“Watch the eyes. You can always tell by the eyes.”
I stood in the ladies underwear department at Walmart, staring at the haphazardly organized selection in front of me and trying my best to keep a straight face.
I’d just been mistaken for a secret agent.
It’s not unusual for people to assume I’m something other than a customer. I’ve yet to figure out what does it, but for some reason or another I regularly have other shoppers come up to me while I’m browsing and begin to ask where the kitchen department, or the escalator, or the bathroom, or whatever, is located. They usually get about half-way through their inquiry before the surprised look on my face registers, at which point they will trail off mid-sentence and finish with, “Oh. You don’t work here, do you?”
So yeah. I’m used to that. But this was the first time I’d been mistaken for a spy.
It began, like I said, in the underwear department. I was minding my own business. And I was pretty much alone. All at once, three rather loud women sporting yoga pants, tee-shirts, and some very interesting hair colors, came into the department knotted communally around one shopping cart. Most likely a mother and two grown daughters, they were already talking noisily as they came up, but upon catching site of a certain special sale they positively erupted into excited chatter. It was made all the more amusing by the fact that they spoke in the characteristic heavy twang of mountain-dwelling southerners. (And no, I’m not prejudiced against southerners. I AM one. But I still think the accent can make certain conversations and situations funnier than they would be otherwise. Maybe I got it from Hollywood stereotypes, but I can’t help it.)
Now. All writers are more or less people-watchers. We just are. It’s how we learn about the world around us so that we can authentically reproduce it on the page. And I am a chronic case. In general, I get just as much (if not more) pleasure out of watching people reacting to to each other and their surrounding as I do from actually interacting with them myself. (When I tried to explain that to an extroverted sibling, she was flabbergasted).
So it’s really no surprise that when a group of excited southern women began exclaiming loudly over a rack of underwear, I immediately found them more interesting than my shopping. But because it is rude to stare (and also because people are almost always more entertaining when they don’t know someone is watching), I continued to act as if I was studying prices and sizes in the perpendicular isle, while listening to the group and watching furtively out of the corner of my eye.
Only trouble was, the mother was facing almost exactly in my direction.
The first time we made eye contact, I quickly looked back at the clothing in front of me and tried to pass it off as random. It seemed to work just fine. The second time, though, she wasn’t convinced.
With my eyes fixed on my “shopping” again, I could still see her in my peripheral vision, studying me suspiciously. Then she took a step closer to her daughters, moving her out of my line of sight, and suddenly dropper her voice to a whisper.
But she was less than ten feet away. And I have very good ears.
“She’s another one o’ them shopper watchers!” I heard her inform the others.
“She is?” came the whispered reply.
“Uh huh.” she said confidently. “Watch the eyes. You can always tell by the eyes.”
Um. Well. Not quite.
She thought I was one of those undercover store employees who walk around pretending to be customers while watching for shop-lifters.
Actually, it’s much worse than that. I don’t confine my attention only to shoppers. I also spend time watching greeters, check-out clerks, mangers, small children, assorted service animals, and the occasional interesting potted plant! And that’s only in Walmart. Turn me loose in the mall and there’s no telling who I’d be surreptitiously observing!
Had I been what she believed, I really posed no danger to her unless she decided to steal something.
Unfortunately for her, when it’s a writer watching you, it doesn’t matter if shop-lifting was the farthest thing from your mind. Do anything, say anything interesting, and you’re STILL in danger of ending up written into a novel.
Or at least a blog post, anyway. 😉
How about you? Do you like to watch other people you encounter in everyday life? Have you ever gotten in an amusing situation because of it? Comment below!