I’m always mystified in hypothetical situations when people choose useless superpowers such as flying or breathing underwater over invisibility. Sure, teleportation probably has its merits, but I’m convinced that being given free license to watch people would be much more valuable. Until someone invents an invisibility cloak or something of the like, though, I’m content to make do with old-fashioned spying.
Call me nosy, and I’d agree with you wholeheartedly. I once spent fifteen minutes watching a grown man struggle against a blow-up whale in a swimming pool, and it’s one of my fondest memories of all time. It’s even recorded in my notebook entry for August 19, 2013: “Greg fought aquatic toy with stamina and courage. A whale of a tale.”
Like a modern-day version of “Moby-Dick,” neither man nor whale yielded to the other’s will. Man would clamber up whale’s slippery plastic back, upon which he beamed with pride at his accomplishment, but without warning whale would flip, sending man crashing into the water once again. The fact that this man was Greg—the unyielding, often-furious site director of the peace-loving farm camp where I worked this summer—made the episode all the more entertaining. I hadn’t known that he had it in him—the grit and tenacity required to clamber onto the whale’s back again and again, eyelashes dripping with chlorinated water and pale back roasting the sun.
I’m really quite fond of spying on people. Espionage has interested me ever since I read “Harriet the Spy” in elementary school. I’m not quite as adventurous as Harriet—and alas, there are no more dumbwaiters for us aspiring spies to crawl into and eavesdrop—but I’ve tried to emulate her pathos. In restaurants, and even better, in cafés, I try to read people’s lips and listen in on their conversations. Sometimes, they fight. That’s great, but the best is when they gossip, preferably about people I know.
Spying on people when they’re alone is an experience second to none. It’s fascinating that we never spend time with the alone versions of people; every time we see another human being, just the act of sharing a space with her puts her in the company of others. Spying, though, allows us that rare window into the soul. The problem with this practice, however, is that it feels creepy and slightly illegal to perch in tree branches or peer through skylights.
So I’ve learned to work spying into my everyday life. In fifth grade, I spent most of my time looking out the window of my classroom and into that of the apartment building 20 feet away. A few times a week, a cleaning lady came in to listlessly drag a duster over the surfaces of furniture. The other days, people drifted in and out of the room just as aimlessly. I was entertained for hours wondering what made them so fatigued.
I had a perverted friend who simply waited around with me in anticipation that someone would get naked—which never happened, much to her chagrin—but I couldn’t explain to her that nudity would make it too easy. The real point of spying is to guess at what’s underneath the exterior.
And that’s another thing: we have skin covering up what’s inside of us, and even if our organs were just glistening in plain sight, you’d just see the throbbing, pulpy masses of tissue and stringy fibers of muscle, not thoughts or feelings, which are invisible. The nice thing about spying is its mystery and its reliance on observable behaviors, which keep the spy guessing as to motive. Watch a person spontaneously drop and roll down a hill, and you wonder about hir grandmother (or at least I do). Get to class a few minutes early and see your professor arrive with coffee and a pear, and cherish that split-second before she notices that you are there; the way she holds her head, her briefcase, or her breakfast will inevitably change.
Spying is an invasion of privacy, you say? Since there’s a pretty good chance that my Internet activity is being monitored right now, I’m willing to gloss over that point. Besides, it’s hard to feel particularly guilty about watching people who don’t walk far enough away while on private calls, or speak loudly to their dinner companions, or fail to close their blinds.
Those who have real moral beef with spying can begin with its innocuous cousin, people watching. Start small by setting up shop on Foss and observing swarms of people flood in and out of Usdan. Or sit alone at a table at Red and Black with a book in front of you; ostensibly you’ll be reading, but the things you’ll catch from neighboring conversations may be priceless.
When I heard that “Harriet” had been banned from schools and libraries for encouraging “spying, lying, and swearing” in children, I dealt with my grief by reading through my old spy journals (penned in Harriet’s signature all-caps) and making myself one last tomato sandwich. But I’m not ready to back down just yet. Let’s revive the lost art of spying. All we have to lose are our friends—but that’s another story.
Davis is a member of the Class of 2017.