I'd say the standard people-watching-for-fun scenario involves a breezy sidewalk-facing seat in a small cafe on a busy street. Life happens all around you yet you are invisible, a flaneur sipping coffee with wide eyes, listening to snippets of cell phone conversations, watching the latest fashion do's and don'ts, wondering what country everyone is from.
So what's my theory?
People watching in Manhattan is impossible unless you are surrounded by tourists.
The critical component of people watching that is missing in the city is the veil of invisibility; being able to watch without being watched. Every New Yorker loves people watching, and we do it all the time because there are just so many freaking people everywhere. And its become such a natural part of city life that we can't turn it off! We can't stop staring at people.
So while I'm at a restaurant watching people pass by, they are also watching me as they pass by! I can't count the number of times I've made accidental eye contact with people on the street while I thought I was in a state of quasi-invisibility. It's one thing to admire someone's shoes while you're slurping pasta, but it's another thing entirely to have a girl with cute shoes watch you eat. It sucks.
I do it too...When I walk up 2nd Ave in my neighborhood, I always look at the people sitting outside, eating their dinner. Are they on a date? Does the food look good? Why would you bring your dog to a restaurant? All these questions go through my mind as I unabashedly check everyone out.
I do feel guilty when they look back at me, because I've invaded their space. The only reason outdoor dining exists in this city (this world?) is to watch people walk by, and it sucks to have those people watching you.
It's like going to the theater to watch a regular play, only to be surprised by uncomfortable audience participation.
Thank God for places like The Met and Union Square: Meccas of people watching as we know and love it!
Tourists are so busy being wrapped up with the sensory explosion that is EVERYTHING about the city--cars, buildings, art, garbage, lights, smells, the fast pace--that their eyes are anywhere but looking directly into yours. Anonymity at last.
Enjoy this photo from a recent people watching extravaganza at the Met's rooftop bar/exhibition space:
My friend Margaret and I hid from the oppressive sun and heat by sitting on the ground, leaning up against the railing. We were in the shadows and had the perfect vantage point for watching everyone else milling about, posing for pictures, looking at the view, etc. Needless to say, the evil (and pear martini) in me decided to take some paparazzi-esque photos of some of the better specimens.
I also looked at the art. But the people were much more thought-provoking.