by Kris Neri
Like most writers, I’m a devoted people watcher. Sure, many of the traits we give our characters come straight from our imaginations. Or do they? For those of us who’ve spent our lives observing our fellowman, how many odd struts, or curious expressions, or great names have we unconsciously filed away?
Sometimes I take it too far. In restaurants, on occasion, Joe has had to remind me to pay attention to him, rather than those people seated across the room. But I can’t help it. A big part of people watching isn’t just observing what they do, but figuring out why they do it. That often means grasping the nature of relationships. If I haven’t figured out whether those people across the restaurant are a couple having a contentious discussion or an adversarial pair of business associates engaged in a tough negotiation, I can’t stop slipping them glances them until I do.
My real favorite form of people watching involves observing aspects of the life of someone who isn’t even here anymore — I love going to estate sales. I love estate sales because they involve so many of the things I enjoy. Although it never occurred to me to become an architect, or a real estate agent, or a designer, which would have allowed me to envision houses or to have access to loads of them, I still really like looking through homes. I enjoy noting the way they’re put together, the way rooms flow into other rooms, and I especially love to check out the way they’re decorated. There aren’t that many occasions when strangers simply invite you into their homes, so I consider estate sales to be a rare treat. Also, on occasion I find some object I’ve been looking for, and I have the chance to snag it at a bargain price.
Mostly, though, I go to learn something about someone who is no longer here, someone I didn’t know. Others might find it creepy, but I actually feel something like a sleuth in the process. I learn loads about the departed by checking out the homes they left behind, and I’m sure I bring those observations back to my writing. It says something about the former inhabitant if the outside of someone’s home is spectacular, while the inside is seedy and neglected, and something entirely different if it’s the reverse. I’m always so impressed by creative design choices that might transform a modest home into something impressive and unique.
Sometimes I learn touching things about the person who lived in that house. I might, for instance, conclude from the makeup for sale in the master bath that the departed was a woman. And that makes me wonder, when I go into the master closet, to see the estate sale operators are also offering men’s clothes. I wonder whether a widow held onto her late husband’s things because it gave her comfort to see them there every time she entered her closet. Or did she simply have a boyfriend who never bothered to pick up his stuff after she passed on. Either way, it interests me.
Of course, the area of people’s lives that I most enjoy picking over are their books. Occasionally, I come across a home that contains absolutely no books. It’s always possible that they were pre-sold, but if there are also no bookcases, and no spaces for bookcases that were sold, it’s a good bet that the person who owned that house never read. That both shocks and saddens me. I know we’re all different, but I simply can’t grasp what a life without books would be like.
Sometimes their books even hide their secrets. Once I attended an estate sale in a grand home with a library that contained beautifully crafted cherry wall-unit bookcases. Those bookcases held an assortment of mostly high-minded tomes. But stuffed into a giant storage closet, to the point of exploding, were easily over a thousand paperback romance novels. Had she gone to her grave keeping her secret? I wondered. Or had her friends happened onto her guilty pleasure?
While it saddened me that she felt she had to keep that secret, I really enjoyed making that discovery! What can I say? My people watching might benefit my writing and character-creation, even when I’m reaching into the Beyond. But the truth is, discovering that woman’s guilty pleasure is my guilty pleasure.
What about you? Writers and readers, where do you do your best people watching? Is your guilty pleasure as much fun as mine?