Tag Archives: people watching

To See Ourselves…

Jack and I have done a lot of festival receptions over the years. Usually attendees are divided into two groups: those who are just so super-excited to be there, and those who are not.

The fun part comes when you have these two types meshed into one person, working the room but pretending to be bored with the whole thing. As we did awhile back, watching two female authors at a reception duke it out for “Queen of the Room.”

They were wearing similar dresses, for a start—which is never a good start. But things were unequal, because the California blond had on high heels, and sunglasses atop her head holding back her hair, Classic Hollywood style.

Since we were in North Carolina, the look was somewhat different from the rest of the room, but it worked for her. Still, the piece de resistance was her watch, a double strand of pearls in its band, diamonds shimmering from the face. She turned it to catch the light as she spoke to everyone who came near the wine table (which she’d strategically claimed as the location of her court on arrival) flopping an insouciant hand to accent a point tossed off as she dominated her conversation clutch.

The clutch consisted of a male sponsor, a female fan, and the second would-be-queen—who was working hard to wrest the conversation from California Girl because she had been the first to position herself at the wine table, and CG had cleverly turned her by speaking as she poured herself a glass, claiming the coveted conversational dominance spot. But Queen II was older, and therefore able to rely more on wit and treachery than spiked heels. As the fan asked CG a question, face turned adoringly upward (everyone has to look up to someone wearing 8-inch heels) Q2 took a step forward and broke the circle. Suddenly FanGirl was looking at Q2 who blithely gave a smiling answer to the question as she wedged back into the wine table hot spot, forcing FanGirl back a few inches.

The male sponsor, sensing a chance to close in, moved across to stand on the other side of CG and she had to turn her head to answer him. Two new conversations formed, but CG was visibly sore about this. As FanGirl continued to enjoy her conversation with Q2 and Mr. Sponsor moved in for the kill, CG, who didn’t seem to know anyone else in the room, flashed a bright smile at a cute guy in a polo shirt, who’d stopped to score some cantaloupe from the table.

Fruit forgotten, he turned and began speaking to CG. Q2, observing, opened her profile with one deft grapevine step, and voila, FanGirl, CG, Polo Cutey, and Q2 were now in a line of conversation that excluded Mr. Sponsor. The dueling queens each turned half profile to Cutey, and FanGirl wandered off as Cutey—who may or may not have known anything about the fiction these women had written—did his best to hang on for the ride. Which was short, for the two queens, perhaps tired of the dance of passive aggression, now began to speak to one another. In honeyed tones. With fluttering eyelashes and much pressing of hands to bosoms. I’m sure their lips read “bless your heart” at one point—which didn’t really work for CG, but hey, who’s to judge? Cutey, his task completed, buzzed away like a drone driven from the hive after mating season.

Now lest you think this vignette harsh, remember, I’m an ethnographer who people watches for fun.  The whole evening felt like watching a television show in which I also played a role. Someone watching me would have seen a woman with frizzy hair in too-casual clothes cheerfully standing in the corner sipping a glass (ok, two) of the (very excellent) red wine provided for the occasion, soaking it all in. The ambiance, not the wine.

The room was crowded with authors making pitches, marketers who came up to talk to me because I own a bookstore, sponsors floating like butterflies among the guests, pouring wine and inquiring whether we were having a good time. The queen-women were just doing their jobs as authors, and if a bit of competition entered the body language, it’s only to be expected. They were oblivious to all else in the crowded room, and pretty much the rest of the authors were working too hard to notice them. I don’t know who they were. But Burns was right: it would be a true gift to see ourselves as others see us.

A toast to authors and receptions everywhere please. *raises glass*

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, Downton Abbey, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

Brief Encounters of the Close Kind

Riding the Subway in NYC, we had some up-close anthropological observation points. Here are three of my favorites:

Encounter one:

A 40-something woman with frizzy hair, wearing jogging shoes, got on the train with three smartly-dressed young women in their twenties, knee-length boots, and smart coats. Blond highlighted hair swung seductively at their jaw lines. They wore make-up; she did not, but her eyes were wide and awed and shiny with adoration as she looked at one of the girls. Her daughter, it came out as they talked about where they were taking her and the delights they would show her, had been in NYC about a year and a half, and established herself in some career that involved fashion and seemed to be going pretty well.

“We’ll get off on 14th and change trains,” she told her mother after checking her iPhone with unselfconscious deftness. Her mother beamed. Her tennis shoe accidentally touched my foot in the crowded car and she immediately apologized. The flock of girls looked on with bemused smiles.

Someone said something about the color of their boots, and they began to compare. Mom said, eyes worshipful on her daughter, “Oh honey, when you were small, you had little brown boots just that color, and your gran made you a brown hat with red flowers to go with them, remember?”

I glanced at the girlfriend posse. They were staring at their friend–probably picturing the hat above that cashmere coat–and the smiles on their faces ranged from shark-esque to sweet. Daughter stared at Mom, smile fixed, expression flitting between not wanting to embarrass and not wanting to be embarrassed. She said, perhaps seeking compromise, “Gotta love Gran. Now, we’re two stations away….”

Gotta love Mom.

Encounter two:

I hauled the Korean paperback edition of my book from my backpack and stared at it–probably with an expression similar to the Mama above watching her baby-made-good. Aloud I said, “This is the cutest cover yet. I’m so happy to have gotten this today!” Andrew and Jack said something about when it had been published, and the English version, and the business-suited, bearded man (lawyer, was my guess) traveling across from us looked up. The train wasn’t crowded, so he could see what we were talking about, and put two and two together. His smile resembled one you’ve probably used yourself, when you see a woman at the grocery with a new baby dressed all in pink, big bow over one ear, and people gathered ’round cooing.

By the time he got up at the next stop, I’d put my baby back in the pack, but as he passed me the lawyer-esque man said, softly, “Congratulations.” I looked up in time to see him smile at me before he disembarked.

It felt good.

Encounter three:

On the train home to Virginia, a man and his son sat down in front of us. The man said, rather loudly, “We’re gonna sit here, Alex, because that man behind us was talking too loud and never stopped. Remember that. It’s good to take a break every now and then, and listen to other people.” He then proceeded to keep up a running narrative balanced against his son’s constant stream of questions, comments, and movements, which included staring over the seat back at us (me with my yarn, Jack with his computer) and his father’s command to “Stop terrorizing those people. Not everybody likes kids. Kids can be annoying, did you know that?”

Jack and I exchanged glances. As we got out the good cheeses and tomatoes and crusty loaf we’d bought at the Farmer’s Market that morning with Pamela, Dad started reading Alex–loudly, so the whole car could enjoy it–a story about a hero factory that made robots to fight the evil brain that turned people’s eyes a glowing red. As Jack concentrated on breaking the crusty loaf, I tucked two cherry tomatoes behind my glasses and gave him my best evil grin.

He nearly choked to death when he glanced over.

They were just having fun. So were we. It was a nice ride. And in case you were wondering, the hero robots defeated the evil brain, and we ate the cherry tomatoes.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, publishing, small town USA, Uncategorized