THE BLOG

Staring at People in the City

09/30/2013 02:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 30, 2013

While walking home from my local shopping center, I passed a group of people on the steps of a house not far from mine. Something told me to cross to the other side of the street, not because I felt danger but because I didn't want to dodge the tangle of bodies that had a good part of the sidewalk blocked. So I continued past the gender-mixed crowd of people in their mid to late 20s. Then out of the blue, I heard a male voice say:

"Do you have a staring problem?"

I turned around to see who it was who had asked the question. Since I was the only one on the sidewalk, I replied, "Are you talking to me?"

"Yeah, you got a staring problem?"

"No, I don't," I said, "Do you?"

Okay, before we go any further let me state that some of my problems in life are as follows: Money, dental bills, dampness in my basement, late daily mail delivery, city people who own monster dogs, city people who own two, three and four monster dogs, graffiti "artists" vandalizing the new construction along Richmond Street, the price of takeout coffee at Wawa, the upsurge in food prices, late Septa buses on Sunday morning, store clerks (and bartenders) who put change on the counter instead of in your hand and cars and SUVs with tinted windows.

Staring at people is not one of my problems, but even if it was I wouldn't make much headway considering that most people have their faces buried in some toy gadget.

Still, what constitutes a stare is open to interpretation, because one person's stare is often another person's quick glance, unless of course you happen to be paranoid and then everything becomes a threat, even a winning smile.

When I was a kid I had a problem with not looking people in the eye. This really bugged my father. When he would talk to me he found that I always averted my eyes or looked at the floor. "I want you to look straight at me," he would say. "You have to learn to look people in the eyes." Gradually over a period of months, Dad taught me to keep a steady eyeball gaze on the person I was having a conversation with. Years later I would thank him for this, because I really was much too shy as a child. Public speaking terrified me (probably because I had a stutter), and looking someone in the eye while speaking meant that I could see their reaction to my stutter. When I later became a fairly decent public speaker (this former stutterer is giving a TEDx talk at Drexel University on October 5), I learned to look at the audience and focus on a face or two while speaking. This is a classic method to reduce nervousness, besides imagining that everyone in the audience is in their birthday suit. But that's another story.

Anyway, I was fairly amazed when the man on the stoop stood up and approached me as if getting ready to throw a punch. Suddenly reality had become a dark Popeye cartoon with a 6'4" Pluto walking towards me as his friends on the stoop called out in a panic: "Stop, don't. Stop!" What was I to do? There were no cans of spinach handy (maybe I'll ask for a taser for my birthday), so I did the next best thing: I extended my hand and asked for a handshake. Make friends with the beast, right? As I did this I maintained steady eye contact, remembering Dad's lessons of course, but also mindful of the fact that in the world of some animals, especially dogs, direct eye contact is often seen as a threat. Would Pluto lunge like a rabid pitbull or German shepard? I'd have to be ready for anything.

What I found ironic is the fact that he had spotted me walking towards the stoop long before I passed the group. So, he'd been staring at me, but on the DL.

If you're thinking that city life is filled with such zany encounters, you'd be telling the truth.

Months ago, I witnessed a man on Philadelphia's Septa Route 15 lash out at a fellow passenger sitting behind him who happened to rest an arm on the back of his seat. "Remove your arm from my seat!" the man screamed, his anger clearly out of whack and headed towards the land of the insane.

Some people get up in the morning just looking for a person or an event on which to vent their anger. The smallest thing will set them off. Their only "job" is to find it.

But what if I had been staring? Among dogs, as noted, direct eye contact is often perceived as a challenge and in some cases the dog will behave accordingly -- with a snarl or a growl. Looking steadily into a dog's eyes is not recommended. Cats, thank God, have a different processing technique, which is probably why the Egyptians thought of them as mystical beings.

Let's consider actual (real) staring. I did a quick Internet search and came up with the following article titles: "Why Do People Stare at People in Church," "Why Do People Stare at Me When I Am Shopping," "The Asperger's Stare," "People Watching," "Staring Is Often Misinterpreted -- Stare Safely," "A Penny for Your Thoughts," "Why Do People Stare (They See Dead People)," "Why We Stare, Even When We Don't Want to Stare," "Why Do Japanese People Stare at Foreigners," and, "Why Do People Stare When I Hold Hands With My Girlfriend?"

When I asked for that handshake, Pluto paused for a second, looking confused but then reluctantly extended his hand while at the same time making sure he said something tough just to let me know that he was on top.

When I told a neighbor about the incident, she said that Pluto was probably strung out on drugs. "There's a lot of that around here. People on drugs do stuff like that. They imagine things."

While there's nothing like a good imagination -- what you see in surrealist paintings, novels, the stuff of dreams, even some of Walt Disney -- when it comes to dealing with neighbors both near and far, it's best to accent the positive.