Episodes in People Watching

How do we teach our kids to be wary of their surroundings?

An illustration of a girl peering through a mass of walkers' legs

Celia Jacobs

Standing at the counter at the public swimming pool, I waited to buy a family punch pass and watched my son watch the man watching my daughter. The kids were ten feet behind me, playing in the tile foyer by the front doors. Meilo rocketed his Transformer through the air while Dahlia tried to pick a penny off the floor. At almost two years old, Dahlia had the toddling charm that comes with chubby legs and a shifting center of gravity; it always seemed she might tip over at any moment. She hopped her sandaled feet on either side of the penny, lowered her diapered bottom into a squat, and tried to pry the coin from the floor. When she only managed to slide it around, it prompted her to do another round of hopping, accented with bursts of giggling. Her hair hung in a veil around her face, so even if she’d looked up, it was unlikely that she would have noticed the man watching her. But I saw him. And I saw my son see him. 

The man appeared to be in his early eighties and moved with the stiff intention of someone who had been warned more than once about the risks of breaking a hip. He approached Dahlia and stood within a few feet of her, smiling while she hopped and squealed. I took mental notes: he didn’t kneel down, reach out a hand, talk to her, or try to draw her attention. But he towered at almost six feet tall, which made her look like she might fit in his pocket. I triangulated the distances between the man, Dahlia, and me and felt confident that he’d never get her out of my sight before I could tackle him. When I handed the pool receptionist my debit card to pay for the punch pass, I kept my body facing the children. 

Meilo stopped playing and stared at the man in the unselfconscious way children do when they think no one can see them. He called his sister’s name in a loud whisper and sounded like a reluctant movie hero trying to warn the innocent without revealing his hiding place. At five years old, Meilo was the big kid of the house and was often frustrated by his baby-sister-turned-toddler because she never did what he said. This time, instead of ignoring her when she didn’t answer, he took action. He pushed his Transformer into his pocket, crossed the few feet to where Dahlia was, reached down and took her by the shoulder, and told her to stand up. Maybe she sensed that something important was happening or maybe she’d lost interest in the penny, because she didn’t fuss when she got to her feet. Meilo wrapped his arms around her, crossing his hands in front of her chest. He didn’t take his eyes off the man. Without speaking any words his message was clear: “She’s with me.” In the few moments that Dahlia consented to stand still in her brother’s embrace, the spell was broken; the man walked over to a woman, who looked about his age, and the couple left the building together. Only then did Meilo unclasp his grasp and let Dahlia return to her work on the floor. Before reaching for his Transformer and going back to his game, Meilo shot me a bitter look that seemed to say, “Where were you in all this?” I smiled. I wanted to tell him what a good job he’d done, how proud I was, how important it is to trust your instincts. But I figured there would be time for that later—after swimming, after dinner and bath time, after the edge of the day had softened.

Stefan and I had decided to raise our kids in a small town, the kind of place where we’d run into friends at the farmer’s market. So we carved out a life in a community that was similar in pace to the small German village where he’d grown up and that was the opposite of the taut urgency of New York City. We had things here that I’d never had growing up as a kid—things like neighbors who appeared unannounced in the garage to borrow ladders, a postal carrier who exchanged pie recipes while standing in front of the mailboxes in the cul-de-sac, and strangers who greeted each other on the bus. For me, moving to a small town meant learning a new set of survival skills, ones that were more about cordiality and openness and less about mistrust and boundaries. Here, I didn’t need to put on my “New York face,” a virtual mask that told people to get out of my way or else. Instead, I waved courteously at drivers who stopped at pedestrian crosswalks and made eye contact with coffee-shop waitresses. I waited patiently when people unloaded a full shopping cart of groceries in the line reserved for twelve items or fewer, and I didn’t cop an attitude when the receptionist at the pool couldn’t figure out how to ring up the sale for my family punch pass. But regardless of how tame our town seemed, I still wanted my kids to have some street smarts. I wanted to prepare them for potential dangers—obvious and hidden—that, as I was raised to believe, exist everywhere. I didn’t want to scare them into thinking that they always need to be on guard; I just wanted them to understand that things are not always as they seem. At the very least, I thought they should know how to people watch.


When I was eight years old, my father and I watched a man in a brown leather club chair. We were in the lobby of the Statler Hotel, sitting in club chairs of our own. These weren’t our usual seats, but we still had a good view of the reception desk. After he’d lit a first cigarette, my father nodded in the direction of the man across the room from us. We’d seen this man here before. He drummed his fingers on a copy of the New York Post folded on his lap, but never looked down at the headlines. He wore solid brown wing tips and a blue business suit. He had no tie clip or cuff links. I didn’t notice a wedding ring or other jewelry. The man in the club chair was so inconspicuous that he stood out, but only if you happened to be spying on him. He could have been anyone—a bookie, a billionaire, an amnesiac, a thief—I couldn’t begin to guess.

“What do you think he does for a living?” my father asked, gesturing with his cigarette in hand. “I’ll give you a hint; he works for the hotel.” 

