Sunday, July 6, 2014

Splitting A Muse from the Amused

Some of my happiest moments, on this so-called mudball, come from people watching. I get a slew of ideas for my writing this way, and it weans me off of my other favorite pastime, navel-gazing. As far as people watching goes, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Usually, I pick one or two interesting subjects and study their expressions, their gestures, their quirks. Consider me the progeny of a one-night stand between Margaret Meade and a patrol cop.

One thing I notice now is that I seldom get scoped back. My fellow mudballers seem to be too smitten with their iPhones to really care if their being admired. We have to update our “friends” about every last excruciating bit of minutia that whisks into our lives. Which reminds me, would you mind liking this blog post when you’re done? Anyway, it wasn’t long ago when that all-encompassing killjoy (iPhone) wasn’t even an embryo. Those were the days.

Back in 2001, when I spent the Summer in Prague, I was in people watching heaven. Sure there were plenty of great sites to see and I consumed the Vltava, the Dancing House (think of a modern, glass-walled Leaning Tower of Pisa),

the myriad bookshops, Charles Bridge, and so on, but, more than anything, I loved to plant myself in a café and study my fellow diners and coffee-swiggers. This is what I was born to do. I guess that makes me an armchair anthropologist. I’ve always been fascinated by how tablemates choose to position themselves in relation to the other, whether they dab their lips with their napkin or sleeve, whether or not they crunch their ice cubes, or if they have a greater affinity for making air quotes or bowing air violins.

In the middle of my first week in Prague, after a rigorous morning of navel-gazing, I cast my gaze outward. I absorbed the guests in the café. There was a svelte young man in a canary yellow shirt who kept smoothing the crease in his collar with his thumb. He seemed to be making a G clef pattern or else he was tracing an ampersand. He carried on jubilantly, for what seemed like a full epoch. So enamored was I by his finger-tracing, I didn’t realize I looped into my own table-scribbling. Fortunately, I had the cap to my pen covered. It would’ve been a crime to ruin such an exquisite tabletop.

Anyway, when I grew tired of the collar-massager, I snooped around for another muse. I saw a few possibilities, but I wasn’t sold on them. That’s when I noticed somebody had taken me for their own amusement. A young lady in a black hat was sketching me. And to think, I hadn’t even shaved that morning. I don’t know why I was unsettled at first. Maybe it was because I didn’t know how long my sketcher had been keeping her eye on me or maybe it was because I had lost the upper hand. I no longer had a monopoly on the people watching in the café, and, on top of that, a sketcher trumped an idle-gazer like me.

I wanted to be a good sport so I tried not to disturb her sketchscape. I sat as still as possible, and that didn’t work out so hot. It was hard to appear natural because my awareness of the sketcher, sketching me, precluded my ordinarily limber mind from being its regular self. The burden of wanting to seem natural made me more tense. Inner awareness can be a doozy. I got so flustered my foot became bouncy and then the table started rocking. You know that bumper sticker that says Don’t come a Knockin if you see this van’s a Rockin? Poor table.

My good friend, the sketcher, was in no better shape. By that point, she looked miffed by all this shaking. I almost wanted to get up and say timeout, you know how a speed demon does after he’s swiped second base and he asks the ump for his momentary reprieve to dust off his uniform. I wanted permission to do this all over again. I’m burdened and blessed with empathy, as you can probably tell. Because I thought I was disturbing the sketcher, I in turn, got more jittery. What the hell does one do in a spot like that? Emily Post never wrote anything on the etiquette for a café model asking for a do-over. Not to my knowledge.

Things got dicey until I found a new focal point. I spotted an old man folding his napkin. He folded with such love and authority as if he’d been a waiter and was reliving his past shifts. He approached each napkin afresh, without a shred of disdain. He almost seemed to relish the ritual, foreplay with myriad cloth lovers. I became so enamored by his meticulous and mollifying nature that I stopped bouncing the table. When I looked up, some while later, the sketcher offered me a pleased grin, a toothy ciao for now, maybe I’ll catch you strolling along the Vltava sometime. I stayed put even though I wanted to go over and kiss her hand, take a peek at her little brown pad.

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