NOT THAT I'M trying to condone the practice, but street-watching is one of those habits like adultery or graft: easy to fall into and hard to shake.
I've been guilty of it myself -- streetwatching, I mean -- for almost a year. It started innocently enough (these things always do) in the course of writing a book, which is like a prolonged and debilitating illness; and what does one do during such periods of confinement but stare out the window?
My observation post, or box seat, is in a building off Dupont Circle, a corner room with French windows framing the uninspiring spectacle of urban traffic: preoccupied pedestrians, solemn joggers, irritable automobiles, defiant bicyclists, impatient dogs, out-of-place children and, in the illuminated windows of the office buildings, the nine-to-five pantomime of white collar whimsy: puppets shuffling papers, answering phones, sharpening pencils, typing letters and, once in a while -- it can happen to anyone -- watching the street.
It's a commonplace view, and endemic to the big city, but under the unflinching gaze of idle eyes, the sequence takes on a certain "Rear Window" aspect, though produced not by Hitchcock but by Candid Camera.
My addiction is traceable to a certain intersection visible from where I sit, a street crossing imbued with a Bermuda Triangle air of mishap. Black magic was at work there, the fatal alchemy of a sudden one-way street and a stop sign observed mostly in the breach.
What struck me at first was the way cars at that intersection seemed bent on knocking down blind pedestrians feeling their way across the street.
Then I saw it wasn't just the blind who were in danger; anyone who crossed there was teasing fate. It brought home what S.J. Perelman said about the pedestrians in Teheran: that there are only two kinds, the quick and the dead.
After a while it emerged that the curse was random and inescapable, claiming pedestrians and automobiles alike. The cars would meet each other head-on, a hood-to-hood confrontation that captured the spirit of traffic encounters: curses, threats, obscenities, shaking fists, middle fingers.
There it was, the great inner-city game of chicken, with all its banal brinkmanship and low adventure. "Mean as junkyard dogs," as one cabbie sadly observed.
Witnessing such serial brushes with death produces a certain philosophical slant usually attributed to statisticians and undertakers. It's a troubling tilt in perspective, and I was much relieved when I looked out the window last month and saw the curtains coming down on this morbid little mis-en-scene.
As though to corroborate my darkest superstitions, a team of workers was spray-painting thick lines across the intersection --cent witches' hats.
Gone is the debased drama, gone the scream of brakes, the clash of metal, the stuff of black comedy. Accidents have begun to regain some shock effect.
Speaking of shock effects, this city is palpably lacking in shock absorbers. In an essay on New York City, E. B. White said, ". . . New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a 1,000-foot liner out of the East or a 20,000-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants, so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul. In most metropolises, small and large, the choice is often not with the individual at all. He is thrown to the Lions. The Lions are overwhelming; the event is unavoidable."
We Washingtonians don't have much choice when it comes to being thrown to the Lions. Or the Christians. Or the Sikhs. Or the Shriners.
In this city, everything that happens receives full disclosure -- not just through the efforts of a loudmouth media, but because such is the fate of a parish. It is full of unavoidable events.
During the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty, for example, everywhere you turned diplomatic cars were bullying their way through traffic. You can tell which conventions are in town just by looking out the window: the Shriners in full regalia; the area reps from Iowa with their crewcuts and blazers (all looking for a bar that's open on Sunday); the deaf chatting away in sign language.
When the shah is in town, we receive announcements courtesy of the Iranian student body who celebrate the occasion in public with mask and megaphone. The Hanafis launch an attack and we are all under siege. Last month, when tear gas canisters exploded in the Municipal Center, I wouldn't have been surprised if the fumes had crept along toward Dupont Circle.
We who live in this city get to enjoy all the fringe benefits, like it or not. Take the police. They are everywhere, dubious symbols of security and status, reminding us that ours is the most thoroughly policed city in the nation.
The remarkable thing about our police, however, is not their omnipresence but their style. They go about their business on the streets with measured and unhurried step, as though recovering from large indigestible meals.
The style is not without merit for us fear-crazed city people with crime on our minds. It is the sedative that goes along with the bitter pill.
Recently, there was a robbery in one of the neighborhood stores. The patrol cars arrived with blinking lights and sudden burps of the siren. Watching the policemen issue from their cars to approach, leisurely, the scene of the crime, it was hard to believe that anything serious was afoot. Perhaps it wasn't; perhaps it had been a false alarm, a practical joke.
In any event, the officers ambled about, held small caucuses, nuzzled their walkie-talkies and finally, in twos and threes, went strolling down the street. They were either taking the air or looking for the thief.
