The first time I remember thinking how much I enjoyed just sitting and watching people was one cool summer night as my date (now my wife) and I sat near the entrance to Old Coney in Cincinnati where they had that garden of colorful bubble tubes.
We planted ourselves after dark on one of those old park benches just up from the railings around Lake Como. There we discovered how much fun it was to just watch the constant parade of people.
They came in all shapes and sizes. There were lovers, youngsters, moms and dads, grandparents and teens all walking to and fro, engaged in snippets of conversations overheard in out-of-context paragraphs as they passed by.
We guessed at people’s ages. We guessed at their relationships. We guessed at their moods. We held hands, spent less money and enjoyed the moment for what it was. Times were much simpler then, it seemed, and Old Coney was just the place to reach that conclusion.
Across the way was Sunlight pool. I’d seen old black-and-white photos of my mom and my aunts as teenagers themselves, cigarettes in hand, posing in their bathing suits on the edge of the water. I’d seen photos of my dad, skinny and boney looking, making muscles of sorts with his buddies in the 1940s against the backdrop of sunbathers and swimmers.
Down the way at Old Coney was the Moonlight Pavilion. It seemed to me that after dark that I could hear the faint echoes of Glenn Miller playing and hear the giggles of thin-waisted girls in long dresses tittering over a soldier boy in uniform who looked as if he was about to ask one of them to dance.
I could imagine the thrill of hearing the calliope playing as the Island Queen made its way up the river from the Ludlow landing on a hot summer day to deliver another throng of people to the shady picnic grove along the river bank, where baskets of chicken and deviled eggs sat next to checkered tablecloths and kids played while men in short-sleeved plaid shirts sat and watched the lazy river flow by.
Sitting there with my bride to be, watching people and imagining all the thousands who had run their cotton-candied hands along the rails at “The Whip” or the “Cuddle Up,” thinking about all the stolen kisses surreptitiously acquired in the “Tunnel of Love,” smelling the popcorn and hearing the screams of excitement that accompanied the roar of a roller coaster rushing by somewhere just out of sight, our evening was complete just being together enjoying all the images of others enjoying themselves.
Over the years, we still take time to sit and watch people. Sometimes, on date night, we arrive at the movie theater a bit early just to sit and watch the crowd arrive. We delight in seeing young people like we used to be showing very tentative affection, and we guess at whether they are on a first date.
We watch grandparents smile as they enter with a small tribe of children, prepared to treat them to an evening at the movies only to look more like someone trying to herd cats than a pied piper.
We love to see devoted parents and loving children who stay together, act respectfully, buy at the concession stand within reason and exude a sense of family.
We shake our heads at boisterous teens wearing outrageous clothes, some far too provocative for their age, some far too disrespectful of themselves, and wonder what kind of adult they will become.
After 40-plus years we still enjoy sitting quietly, holding hands and watching people. And every time we do I look down at the back of my hand and see my father’s hand as I used to see it in church on Sundays. I remember tracing the veins with my finger, staring at the wrinkles and comparing the size of his to mine.
And every time I do this, I am taken back to those cool summer nights at Old Coney, where the hand I was using to hold that of my love’s was younger, smoother, with far fewer miles on it.
Yes, we still enjoy watching people, but the person I like to see more than any other is that beautiful young girl that said yes she’d marry me so many years ago, sitting right next to me, holding my hand, content to do nothing more in a few quiet minutes before dark.
So if you walk by a couple sitting on a bench, holding hands, think for a minute that it might just be my bride and me, watching you, wondering about your life and secretly wishing you the same contentment we have shared for so long.
And though you might be moving on as you pass us by and give us only a glimpse in that fleeting moment of people watching yourself, think: You’ve just seen a connection with a wonderful past as we look back at you and nod and smile.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.