Watchlist , our anthology of surveillance-themed short stories, is out now. To mark the publication of the book, we asked a few of its contributors to perform their own real-life act of surveillance — and to write about what they saw.
Like most of the other three million four hundred sixty five thousand two hundred and forty two aspiring writers residing in Brooklyn, New York, I spend a lot of time in cafés. Yes, my apartment is too small and overpriced. The heater blasts excessively in the winter, and the old windows are too drafty in the summer. Squirrels or worse crawl their way into the gap between the ceiling and the roof, then attempt to tunnel into my room until I smack a broom into the ceiling. It’s not a great place to work.
But more than that, going to a coffee shop gives me the instant feeling of working. Even if no work is actually accomplished for hours—besides posting book puns on trending hashtags or clicking through a million Wikipedia pages that are, at best, tangentially related to a minor subplot in a novel that only exists as a sketchy outline—it still feels like I accomplished something. I was there, in the café, as hours passed. I worked. Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing; I love having written.” Yes, I don’t always love writing, but I love having been to the café.
Plus, the café is the ideal spot to do what writers always tell themselves is their job: observe the human condition. Or, you know, spy on people. Young lovers making out in the back corner, old lovers breaking up at the center table, a dozen not-yet-jaded twenty-somethings pounding out their individual artistic visions on identical Apple laptops: It’s all here. An infinite number of distractions to watch and to pretend are “research.”
So when I was asked to do a little surveillance on strangers to celebrate the release of Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest , I woke up bright and early (read: late afternoon) and parked myself in a sunny (read: shady to avoid screen reflection) seat and began pounding away on my novel (read: clicking on dumb think pieces and making snarky subtweets about them on Twitter), all the while watching for some human drama to unfold.
And oh, dear reader, it did.
To begin with, while spying on the strangers around me, my squinting eyes spied someone spying back! A gray-haired woman flicking her eyes up and down from my face to her notebook. Had she recognized the internationally acclaimed celebrity playboy author (read: unknown nobody) of the short story collection Upright Beasts ? No. She was just sketching weird-looking strangers as drawing practice. But when our eyes met, she didn’t even give me a bashful grimace or an acknowledging nod. She might as well have been looking at a mannequin.
The woman soon left, and I typed a scathing subtweet into my Twitter box. Then deleted it.
But I promised you human drama, not minor social improprieties. It was about an hour later that I was able to observe the epic Freudian struggle at the heart of civilization: the battle for control between child and parent.
In this case, a snot-faced Brooklyn boy of about eight—presumably named something like Ramen, Laptop, or Croissant—and a father with a fashionable scarf and the kind of gelled-but-disheveled hair that says, Yes, I’m a dad, but probably a pretty cool dad. Did you know I play in a band? We have a concert next week at a pretty cool venue. Here’s a flyer. You should totally come out!
The child was screaming like a dying eagle. He flapped his arms around, knocking chairs to the side. His seemed to have no control of his body.
The father steered him to a chair, and then got up and asked the barista for a bag of ice.
Ice in hand, the father examined the wound that seemed to be causing the distress. I looked over my laptop top. It was a small cut about the size of an inchworm on the side of the child’s pointer finger.
The child was calming down. That is, until the father put the bag of ice on the child’s finger, and the child let loose his lungs.
“OWWWWW! It’s too cold! ”
“It’s supposed to be cold. That’s the point of ice.” He pressed the pack back down.
“NOO! OWW! The ice is too cold! I WANT WARMER ICE!”
The boy ran around the café while the father chased after him, cooing him back to their seats. He put the ice pack back on the finger. The boy got up and ran around the café, starting the cycle all over again. As I pretended to keep typing things into my laptop while watching this, I sided with the father. It’s easy to sympathize with someone fighting illogic. Ice is only ice when it’s a certain temperature. There is no such thing as “warmer ice” than the ice they had. The ice is not too cold, child. The ice is just right. Don’t blame the ice for simply being the best ice that it knows how to be.
But as the cycle continued, and the boy raged ever more impotently against the existence of ice, I confess that I started to root for him. I wanted him to deny the ice with all the fire he had. “You don’t know how cold it is!” Isn’t that the truth? No one else can know how cold the ice feels pressed into our wounds. Ultimately, we’re all alone in a disinterested universe that couldn’t care less how frigid the ice feels. If there is a god, he is watching impassively at our struggle and refusing to intervene, like some procrastinating writer smugly typing out notes in a corner of the café of existence.
Also, are you really supposed to put ice on a minor cut? I thought ice was used just to reduce swelling, or, perhaps, numb the pain of a wound. There was no swelling here, though, and clearly the child—who only screamed when the ice touched him—felt better bleeding at room temperature. I did a google search for “Should you put ice on a small cut?” As the results came up, father and son stood up and left the café.
I researched first aid, then weird medical procedures, then a list of North American cryptids, then settled on reading the plot outline for a season of a TV show I haven’t watched yet. A few hours later, I got hungry. I packed up my computer and left the café with the comfortable knowledge that I had done a full day’s work.
W atchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest, is available now from Catapult Books.