flavor of ice cream, or any sort of other drivel people asked each other when they spoke.
I was content to merely watch—to observe. But I hadn’t always been this way. Once I was courageous, and talkative, and hated keeping my mouth shut. When I was young, things were different. I knew people, I would wind up with my friends singing karaoke out of tune when I was drunk, tear out coupons in the newspaper like it was collectable currency, drive 55 in a 25 mile zone. And not care. Not think about my actions and how they affected people, disregard everyone but myself.
I’ve never considered myself to be evil, but selfish I must agree with. Infectious self-importance plagued me, and still does. I think that’s why eventually everyone eventually left. The only social interaction I get now is from observing, or feeding the singular beta fish I have, sitting on the coffee table in my tiny apartment. I can see the park from my bedroom window, and my range of motion has been just a small circle around town for years. I’ve worked myself into a vicious routine, but don’t feel particularly interested in breaking it.
If I die tomorrow, I don’t think I’d be missed. Not that I’m suddenly feeling suicidal, I just believe I’m taking a more existentialist viewpoint. My purpose, my place, my reason for existing—I feel it’s already happened. So now I’ve been reduced to an age of waiting. Waiting for either something to break my routine or for my end. I’ve already lived, and I’ve already fulfilled my ambitions. I’m like a hermit that lived in the center of attention, hiding in plain sight.
I looked to the right of me, back at the bearded old man who charmed pigeons with stale bread. Perhaps he was like me, he was just waiting. No, I thought, he’s not like me. With his wrinkled expression and gently sloping grey eyebrows that looked like caterpillars sliding off of his face, he was busily chatting away to the birds surrounding him. “How are you all today?” He whispered in a jovial voice, “The sun’s quite nice, don’t you think?” Even while seeming to do nothing, he was doing something. He wasn’t like me. Despite his apparent loneliness, he was happy. I was just content. A perfect five on a scale of one to ten in terms of mood. Average.
Instead, I defied myself, and got up, and walked over to the weak old man who looked like a skeleton with clothes, his face sinking in and his cheekbones sharp enough to hurt someone. “Mind if I sit here?”
“Not at all!” He chirped, smiling widely to expose that he was missing a few teeth.
As I sat down, palpitating because I had just broken the routine I had essentially adhered to for years, I noticed that this man smelled awful. Like month old tuna mixed with sweat and he smelled warm, which just wanted to make me gag all the more. I hadn’t detected it earlier, but there were noticeable bits of food tucked away in this monstrous beard that desperately needed to be tamed. I felt like I was actually put together pretty well in comparison, and I was far from it.
I had defined several rules for myself in my routine: never speak to anyone I observe, give blunt and short responses whenever spoken to, and make exceptions only when necessary. I broke them why, on a whim? It didn’t matter anymore.
“Are you homeless?” I reflexively asked the old man, recoiling from the foul body odor he admitted. Ahh good, yes, my social skills were nonexistent.
I had sort of intended that remark as a joke, but when the old man replied, “Yes,” I couldn’t help but feel enormously guilty. This is why I didn’t talk; I didn’t want to get involved. I wanted to distance myself, and remain in my own bubble—completely separate from everyone else.
“Why are you giving the bread to the pigeons?” I asked, totally bewildered.
“I don’t feel like eating,” He replied carelessly, his voice squeaked every so often like tight leather.
The two of us sat in silence for a while, mainly focusing on controlling my gag reflex. I knew that soon enough I’d get used to this rank smell, after all the pigeons didn’t mind.
“What’s your name, sir? You come here often?” He squeaked again, looking up at me with a glisten in his eye.
Completely caught off guard, I just made filler sounds. “Uhh,” I felt like I had forgotten my name. No one had asked in so long, I think I expelled it from my memory. I had been in public isolation for so long I essentially crippled myself socially.
Who was I anymore?
Just some old guy who sat on a park bench that was slowly fall apart every Saturday, early afternoon. Making up stupid conversations as a form of both social interaction and amusement. That was me. The Observer.