Kage Baker liked to people watch.
Sitting quietly somewhere, preferably with a nice drink of something to hand, just grooving on the passing tide of people – that was something she always enjoyed. It was something to occupy waiting time in lines, air port lounges, hotel lobbies; something to sometimes even go out specifically to do, sitting somewhere interesting like a mall or the Hollywood Bowl and enjoying the cavalcade.
There’s a Simon & Garfunkle song with a verse about it – “America” (which was always a sacred traveler’s song to us) … Laughing on the bus/ Playing games with the faces, /She said the man in the gabardine suit/ Was a spy./I said, “Be careful,/His bow tie is really a camera … There’s a classic Larry Niven story, too, the title of which I cannot GODSDAMNIT recall, about someone who subscribes to magazines about the sport. An interesting idea, in an increasingly crowded world. (Any suggestions, Dear Readers, will be appreciated …)* **
We used to sit and wonder where people came from, where they were going. What kind of aliens they really were; because the variety of Homo sapiens phenotypes is such that dozens of aliens could walk among us and never be noticed. People whose complexions were peculiar, or whose bone structure was unique; or who, as Kage said “Averted their eyes from strange things, and stared too long at others.”
(There was a fellow who used to hang around Hollywood Boulevard when we were teenagers, whom Kage called The Werewolf of Hollywood (before Warren Zevon’s classic song, which subsequently became a favourite of ours) and he really did look like his genetics were of a lupine nature. Some sort of transient, I think, but a well-spoken fellow who somehow never scared even such a skitzy pair of idiots as we were.)
We especially enjoyed finding people who might be characters in Kage’s stories. Sometimes they were people she’d already written about; sometimes, they were suddenly a face she needed in to see in Byblos or The City In The Cliffs. We were adept at seeing Company Operatives drifting through the crowds in museums and art galleries; likewise demons and sorcerers who cropped up in theatre audiences, or a passing limousine … in Hollywood, damn near anything in the Known Universe can pass you in a Rolls Royce 3:4 saloon.
I had reason today to spend some time in a DMV office. Not for myself, but as chauffeuse for my nephew Michael, who is in the process of acquiring his driver’s license. The best way to do this is to make an appointment at a relatively outlying office; your travails will still exist, but not last as long. In poor Michael’s case, they were brief indeed; the State of California, despite having confirmed his appointment 4 days ago, had lost any record of it when we got there today. Another rite of passage peculiar to Los Angeles: go home and try again another day.
But while my stalwart nephew made his way fruitlessly through the maw of bureaucracy, I sat and watched the crowd. There are days when everyone you see just looks funny – there’s no explanation, but everybody looks like they took the the Friday afternoon ferry from Antares, for a weekend of gambling and shopping in L.A. I’ve no idea what tic in my brain causes this, but it used to happen in Kage’s brain too.
Today was one of those days. We were in the Glendale DMV office, and the entire crowd looked peculiar to me. I finally figured out what it was this time, though: their heads. All their skulls looked weird.
I’ve been spending so much time staring at Neanderthal skulls the past 2 weeks, gazing at Charlotte’s face and putting flesh on it, that the Homo sapiens model is looking wrong to me. They’re so … freakishly round. Like balloons, or melons, or Colorado guidance councilors – we really do look the way little kids draw stick people. One of the most disturbing aspects of the skull is its persistent verticality: Homo sap. heads go straight up and down, like boxes, or menhirs. It makes everyone look like a Lego minifig … where is the graceful double curve of the orbit? The high, winged cheekbones, the majestic slope of the brow? Honestly, modern heads are nearly square!
I’ve got one of those round heads, too, of course, but I can’t see mine. That makes all the difference. On me, as they say, it looks good; or at least I don’t have to think about what it does look like at all.
I’ve found a new way of being alone in a crowd, sitting there and staring at my own species with a stranger’s eyes. It was more fun when Kage was with me, seeing the same things and speculating wildly on their causes. But it’s all grist, as they also say, grist for the writer’s mill.
I’ll take that, too, as a gift from Kage.
*Really. If anyone can identify this story, it will ease a dreadful itch in my brain. Otherwise, I have to re-read every one of Mr. Niven’s short stories until I find it, which is going to take time …
** “Passerby”! It’s called “Passerby!” I found it in the first anthology I checked, the second story – All The Myriad Ways, an excellent compilation BTW, and I advise any and all to read it on general principles. And in the meantime, I found the name!