[Abby's Road] People watching: Music tells the story

I spend approximately ten hours a week underground – about two hours, daily, traveling in a sea of humans on a train. I’ve collected some interesting items on my journeys: a rhinovirus or six, indelible perspiration marks on the fabric of a favorite shift, wads of gum on the soles of my shoes and fascinating memories of folks who have no idea who I am. The unknowing players in a living cinema I watch every morning and evening while traversing the belly of Washington, DC are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, and always out of my control…aside from their soundtrack.

I have always been a keen observer of whatever inhabits the space within my periphery. I get it honestly. I can recall sitting in the backseat of our family Volkswagen as a child as it hummed to a stop at a traffic light, my parents smiling and chirping about a stranger negotiating the crosswalk in front of the van. A stranger whose arms and legs happened to be moving to the exact beat of the music exiting our console radio as if they were hearing the same sounds. This was entertaining to my parents. It is entertaining. They never complained about visiting the seedy boardwalk while vacationing at the seaside every summer. My sister and I had an opportunity to kick some arcade Skee-Ball ass while my parents were perfectly content to sit on a bench for hours just watching the other tourists stroll by. To this day, People Watching is one of my favorite pastimes. Closely followed by Skee-Ball, of course.

My mornings do not begin with music. Actually, the screams of NPR-via-alarm clock are the first sounds ingested, shortly followed by the cooing of a cat as I empty and refresh her water bowl. I ready myself for work in silence, taking time to sort out my agenda for the day. Not until I am approaching the train station and have a sense of my mood is a record selected (rarely do I utilize the shuffle function) and headphones placed over my ears. It is at this point when, without much thought, I start to focus on specific individuals – people who catch my eye for one reason or another – their behaviors ranging from panhandling and preaching to knocking elderly tourists down in a fat, sweaty scramble (to get to a stuffy office on time, I imagine). My perceptions of these souls and my emotional responses to their actions depend upon the music in my head when I am observing them. The curious part is that although I see many of the same characters everyday, my reactions to them change in much the same way they would were I actually interacting with them. The music tells their story, in my selfish head, anyway.

There is a human/canine duo I’ve observed on more than one occasion. Said human weaves through my departure station in a wheelchair, wears a cowboy hat and grasps a leash, at the end of which lumbers a giant, vanilla-colored retriever. I’m not sure who guides who in this situation. It changes – my interpretation of the leader and the led, that is. At different instances in times past I’ve found myself being elated, blindingly depressed as well as completely unaffected at the sight of these two, all depending upon the tone and timbre of the music playing when I see them moving through the crowd. The last time I was compelled to pay them attention (very recently) I was left feeling inspired, imagining them on their way to a dog-friendly workplace; a pair of crime fighters off to better the community as we know it, or at least this is what “Outer Accelerator” by Stereolab led me to believe. Inanimate objects, too – bits of trash, mostly – can have gilded attributes on my commute. An orphaned silver snack chip bag entwined in the swaying branches of a tree, something I would otherwise snort at in disgust, can take on a lyrical beauty when backed by the sounds of GY!BE. Watching the pattern of the tunnel lights and how they relate to the rhythm of a drum machine can be fascinating; the same way patterns can be found in the randomness of a monochromatic shag carpet if one stares at it long enough.

Perhaps it is cowardice on my part to not actually approach the people I see everyday and ask with genuine intrigue where they are headed or, more realistically, at least take my headphones off to offer them a jaunty “good morning” or “good evening.” At this time I prefer to rely on my imagination to tell their tale. Music has a beautiful way of breathing life into the unknown world around us, even if it is a bit deceptive.

Happy weekend.

[Abby’s Road is a Knox Road feature published every other Friday.]

2 comments to [Abby’s Road] People watching: Music tells the story

  • I love this. I do the exact same thing with my wife – we could be your parents from the front seat. Although ours can tend to get a little devious when it gets to naming these players and creating back story for our little vignettes.

    Although music isn’t always specifically playing the major part, it is always there if only tuned down in order to ensure the narrator of what we see in front of us gets first billing. 😉


    p.s. I don’t know what soundtrack the guy we called “Tin Tin” due to his smaller stature and penchant for an upturn in the front of his golden locks would be…

    Abby Reply:

    your mentioning tintin nearly made me fall out of my chair on easter sunday when i read it. nice work. in abbytown, he clearly walks the streets to the sounds of edith piaf, though a purist might say the dewaele brothers. cheers!