I could have gone through a roster of jobs—chef, bellman, concierge, janitor—but I couldn’t explain why any of these people would be in business attire and stationed in the lobby. Then my father gave me another clue, “Check his ankles.” The game was now in high gear. My father bowed his head as he flicked ash into the ashtray, and while I couldn’t see his face, I knew he was concealing a smile.

The time I spent with my father in the lobby of the Statler Hotel was like so much other time we spent together. We watched people on subway platforms and park benches, in stores and in line at the deli. We watched them to learn a part of their story, the part that would intersect with our lives, if only for a split second, as we passed them on the street or maneuvered for a seat on the bus. We watched them to intuit their intentions and their intensity. But mostly we watched them because my father taught me and my brothers to always be on guard. The twenty or thirty minutes we sat in the Statler, we watched people for practice with nothing at stake. It was people watching in its purest form.

Trips to the Statler were on days when my father picked me up from elementary school. My school stood at a public transportation crossroads in midtown Manhattan. Within a few blocks in any direction you could find a local or express bus or subway to take you anywhere in the five boroughs. The route my father chose depended on three factors—weather, hunger, and time. On nasty days when he’d skipped lunch, we would fight the wind off the Hudson River to take the Seventh Avenue subway, our best chance to get back to the apartment in less than forty minutes. On nice days, when there was time to pick up a pretzel and a cream soda from a vendor along the park and still run errands, we would stroll the few blocks to catch any of the Eighth Avenue local subways. But on days when my father wasn’t in any rush, we would take the M10 bus. The M10 stopped directly in front of the school, which made it convenient to catch, but it was the slowest transportation option home. On those days—when my dad would stop at the bottom of the granite steps of the school and not check his watch, not turn into the wind along the avenue—taking the M10 meant an afternoon with nothing but time on our hands. These were afternoons to be savored; these were the rare times when he had no pressing agenda. Stepping off the bus at the corner of Thirty-Fourth Street, we elbowed our way through a mix of commuters, shoppers, ticket scalpers, and street vendors. Somewhere along the block there was always a crooked game of three-card Monte. But when we stepped off the M10, we wouldn’t stop at the card games to sort the cons from the marks, the lookouts from the bruisers; we’d walk up the few steps that led to the Statler Hotel’s colonnade entrance and find a couple of seats in the lobby.

My father would pull out a pack of cigarettes and survey the lobby. He would point out a stranger—the woman by the newsstand, the man getting a shoeshine—and ask a simple question like “Does she like her job?” or “Did he work hard for a living or inherit all his money from his family?” The point wasn’t to give a right answer, just a well-reasoned one. My father had taught me that the first, best clue was always the shoes—leather soles or rubber, overstretched or well fitted, dyed-to-match or off-the-shelf neutral? Next, I learned to scan for telltale belongings—luggage with locks, pocket rain ponchos, “I Love New York” T-shirts, walking sticks, diamond engagement rings, watch fobs, mismatched socks, and off-season linen. He also showed me how to observe people’s behavior. Who deftly slipped folded bills as a tip? Who fumbled with their wallet? Who forgot the gratuity altogether? It was all information that told a story, and that story (true or not) told us something about the people we were watching. Whether I thought the woman by the newsstand was a dental hygienist in town for a convention or an Iowa farmer on the trail of a runaway child, I had to say why. And if I was sure the man getting his shoes shined was either an eccentric fur merchant or an out-of-work plumber, I had to have a good reason. In the next move in the game, my father would challenge my explanations. Did she really have the hands of a laborer? Did he behave like someone with money to burn? Any dreamer could tell a good story, but only someone with street smarts could back that story up with evidence.

The afternoon my father and I sat in the Statler lobby staring at the man in the leather club chair was an exception to our usual routine; he seemed to have insider information. I looked back at the stranger and tried to make the best of my latest clue—I studied his ankles. His feet were planted hip-width apart on the carpet. The cuffs of his pants draped slightly over the laces of his shoes. He didn’t shift in his seat or cross his legs. His only movements were his drumming fingers and an occasional slow pan of the room. Nothing about his ankles (or any other part of him) brought me closer to knowing what his job was at the hotel. I had no reasonable guess, and said so.

“Do you see how one ankle looks a little thicker than the other?” my father asked. 

I wasn’t sure, but nodded yes. And then my father got up out of his chair and motioned that it was time to go home. We walked right by the man. This was my last chance to uncover something that would unveil his identity. He was clean-shaven. He had dark eyes and short-cropped hair. No jewelry. No disfiguring scars. He was as unassuming up close as at a distance. When we stepped out of the hotel and headed down the block, I demanded to know the answer. What did the man do for a living?

“He’s the undercover security guard,” my father said, matter-of-factly.

“But what about his ankles?” I said. 

“That’s where he’s carrying his gun.”