The rhythms of this city are easy to pick up, despite the syncopations. The rush hours, for instance, are always a half-beat off. This is caused by the collective behavior of downtown diners all trying to take early lunches.
The notion is to beat the gallimaufry clogging the restaurants, to avoid the breadlines outside the cafes. The result is that the crush and the breadlines simply begin a little earlier.
Fortified by the delusion that he has saved time, the Washington cadre then returns to work for a few hours and quits earlier than most of his counterparts in other metropolitan areas.
This is justified by the long commute home, and because he is van pooling (which, someone once explained, is not a Dutch diplomat).
The trouble with street-watching is that it can become, for long stretches, an occupation of diminishing rewards as the reels roll by in slow motion.
For hours on end the watcher scans the street, and it's the same old proletarian parade: dogwalkers, double-parked cars and the mechanical to-and-fro of the masses. It makes you want to cry, like Matthew Arnold, "We have no drama at all."
One evening, I saw a young woman lurching toward the Dupont Circle subway station, frantic, bedraggled, and awash with tears. "Mark, stop!" she screamed after a figure darting through the crowds.
Mark, meanwhile, was beating a nimble retreat, bounding down the subway escalator three and four steps at a time in the rain, and leaving the woman draped precariously in Rosicrucian pose over the cement balustrade, to tempt a fate worse than Anna Karenina's. Eventually, having thought things over, she disappeared into the rush hour crowd.
Incidents like these are sharp needles that prick the street watcher's conscience because they mark the moment of truth when the transition is made from voyeur to gawker.
It's a shameful epiphany, revealing the watcher in his grubbiest colors: blood-thirsty, crisis-hungry, at best eager for a giggle at someone else's expense.
A despicable trait, but there it is: the more one sits and stares, unobserved, the keener the craving for the custard-pie finale, the sharper the bloodhound instincts: A shootout? An armed robbery? A crime of passion? Murder? Arson? Exhibitionism?
The possibilities are endless. And merciless.
But in the end it is not the sensational alone that feeds the streetwatcher's appetite; it is the comfort of small vignettes all reaffirming the common human afflictions --vanity, suspicion, boredom.
Across the street, one side of an office building is lined with reflective Mylar. It reveals this truth: that there is nothing that so captures the interest of a pedestrian as a reflection of himself. Fat or thin, large of small, handsome or homely, how he perks up at the sudden glimpse of himself, all curiosity and alertness! The stomach is sucked in, the shoulders straightened, the hair fondled, before he strikes a last parting pose: say "cheese."
If vanity is epidemic, so is suspicion and wariness. Notice, for example, how people shrink back, as though from bad news or bad breath, when stopped by a stranger for directions. (Once cornered, however, they proceed to give elaborate and useless directions rather than admit ignorance. John Steinbeck once said that there are people who will kick their mothers in the stomach, yet cheerfully take time to give directions -- and usually wrong ones -- to a stranger. But that's another story.)
Finally, to illustrate boredom, I offer this scene: Two panhandlers approach a spruce but elderly and frail woman. She tries to ignore them at first but, becoming nervous, breaks into a skittish run.
This amuses the panhandlers; now they want only to tease the old woman, never mind the quarter for a cup of coffee. So they dance small jigs around her, playfully scaring the wits out of her for about a block.
Then they return to their original posts, the fun over, with nothing to do but wait and share a cigarette. This is followed -- I am guessing -- by a discussion of some aspect of health, because one of them leans over to inspect the yes of the other, pulling the lower lids down like a conscientious opthalmologist. Having proferred his diagnosis, he takes his turn on the cigarette.
Then, given the dearth of entertainment, he begins to pick, lovingly and lingeringly, his nose.
Today, the streets are weighted down with heavy snow still falling in thick flakes from a filthy sky. Already, snow-starved city children are gathering up handfuls of stained ice and packing them into gray snowballs. The missiles plop in the slush.
Across the street, a chunk of ice parts company with the crust on an awning and shatters on the head of a passerby, who staggers a little from the blow but marches on, a soldier caught in a winter campaign.
An overeager dog slips on the ice and, overcome with embarrassment, then salutes the fire hydrant.
Crossing the street at a brisk pace is a midget. When he gets to his parked car, he finds a pink slip fluttering on the windshield. Gently lifting the wiper, he removes the ticket and studies it with prolonged interest, hoping perhaps to discover a mistake in his favor.
Then, sadly, he shakes his head.
Even from here, behind the frosted window, I know how he feels.