Portraits of Fake People

In Boston today, I could see clear into an office building. A row of abandoned workstations lined a dull taupe corridor overlooking a brick plaza. Generic office artwork offered a splash of color on the wall. A man in a suit stared at his computer. Another man stood next to him.

For a moment I thought they were fake. Mannequins, or cardboard cutouts, perhaps. The whole scene seemed staged. A museum exhibit. Office Life Circa 2000.

In the T stop a woman had fabulous 80s hair. Side-swept and crimped. She may have been wearing a jean jacket. Her husband was, with his mullet and ball cap. Their daughter rocked a bedazzled Patriots tank.

Was this a costume or everyday attire? I wondered. Or, perhaps, a special occasion?

Is this real life?

Crammed into the T car brought back years of people watching memories. I used to guess what stop each person would get off at. Based on their appearance, their demeanor, their habits, their company. I’m not sure, really, but I almost always got it right.

And I’d make up stories for all these fake people. Where they were coming from and where they would go. What made them anxious and what got them excited. What kind of work they did and what kind of day they were having. I’d imagine it all.

Then they’d get off at the stop I predicted for them, never to be seen or heard from again.

Of course, these fake people weren’t really fake people. It was the lives and personalities I’d invent for them that were fake – just as I imagine others invented lives and personalities for me.

But in the absence of real information – of conversation and experience sharing – these fake portraits are the best we can know about the mass of humanity. About real people.

And while they are fake – deeply subject to our own bias and interpretation – there is something real in them as well.

The man on the train, dark circles under his eyes and paint on his pants, drinking a coffee while adjusting the hardhat attached to his backpack. The woman in scrubs who looks like she’s lost the will to move. The young men and women in suits, adjusting their blazers and trying to look casual. The mothers, the fathers, the tourists, the students, all going about their lives, celebrating achievements and struggling with tragedy.

I will never know the Truth. I will never know them all. But I have stories for each and every one.

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