my francophile friend used to tell me that everyone in france talks about everyone else. at cafes and bars, it’s just gossip. so it’s not that different from america - gossip is universal. but americans are easily spotted in france. while everyone sitting on sidewalks and in restaurants talk about those passing by, they never move, they never stare. they sit absolutely still, listen to their friend’s confession, and wait for the perfect moment for the object of their interest to pass by, to spy he or she of whom they speak. americans just jump out of their seats, craning their necks to stare at some passerby, to glare at bad taste or ogle some hot piece.
i generally find it not to be a bad omen when i arrive somewhere and all the faces turn to me to stare. you’ve seen this scene in the movies if you haven’t experienced the sensation firsthand. needless to say, it’s not comfortable. it’s distinctly uncomfortable, liable to occur for several reasons, such as when wearing something scandalous or radical (a time at which staring is often not warranted,) or when having something awkward hanging from the body such as snot from the nose or toilet paper from the pants, or when having committed heinous acts such as war crimes or the spreading of gossip.
the other day, i will admit that a bit of staring may have been warranted. i have found myself a bit lazy this weekend, unable to convince myself to clean up, to take care of myself, to give myself a good once over before i step out of the house. the other morning, john and i went over to the overlook restaurant for breakfast. not until i stepped out of the car and caught a glimpse of my reflection in the car window did i realize how distressed and possibly distressing i looked: disheveled in the day before’s clothing, bags under my half-lidded eyes still heavy with caffeine withdraw, my hair sticking up in varied and awkward directions as if i spiked my hair with gel in 1992 and never corrected it. the looks then that i received from the other patrons in the restaurant were warranted, and if not warmly received, then at least accepted.
john and i ordered coffee. “and a light beer. miller light?” i said two please. the server looked us over, considered the hour, but complied without too much judgment in the end.
the other evening i stepped into monsoon, that thai restaurant on n. mississippi avenue, to pick up take-out john and i had ordered for dinner. i saw a friend in a booth toward the back of the restaurant. he sat with another man i did not recognize, so thinking they might be engaged on a date and not wanting to be disturbed, i waved to my friend and stepped to the counter to pay for my food. i did not stop to chat. waiting for the restaurant to finish preparing my food, i looked back around the restaurant. my friend and his dining partner stared at me. i turned back around, shifted, fidgeted under the weight of their eyes on the back of my neck. another peek behind me and they still stare, talking hushedly. they get up and leave, but their gaze targets me as they walk past the windows away from the restaurant.
certainly they must have noted my facial expression, a complex mix of incredulity and anger. what on earth were they staring at?
they may sometimes call me little bear, but i am not the dancing bear in the circus. i generally do not command a crowd’s attention. and though i had not been in contact with this friend for a long while, i had no idea there existed any bad blood between us.
times like this i think i must be clueless, that i must not have any idea what people think of me at all, that i have covertly affected some gossip to which i am ignorant. or that my initial ‘c’ stands not only as a metonym for me, but as a scarlet letter for crazy as well. keep a wide breadth around him. his crazy catches.
“guilty! guilty! guilty! guilty! call me!” my friend owen used to compare our friends to the quintessons, the face-faced judge from the transformers. judgmental? i really do not consider myself so, at least not anymore. but if i am guilty, then i’d like to know the charge. like josef k, their stares arrest me for an unknown crime, and i’m tried in their gaze. what did i do wrong? this time. what did i do wrong now? i’m at a loss.