On People-Watching by Ross Feeler

A decade ago, a young, sunburned woman in an off-center bikini paddled her inner tube up to the banks of the Guadalupe River, and my girlfriend’s dad—who has since become my father-in-law—introduced me to the term people-watching. It was summer, Central Texas. Bubba’s Big Deck, the beer joint where we’d been for half an hour, cast a shadow on the fast-moving water. Drinkers rolled cold brown bottles on their necks, fanned themselves with baseball caps.

“Help,” the girl said, splashing.

She was not drowning; she simply had the fish’s reasonable skepticism about her ability to survive on land. Rather than slurring, her speech revealed her intoxication through a haphazard playing with volume: Syllables soared and sank with no apparent pattern. “Take my hand, my hand,” she implored a fellow tuber who’d exited earlier and now stood toweling off. Reaching for the boy, she promptly slipped. Her fingernails raked the Good Samaritan’s forearms. She hit the rocky bank, skinned her knees, and lost her tube, a runaway rental for which she’d later be charged forty dollars: It bobbed in the water, flipped twice, and disappeared.

“I’m hurt,” she said, “I’m hurt and it’s all your fault.”

“That’s the thing about Bubba’s,” my girlfriend’s dad said, fitting the ass-end of his beer into a koozie. “Great people-watching.”

The OED dates the first printed usage of “people-watching” to 1957, in The New York Times. Following a bird-watching tour in the New York Botanical Gardens, a group posed for a picture, and the wife of the tour leader heard a fluttering up above. “People-watching,” she said, glancing upward.
Which is sort of how I see my past self: perched in the beer joint, pleasantly abstracted, watching the girl flounder as though she were another species entirely.

* * *

Recently, at the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe, I ran across this quote from the twentieth-century master: “To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

It took me a long time to truly see, and hear, the girl from the Guadalupe River.

I’m hurt resounded in my inner ear for years. Initially, its preservation seemed a direct outgrowth of the kind of sophomoric schadenfreude that colors so many people-watching excursions. Trivially insulted, or hopping off a stubbed toe, or enduring a hangover, my friends and I exchanged the phrase readily, the original twang of the woman’s speech quickly expanding into caricature. This might seem cruel. This might be cruel. And yet, it was not uncomplicated. I’m hurt, we said, and by that meant: My pain is not so great that I cannot laugh.

We over-used the phrase. The mockery grew stale. Someone suggested placing it inside the box, an imaginary container full of clichés, dead jokes, and buzzwords.

Yet long after the phrase had been conversationally verboten, I heard it. I heard it when I watched other people, who weren’t speaking at all: at the grocery store, where a silent man in front of me unloaded a box of wine, a dozen frozen burritos, and twice as many cans of cat food onto a conveyor belt; in the classroom, as a bleary-eyed student, fresh back from a funeral, sat trying to turn a fragment into a sentence; stuck in airport security, watching an elderly man endure a TSA pat-down.

Increasingly, as I sat down to write, I heard my characters crying out: I’m hurt. And they were, because I am, because who the hell isn’t.

Eventually, I wrote a story called “Varieties of Religious Experience,” about an evangelical atheist who unexpectedly falls in love, his agnostic bartender of a girlfriend who drunkenly remembers the biblical blessing her mother spoke to her as a child, and a hodgepodge of river rats, one of whom rips open his belly while attempting to climb a barbed wire-wrapped tree. As the boy bleeds on the ground, he repeats the phrase: “I’m hurt,” he says. “I’m fucking hurt.” The words seemed to embody an element of the religious drive—the suffering that demands to be made meaningful.

* * *

Initially, observing the booze-dazed tuber fall provided me with entertainment—nothing more. Helping her never occurred to me, nor did considering whether she’d be able to afford the lost-tube fee, or bandages, or a safe ride home. Our fundamental difference—that she was drunk and out of control, while I was stable and safe—allowed me to enjoy her as an object. But of course, I had been drunk and out of control myself. I had fallen on just those banks. I had once, completely sober, braved that exact stretch of water without a tube and had tumbled over more rocks than I could count, only to claw my way to the banks, jotted with leeches and badly bruised.

Over spring break this year, on another Texas river, my father and I paddled a canoe through a stretch of rapids—almost. With little warning, we nose-dived, tilted, and fell out—my father first, then me. The canoe, as it overturned, banged into my right rack of ribs. My left leg collided with rock, effectively skinning me from the knee to just above the ankle. The scabbed-over wound pulses beneath my jeans even as I write these words, and each time I cough, my ribs remind me of my adventure.

The ache reminds me, too, that people are always more complex than they appear; that even apparently simplistic people have secrets to reveal, about themselves, about us, about me—if we take the time to see.

By Ross Feeler


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