You can observe a lot by watching.”

                                                                                               Yogi Berra


Can you size up a person at a glance? What they do? What their passions are? If they’re married? How many siblings?

I was in Tim Hortons coffee shop (Canada’s answer to coffee/donut heaven) last Sunday.


I was tilting back my cardboard “Roll Up The Rim” cup, indiscretely doing my best Gene Simmons (KISS) long tongue-licking attempt at the last whisps of latte foam caffeine, when I noticed two mid-50’s age men at the table beside me. They looked uncomfortable within themselves as well as with each other. Their eyes were averted and mostly cast downwards.

2 strangers at tims

I don’t think these were the 2 guys I saw!

Were they twin brothers? … I didn’t think so. They were about the same age, same short, greyish scruffy short beard, same age-worn dull grey parkas.

There was a dominant/subordinate dynamic between the two…one, the more authoritarian-looking, self-assured dude and the other…there was a hangdog sadness and look of resignation, even soullessness in his eyes. An “I don’t have anything to live for anymore” sinking of the shoulders. It begins to dawn on me…

….well, I’m almost certain … he’s a paroled killer.

I’ve been looking at these guys for less than a minute and I’ve already decided that one is a murderer.

And the storyline grows and deepens: He killed his wife while drunken or drugged and has spent the last 20 years regretting the hurt he’s caused. His own two kids hate him and won’t see him. He’s been released from the penitentiary because he was a model, non-violent inmate who made one unfortunate, huge, life-altering mistake.

And now, here he sits at Tim Hortons for his weekly check-in with his parole officer.

DAMN…I do this all the time!

I see people on the street or in a store and within seconds I think I know their life story.

We may not be aware of it, but we’re all unpublished (well, most of us anyways) authors walking the streets writing stories inside our heads about the world around us. We look at strangers and based on the clothes they’re wearing, the jewelry on their fingers, the shoes on their feet, their posture, the lines on their face, the makeup worn – we immediately become fiction writers and make up a story in our heads.

I’ve watched enough detective TV shows in my life to know that we observe and record information all the time. It’s math and art combined.

To understand someone’s formula takes time. Over years, we gather a reservoir of general behavioral and physical archetypes and then store it in the back of our mind. Patterns begin to form in our head that tell us a collection of things about others.


And much of our world, we learn, is predictable. Pilots and cops and McDonalds workers and WalMart greeters wear their specific uniforms: bankers and brokers and realtors wear stylish higher end fashion: a heavily lined or wrinkled face suggests a difficult life filled with worry: a certain tone of voice suggests deceitfulness or acceptance.

Remember those kids’ books in school where you add one layer of transparency after another to a male or female figure. As each layer is placed on top of another, a picture emerges of who and what this person is and does. There are multiple clues that we display to the world that tell others who we are. By rights, I should wear a dunce cap, but why would I make it easy for others. You’d better work hard if you’re going to figure out MY life story in a glance!

Every day I see or meet new people and within seconds I have a running dialogue … “She must be a single Mom with young kids in hockey because she’s wearing slightly worn casual clothes with a team insignia on the left shoulder and no wedding ring and just a touch of makeup. Her hair is clean but not highly styled . The shoes are runners, likely from Winners, that are semi-stylish but inexpensive. She does a bit of dabbling in online dating but nothing seems to click from either her side or theirs.

Just another Hockey Mom...

Just another Hockey Mom??

By taking on a Walter Mitty persona, we can leave our own world and experience the dramas unfolding around us.

Just like me, have you ever sat in a restaurant and when your own conversations reach a lull, take in the dialogue at a nearby table? Tuned your ears to the couple looking in angry, hurtful glances at each other? There are lives being lived and played out in glory and pain within a few feet of our inquisitive attentiveness. Who needs CIA listening devices when in the real world, people are more than happy to share the sordid details of the reality-based chess game that is going on? When our own lives become boring or banal, we can vicariously inhabit someone else’s, even if for just a few minutes.

The reality is that there are stories and adventures and heartache and joy being acted out on the stage of real life. We all have something to cry about. No matter how wonderful or accomplished we are, there is always something down deep that resembles sorrow or sadness. And we’ve all had great moments of accomplishment and euphoria. I can see and intuit it in the multiple layers of the transparencies that make up those I see munching their apple fritters.

When I go into my Tim Hortons coffee shop, I’m seeking out more than a caffeine or sugar fix…although I admit those are perfectly good and adequate reasons on those days when my energy levels are low. The BONUS? You never know what macabre stories will unfold in the innocence of java joint encounters.

It’s like the escapism of the movie theatre.

And the price of admission to this theatre?

One good steaming cup of coffee…


PS: Today’s great Tim Hortons’ life lesson!

     Any cupcake consumed before 9 AM is, technically, a muffin.”

Brian P. Cleary