Saturday, December 16, 2006

the sounds of other people's thoughts

We went shopping after our dinner in the Italian restaurant. We'd had an ounce of wine each (the house wine, complimentary). Neither of us had been to the mall in a while. I only wanted the mall for its bookstore. Nothing else is entirely worthwhile.

A little girl with impossibly curly light brown hair stood in the doorway of a clothing store, mouthing an urgent plea almost voicelessly: "Mommy, Mommy, I want my Mom." No one seemed to notice her. I stopped, studying her, and inclined my head in her direction, not stooping, anymore than I'd kneel to hear a short adult better; I always hated it when adults did that to me.

"Have you lost your Mom?"

She pointed past me, a quirky smile on her face and her eyes trained on someone behind me. I followed her gaze to a young bespectacled woman examining jewelry at a kiosk. The woman had seen us and had an embarrassed smile on her face. She spoke in a low, firm voice I recognize all too well.

"Madison, come over here right now."

"Can't," the girl said confidently, pointing one toe in delicately, hands behind her back. "There are all these people in the way."

My husband laughed, and we moved on, leaving them to it.

Being in a bookstore is a luxury for me. Always has been. The smell of printers' ink on new pages. You can hear the whispers of someone else's thoughts when a thumb turns a page: an audible rustle, a readjustment of thought. Ideas make noise. A shuffling noise; they must be listened for.

They soothe me.

I bought a 2007 day planner at the bookstore -- the kind with a full page for each day, only I have no use for the times printed faintly in the left hand margin (8:00, 9:00, 10:00....).

I want to get back to writing the kind of journal I wrote in college -- one observation a day, a page of descriptive writing -- one page only -- about one single event seen or experienced on that particular date in time. Not a diary, not He-said-this and I-did-that or even I-dreamed-I-could-fly; but instead, only glimpses of a passing view.

Two old men coughing into their steaming coffee at a back table in the diner. A white-haired crossing guard flinging her arms out in traffic, the crimson heart-shaped smear of lipstick across her mouth the bravest thing about her. That kind of writing.

Because people-watching is one of my favorite things. It makes me love them -- how they keep going and trying and doing. Even though they're scarred, or over-armored, and full of fear.

A coffee-table book of San Francisco: Aerial Views of the City by the Bay pulled me nearer. I had to pick it up and leaf through it, even though it filled me with a seeping kind of sadness, the kind of liquid sorrow that keeps filtering through like blood from a hasty scratch. All those pastel rowhouses. The Transamerica pyramid. I know it all too well.

I closed the book with a firm snap: what need have I of this? I was there. I can Google Map the 1700 block of Jackson Street any time I want and see it for myself.

I bought the day planner. The clerk behind the counter had olive green sort of cat-eye glasses that were popular back when my sister and I were little girls. "Find everything you needed?" she asked without looking up. "Yes," I said, waiting for her to make eye contact with me, but she never did. Eyes averted, head down, like a commuter in a crowd struggling to get somewhere else. It made me sorry for her. I can't explain why.