In the mornings, as I walk from the train to the office, I watch other people in transition: stepping into or out of buildings or the streetcar, squatting with their possessions in doorways, warming their hands with coffee or asking for change or public solitude. I wonder what they looked like when they were younger, whether this life is a surprise or inevitable; what they’ll look like and how they’ll feel when they’re old, if they live to be old; what old might mean; all in swift imaginary scenes like a catalog of sights captured from the corners of my eyes. Sometimes, I try to plant myself in someone’s head to watch me walking by and run the thought experiment in reverse. I get distracted, though, imagining what it’s like to be them and never really see myself.
This morning as I passed the corner diner three blocks from the office, I watched a women, probably in her early 50’s, salty short hair, medium build and wearing a thick wool coat,* step briskly inside and settle alone at the big U-shaped Formica counter. What, outside of hunger, brought her there? She’d moved too decisively for the visit to be random. The food’s pure diner–attentive service, large (formerly “healthy”) portions, but expensive. Maybe for the sexy no-nonsense waitresses? For the two cooks sweating over the grill and talking in rapid-fire Spanish, slinging hot dishes almost as fast as they speak? For the easygoing elbow-to-elbow contact with the other diners hunched over eggs and cakes, eavesdropping or chatting with their neighbors, construction workers and execs finding common ground, couples eating off each other’s plates, a little old scarecrow of a man settling in with his paper and receiving his breakfast without ordering. And suddenly I’ve slipped from one head into the next, sipping my always hot coffee, winking at the waitress who doesn’t acknowledge but accepts the flattery, clearing my sinuses with tobasco steaming off my huevos rancheros. The closer I get to work, the thinner my imaginary connection grows until it snaps at the office door and I’m me again, waving to our friendly receptionist and trying not to stumble down the curving stair to the “lower atrium” and the double-wide I share with a project manager who commutes two days a week from Boise. I try to get to know my coworkers through conversation, but avoid getting into their heads, reserving that kind of intimacy for people I’ll never see again. I don’t want to think, much less say to a coworker, even sympathetically, “Man, I’ve been inside your head and I get you.”
*I had mistyped “wearing a thick wool cat” and almost left it.