It’s about 23ºF out and every inch of sidewalk from here to the Strand is a glacial sheet of slippery terror, especially given the blizzarding winds on the bridge, so I declined to return from the Maughan Library by that route. I could have taken a bus. I suppose it would have been more financially responsible of me. But, waiting outside the tourist-infested Somerset House, which has turned into a Tiffany’s-sponsored skating rink for the season, seemed torturous, so I chanced north up Chancery Lane instead, to High Holborn. I had never been despite repeated trips to Maughan at all sorts of hours.
High Holborn proved to be a classy, business-minded street akin to, say, 68th St on the UES — not exactly Madison or Park Ave itself, but not far from it — fewer hustling, less bustling. It was around 7pm, and Working Folks were leaving Work. Working Folks tend to make for poor people watching in my mind, since they look so much the same, and as I made my way to the tube station, I dodged and wove with the best of ’em — countless skinny women in sleek heeled boots and coats perfectly cut in trendy makeovers of classic fashions, and even more men in neatly tucked knit scarves and flawlessly tailored jackets. Even though the day was through and the wind rough, most of the women still sported perfectly coiffeured ‘dos, and the men weren’t even so much as rumpled.
As I attempted to glide with and around them, their faces blurred before me like bitter fruits blended into a bad smoothie. Slowly, I began to distinguish one from another, and realized that the difficulty in doing so lay in the fact that within their aesthetic perfection, they all seemed to wear an identical mask of discontent — stern, pursed lipped frowns; tightly knit eyebrows; distracted eyes that sometimes strayed into abstraction. I see them every day in Westminster and Waterloo– in handfuls on the Strand, in waves on streets like High Holborn — yet, there’s always something sorrowful about seeing so many seemingly unhappy anonymous at once.
Tonight, I began trying to look in each person’s eyes as I passed, whether they were leaving an office building with a briefcase or M&S with a sandwich they called supper. I wondered if they all have similar stories to match their similar expressions of discontent, and I found the idea that so many people could stand facing middle age unhappily for all the same reasons to be petrifying. In an instant, I dropped my glance and their faces began to blur again, until I could no longer discern their misery. Perhaps, at times like these, it’s best to let strangers remain strangers.