It’s all too easy to get swallowed up in your thoughts—or your phone—as you go from place-to-place in a city like New York. When I travel I sometimes become hyper observant. But that is usually when I’m focused on street signs or landmarks because I’m almost always lost when I travel. At home, it’s very easy to sail by interesting sites and intriguing people. They become background scenery for the main event—a story I’m writing in my head, a grocery list, a business call I have to make…
Sometimes I fight the impulse to go internal and play an observation game. I’m guessing that trained observers, like cops, must do this naturally or, more likely, they train themselves to take in their surroundings in a quick sweeping movement.
My favorite observation game playground is the Union Square Farmer’s Market. All the produce and other products (honey, cheese, eggs, bread jam, cake, fresh herbs and more) must come from the area around the city. This time of the year there are wonderful apples, winter squash, mushrooms, leeks, etc. and in the summer it’s tomatoes, stone fruits, berries and peppers in abundance. I shop there once or twice a week. (It operates on Mondays, Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays.) And I bring my coffee grounds and produce scraps to the composting station on the edge of the market.
It’s a great place to people watch. It’s crowded with locals, tourists, business people, NYU students, families, school groups and the occasional local reporter or photography class.
When I’m playing the game, I make myself look at faces and come up with quick one or two sentence descriptions. There’s plenty of time to do that when there’s a crowd buying fresh pasta from my favorite egg vendor or when competing farmers are giving away samples of peaches.
Why is the farmer’s market better than the park around it or the street? Because everyone is focused on comparing the prices of Jersey blueberries at adjacent stands, getting tastes of goat cheese, lining up a perfect photo of pumpkins or trying to get back to the office in a hurry. They aren’t looking back so I can look a little bit longer, think a little bit harder and then try to capture them in a quick sentence.
Do the faces wind up in my stories? Not often, but the exercise of creating quick descriptions is useful and that does show up in my fiction. I’m inviting you to play my game and, perhaps, share a writer game of your own.