I’m kind of a city person, for a number of reasons. ( I used the term "city person" pretty lightly. I'm not street smart. I haven't been to that many big cities. I'd probably get lost, stolen from, stepped on, and otherwise abused on a subway. I have no sense of direction. I just like cities.) 1. I like food. I mean, I really like it. This Sunday, I ate some chocolate – covered – pretzel stuffed pancakes with caramel sauce on top and, as of 10 AM on Wednesday, that first bite moment is still the highlight of my week. 2. I like to look at things. Cities are stuffed blue in the face with novelties – old skyscrapers, street art, cobblestone roads. When I walk around, I do a lot of almost running into things because I'm so busy trying to take it all in. 3. I like to walk. I appreciate the fact a lot of big cities are set up in a way that lets me walk wherever I want to go, or walk just for the sake of walking and stumble across food or novel things in the meantime.
The city of Grand Rapids satisfies all of those desires nicely. I’ve eaten cookie dough cheesecake and turkey quinoa salad and sweet potato sushi and barbecue quesadillas and feta cheese bread and a jalapeno popper omelet and banana bread French toast; I’ve had espresso in various forms at The Lantern, The Bitter End, Madcap, Local Mocha, Go Java, and the local Starbucks and Biggby franchises. I’ve seen a 10-foot-tall blue giraffe and walked through an elevated tunnel that crosses several blocks and wandered through what used to be the grand early 20th century Pantlind Hotel and tried to act cooler than I am at the Grand Rapids Art Museum and geeked out at the marble-columned public library and pretended to have a deep understanding of hockey at a Griffins game and walked the river and taken photos on the lit-up blue people bridge at night and by the Pearl Street Bridge mural of the fish jumping out of the water. I’ve probably walked at least fifty miles. I don’t know. That’s a very rough estimate, based on no actual data.
I like all of those things about cities, and that list of experiences should make it hard to choose just one location to recommend. Except it’s not. I like food and novelties and walking, but I absolutely love people watching. And the best people-watching I’ve found so far has been on a bench in Rosa Parks circle.
Some tips, if you’re looking to have the same results that I did:
1. | Go alone. Chances are that if you bring a friend or two to people watch with you, a) your well-meaning friend will distract you from your task or b) someone will tell a joke or trip on a sidewalk crack the two of you will become a spectacle, thus becoming the watched rather than the watchers. When people watching, it’s of utmost important that you remain unobserved, a meticulously camouflaged stock character reading the newspaper or drinking a coffee.
2. |That being said, be safe. Don’t go people watching by yourself and follow voices into an abandoned building. Don’t go people watching by yourself in an unfamiliar area late at night. Don’t go people watching by yourself in a stranger’s car. As interesting as all of those experiences would almost definitely be, I can’t recommend any of them in good conscious.
3. | That being said, keep an open mind. Strangers aren’t inherently dangerous. Not every person dressed in old clothes is going to approach you and ask for money. And not everyone who asks for money is going to use it to buy drugs. (And even if they do – I can’t help but wonder – so what?) Assume the best – be smart – but assume the best.
If you find the right park bench in Rosa Parks Circle, you can sit comfortably with enough room for your backpack on one side and another person on the other. (Another reason to go alone: your backpack needs somewhere to sit. The other person needs somewhere to sit. Rosa Parks Circle benches are 3-person benches, so it works.)
If you’re around on a cloudless, almost - fall day, you chance a meeting with the peacekeeper of Rosa Parks Circle. He’s not the police, but he says they’re tight. When I met him, he was monochromatic in black boots, jeans, and band t-shirt. His face is blurry now – I know that he definitely had a constellation of facial piercings and his hair was longish. I vaguely recall tattoos, but that could very well be my mind completing a stereotype to make him fit into my understanding of the world better. He was fresh from his most recent peace-keeping mission – he’d broken up a fight the night before, held things under control until the police showed up.
“People know not to mess with me.”
Which easily could have been seen as a threat, but I continued eating my turkey sub and let him continue talking. He had plans to go pick up his wages from his employer later that day, and I told him about how I was killing time waiting for the bus to Holland. He likes movies – he listed off a dozen that day that I’ve still never heard of other than from him. If you meet him, he’s good for a recommendation about anything that’s showing at the time.
As we talke, conversation stalled a couple times - I didn't feel obligated to turn it over again, but chewed through the pauses. His boss is a good guy, he told me. They eat dinner together sometimes - they were planning to later that night. I wish I could remember more of the conversation.
I stood up to go catch my bus – and I admit, I left earlier than I needed to because I was sick of how uncomfortable the encounter made me. He told me that I was beautiful, and I said “thanks” and “have a good day.” I walked towards Monroe; he didn’t follow, although the paranoid part of my brain wouldn’t have been surprised.
I’d recommend the bench in Rosa Parks circle. Some tips, if you’re looking to have better results than I did:
1. | Introduce yourself like they teach you to in interviews when you meet someone for the first time. Look him or her in the eye, give your name and ask for theirs, shake hands. Treat whoever asks to sit down like they matter without looking first, because they do and looking isn’t the most useful way of gathering information, anyway.
2. | Offer your extra apple – not like you would to someone who you’re sorry for, but like you would to a friend. Just casual, ya know?
3. | Stay until the bus comes. Ask for more stories, and then nod and listen. Make eye contact – again, even if you keep getting distracted by the piercings or you’d rather just not. Glean as much vicarious human experience as you can and pour out dignified personal interaction.
It’d probably be helpful if I could remember the exact bench – your best bet is to keep trying them until you find one that works. I’m sure it depends on the day and the season and other factors like that. Also, I wouldn’t be mad if you updated me on how it goes.