How could I have missed it? It was so obvious, once I knew. I thought about how he had glanced down at his newspaper, but never opened it. And how he had scanned the lobby, but without the expectant look of waiting for someone. I reeled from the knowledge that I had come in such close range of a man with a gun. It was staggering to think that danger could be so thinly cloaked. I took my father’s hand and matched his step, not wanting to fall behind.

For me trips to the Statler were a game, but for my father it was serious business and had everything to do with who he was and where he’d come from. He had grown up black and poor in Harlem during the Depression. He lived in a tough neighborhood and ran with a tough crowd. His ability to size people up often meant the difference between getting beaten, killed, or off the hook. My brothers and I had an easier time; we lived in tame neighborhoods, attended private schools, and went on family vacations—things my father never had as a kid. For us the point of people watching was more academic than it had been for him growing up. But in his mind it was still primal. “Sugar,” he often said to me, “it’s important to always be on your toes because that’s what gives you an edge.” Even as a child I found his logic easy to follow—if you don’t have the edge, then someone else does.


When I left New York City after college, I downsized my life by degrees—first moving to smaller and smaller cities and then to smaller and smaller towns. Each time I relocated, I got to know my neighborhood by ambling around, taking a new route to the store each day. In New York City, you are most vulnerable on the street, and the pleasure is rarely in “the going” but in “the getting there.” In a small town, I could set out from my apartment without worrying so much about what was outside my door. I got to know my neighbors. I smiled at strangers. The farther I moved away from home and the longer I stayed away, the less convinced I was that my life was better or safer by being constantly on guard. When my father visited me in these towns, he seemed disappointed by the dwarfed skylines and the slow pulse of the streets. He’d shake his head and say, “People here are soft.”

By the time my kids were born, my father was ill with Alzheimer’s and his laser-like view of the world had blurred to a teary focus. He was too sick to tell my kids stories about what it was like when he’d grown up and why it was important to know the rules and tricks of people watching. Sharing those secrets had fallen to me. It was hard to know how much street smarts my kids needed in a place where the city bus runs past fields of pumpkins and piles of mint compost. My children sang and swung their arms when we walked downtown; they waved at people in the library because they thought they looked like people who lived on our street. When I was their age, I had been schooled in keeping a poker face, but I didn’t want them to be that way, or at least, not exactly that way. I thought there was room for trust in their lives, as long as it included trusting their gut instincts. The anonymity of New York City had made it easy to sit and watch people; it was harder in a small town where taut aloofness and close scrutiny made you stand out rather than blend in. So, I adapted my father’s people-watching techniques by asking my kids questions when we were out on errands to encourage them to take notice of their surroundings. I said things like, “Do you think the waitress smiles at all her customers?” or “What yummy meal could we cook with the groceries in that lady’s shopping cart?” It felt like a less ambitious protocol than his, and I often wondered whether it was having any effect. But that day at the pool, I thought some dose of wariness had rubbed off when it seemed that my son had stopped to ask a question of his own: “Why is that man staring at my sister?” He didn’t need to know the answer to realize that just the question had made him uneasy. And he didn’t need to know why he felt uneasy to take action. When he wrapped his arms around Dahlia, I knew that he had noticed what I had, and that, I thought, was something to build on.

If my father had been at the pool, he likely would have thought I was pushing my luck, that I should have called the kids to my side, kept them there, and looked the man up and down as if I were memorizing his details. My father wouldn’t have bought the argument that bad things don’t happen in small towns; I might have tried it, but I wouldn’t have made a convincing case because I didn’t believe it myself. I could imagine the disappointed look he would have given me. It would have been the same one that he used to give me at the Statler Hotel when my explanations were hasty and unsound. I remembered how he would tilt his head back and exhale cigarette smoke before setting his eyes on me, waiting to see if I would recognize my mistakes without his help. Even though he was too ill to question how I was raising the kids, I still rehearsed in my head what I might have said to him, how I might have explained that while my kids may not have the same street smarts he had, they were still growing up safe. But I never had to defend my decisions to him because he never asked. By the time my kids were the age they were at the pool, he no longer recognized them as his grandchildren. 

When I tucked Meilo into bed after swimming and dinner and bath time, I leaned in to kiss him goodnight and caught a faint whiff of chlorine in his hair. He snuggled up with his blanket, sucked his thumb, and turned into my arm, which was curled around his head. His lids, heavy with the day, lowered as his breathing slowed. I thought about how, as a kid, I was a poor sleeper, unable to let go of the constant worry that someone might break into the apartment. I compulsively checked the locks on our front door, testing and retesting the deadbolt. I stayed with Meilo for a few minutes, watching his lashes flutter with the first dreams of the night. Then I eased my arm away, tiptoed out of the room, and left the door open a crack, like I always did, so I could hear the kids call if they needed me. 

“Episodes in People Watching” from Homing Instincts by Dionisia Morales, copyright © 2018. Reprinted with the permission of Oregon State University Press.


Family, Values


2 comments have been posted.

What a fun read.

Amy Pollicino | September 2018 | Coos Bay

Just read this and like it a lot! Glad to know the book is coming out!

Lisa Ede | September 2018 |

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