on June 28, 2010 in Misc

There’s a quiet scene in The Bourne Identity that tells volumes about the hero Jason Bourne – and how much I’m his opposite.


The time is late at night.  The setting is a roadside café somewhere between Switzerland and Paris.  Bourne is at a table with the woman who’s giving him a ride.  Because of his amnesia he doesn’t know who he is, only that he’s different from everyone around him and has had extreme training.  That’s why he has – with freaky speed and instinct – already assessed his surroundings and memorized anything relevant to his safety.  He knows the license plates of every car parked outside, which man at the counter would most likely have a gun, how much of a threat a stranger might be. 

Obviously, I’m no escaping super spy with amnesia.  Stick Bourne out in public, and he’s hyperaware of everything.  Stick me out there, and I can turn into a space cadet.  Sometimes I just seem to live in my head.  It’s so warm and cozy in here.

In a recent post I wrote about my plan to develop the Layla skill of tailing strangers – preferably without latching onto a paranoid psycho, as reader Robert warned.  What I’ve done so far is mild; mostly I’ve discretely followed someone through stores or down streets and into buildings. Yet I’m surprised at what I can learn about strangers within seconds, and that I’m not the only person who zones out in public.

First of all, the easiest people I tailed were the ones talking on cell phones.  They really are oblivious to just about everything.  They shop so slo-w-w-w-wly you’ll be stuck with them in the same department or aisle for ages.  They seem to develop temporary lack of peripheral vision.  And if the mark is a woman on a cell with one or two small children in tow, you can walk behind her for miles and she’ll never notice you.  You can also find out, via their phone conversations, who they’re talking with, where they’re going next, and why they’re upset with their boss/client/spouse/teenager/neighbor. 


Obviously what’s more challenging is tailing someone who’s not plugged into anything electronic, and walking quickly.  Still, I found myself keeping up with such marks.  I also realized I can memorize details about their faces, clothes, body language, what they’re carrying, and anything else that stands out, all within seconds.  It was fun.

Granted, as a middle-aged woman I might have an edge at tailing.  There just doesn’t appear to be much anything threatening about me.  Personally, I always wanted to be an exotic femme fatale with a hint of danger about her alluring curves.  But I don’t even come close to my ideal – damn it. 

I’ve also learned to spot more readily potential paranoid psychos – or maybe that’s too strong a term.  Let’s just say Dangerous Guys.  What makes them stand out?  They are very aware of YOU.  And they don’t turn their back on you.  And they watch you and everyone else.


Take the guy who got on the mall shuttle (the free shuttle buses go up and down Denver’s sixteenth street mall).  Most people find a place to stand or sit and chat and look around.  He didn’t.  He stepped onto the shuttle and just stood there, with the now closed shuttle doors to his back, his hands free, and his eyes rolling over every face around him.  He was young, very muscular, and itching with suspicion.  No one around me paid him any mind, but I got a bad gut feeling.  Sure enough, at another stop someone he knew got on and they exchanged a few words.  Turns out the young guy had just gotten out of prison. 

No wonder he was acting like he was still locked up and could get jumped at any moment.  If I hadn’t been in a hurry maybe I would have tried tailing him – very, very carefully.

Anyway, my next step will be to pick much more difficult marks and make up some complicated games.  I need to develop many more skills, after all.  I also need the thrill of a challenge.

6 Responses to “Paranoia”

  1. Ben says:

    Oh my gosh! The Bourne movies are some of my favorite, and that road-side diner is one of my favorite scenes (aside from the fight scenes, obviously).

    I have the exact same problem! I think about random stuff, and am off in my own little world. Sometimes I try to read into the people around me and try to figure out what kind of person they are through deductive reasoning of how they dress, carry themselves, walk, tslk, and what they talk about. But, I only do that when I am in a people watching mood. I wish i was always that observant.

    You should try to learn how to slip something in/take something out of someone’s pocket without detection. Probably not wise to test it on strangers, or they could think you’re pickpocketing them. I’ve always wanted to try to reverse pickpocket someone (give someone money without them noticing).

  2. Helena says:

    Ben — That’s an intriguing idea about reverse pickpocketing. And how sweet of you to think of giving someone (a stranger?) money that way. At the very least it’s something I can try on the sly with friends.

  3. Hart says:

    Helena-you’ve actually been tailing people?! Ohmygawd, what a crack up! I have a character in my NaNo book who has made her career KEEPING sevret service people paranoid–tailing them, taking photos, making observations, then sending them the evidence so they know they are being watched… her goal is to keep them ‘clean’–if they never know who’s watching, they are less likely to give in to bribes, bedroom secrets and the like. The is a chameleon of sorts. Pretty, but non=descript enough to ‘blend’–which I think is what you’re doing. I love hearing your story on it!

  4. Helena says:

    Hart – What a wild character you’ve created! Having been to a couple political rallies, I can tell you that secret service guys are scary good, VERY serious, and you don’t want to mess with them. Your character has guts to take them on. And I love what you say about being a chameleon. Maybe I should try some different appearances/disguises and see what effect they have on people.

  5. Robert L. Read says:

    Another idea….Helena, here is a little experiment for you. Spend an hour in public pretending you are so sexually hot you would set off a geiger counter. The purpose of the experiment is to judge how noticeable this makes you. Can you move from noticed to invisible?

    No doubt this is harder for women of a certain age, but I think mindset makes a huge difference. I bet you will notice a difference. I saw Julia Roberts in person once, and she looked like a big skinny boy. Granted, she was at a coffee shop after a movie shoot here in Austin, and trying not to attract attention. (I small crowd had gathered to gawk at here in any case.) My actor friends tell me that this can work—that a man, for example, can walk into a bar and pretend he is God’s gift to women and be much more likely to get a phone number or take someone home that his normal self. However, it is WORK. It is hard work to stay in character, and (I assume) it is hard for a non-hot woman to stay psychologically sexy for 60 minutes (especially without positive feedback, which is bound to be spotty.)

    The converse of this is invisibility—like the witches in “His Dark Materials”, who can avoided being seen by willing themselves not to be noticed, you may find you can amp your non-descriptness. As you observed in your ex-con, the fact that he was noticing everything made him noticeable. If you were following me and I perceived you as hyper-aware I would notice you. If you could follow me while remaining zombie-like, you might achieve invisibility. How have already mentioned a trick—pretend to talk on the phone!

  6. Helena says:

    Robert — I really agree with you about how to appear when tailing a person. Since my normal expression is spacey or preoccupied, I usually appear harmless. I also know how to put on various little innocent-seeming acts that can stop a mark from getting suspicious.
    As for pretending to be SO sexually hot I would really get noticed — I don’t think I could do that for more than five minutes and keep a straight face. But like you say, if I’m acting and playing a character (Layla, obviously), I might be able to pull it off. It certainly would be interesting to see if I get a reaction in public. Besides laughter.