Excited, I take a seat at the bar and begin to survey the room. This, I’m good at. I wouldn’t say that I’m a voyeur, but I’ve always insisted that people watching should be an Olympic sport. I order my standard whiskey on the rocks, and observe.
Near the window, a cluster of women have landed on a topic that pulls them toward one another, gesturing passionately as they talk. Behind them, a lively team of conference attendees are chattering when, much to the group’s delight, a dark-haired man stands to add elbow antics to the discussion. Neither of these groups need their rhythms interrupted by me. Not now.
An attractive, mature woman enters the lounge with a tall, sturdy man following closely behind. Like popping corn, my mind springs with questions as I watch them cross the dark room to the cozy seats near the fireplace. Settling into opposite corners of the love seat, I notice that his banter sounds measured, her laugh feels polite, and both their smiles seemed anxious. Aha. First date jitters. They don’t need me in the way.
Between my first sip of whiskey and the final clink of naked ice, I fully realize the spindly awkwardness of my charge. Striking up a conversation with another barfly is one thing, but accosting strangers and inserting myself into their evening is altogether different. I considered leaving for the night when, one heartbeat later, a tall gentleman strides in to take one of the window seats. I watch him as he watches the city flicker below us.
I remind myself that everyone has a story to tell –including this stranger– and I’ve been given the opportunity to share them. I take a deep breath, collect my notebook and my nerves and introduce myself.
“I’m in computers,” he says of his work, adding a string of clarifying words like “applications,” “supply chain,” “operations.”
“Logistics?” I ask.
He gives a relieved nod and relaxes his shoulders. His name is Andy, a Dallas native currently living in Denver. He’s in Milwaukee with his team to wrap up a project that spans several years and several cities.
“Did you have reservations about striking out on your own as a consultant instead of scouting a corporate gig?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said, after a moment. “But, sometimes, I can’t believe this is the life I get to have.”
Andy had wanted to be a pilot as a kid, like his father and, later, his brother. In fact, Andy earned certifications, and has flown numerous times. Still, another path chose him. He told me how he enjoys the challenge of his work, his rituals for downtime when on the road, the food districts he misses from his home city, holiday plans for Brasil with his wife, and how he’d love to retire in San Francisco.
I thank him for allowing me to intrude on his quiet time, pay for his drink and wish him safe travels home. As I leave, I feel buoyant. Proud that I braved this assignment, pleased to put my people watching talents to work, and enchanted –all over again– by the city’s sparkling lights.