Diablo Views: Staring for a living | March 21, 2008 | Danville Express | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Danville Express

Column - March 21, 2008

Diablo Views: Staring for a living

by Natalie O'Neill

As a kid, I would always get caught staring at people. I'd be studying the lines on an old man's face or the way a teenage girl flips her hair, when our eyes would meet - and I'd be busted.

Over ice cream once, a babysitter told me that staring at people is rude. I had no idea. I was a wild-haired tomboy with perpetually skinned knees, and manners weren't exactly my strongpoint.

Growing up on a farm in Oregon, there weren't many people around. The animals outnumbered the humans 10-fold, so when a person did come knocking on our unlocked door, there was always some degree of shock.

"There's someone at the door?" my sister and I would say.

That kind of isolation really put a damper on my people-watching hobby. The closest "neighbors" to spy on were over a fence and across a four-acre field. They drank beer from cans and shot birds with guns.

In the summer, when the grass was tall, I would creep through the field and watch them. They wore flannel shirts, barbequed at lunchtime, and shouted swear words at each other. It was fascinating.

The way we lived, by Danville standards, was pretty hickish. We had a chicken coop and a stubborn donkey who served no real purpose, other than to mope around and be our aloof pet.

One spring day, my mom brought home a potbelly pig she had named Packwood, after Oregon state Sen. Bob Packwood.

The politician had recently been charged with sexually harassing his staff and the joke was that he was "a male chauvinist pig." My mom thought it was funny, anyway.

As I got older, I remember being embarrassed to invite my friends over. We were a different type of family, a breed of hippie-hick. And back then, I didn't realize that different could be cool. So the farm became even more of an island.

Still, it wasn't like I never saw other people. There was school, restaurants sometimes, and small stretches of suburban life at friends' houses. These were prime times for my hobby.

At school, I would study kids at the lunch table. I wondered why some kids came to school with no lunch, while others had moms who packed smiley-face notes with their three-course meals.

At restaurants, I noticed the waitresses. I wondered why one had purple bags under her eyes and another had a big, booming laugh.

I wanted to know their stories. So I started to ask.

Strangely enough, most people didn't mind telling me. I couldn't believe it.

Fifteen years later, not much has changed. Noticing people, asking them questions and telling their stories is a big part of what a journalist does. You're paid to be inquisitive - even nosy at times.

Now, I pass my staring off as "observing." And I keep trying to perfect the casual-look-away when people do catch me. (The goal: to come off curious instead of creepy.)

They say when you're choosing a career, you're supposed to pretend like you just won the lottery, that you'll never need money again. The idea is that, this way, you'll pick a job you love and want to do. Not something you think you should do.

Sure, it's not the most pragmatic way to plan your life. But my parents were idealists and encouraged me to think this way, at least when it came to picking a college major.

As far I could tell, there was no such thing as a major in people-watching. So I narrowed it down to psychology and journalism. I'm a better writer than scientist, so the rest is history.

Writing and reporting for the Danville Weekly for the last two years has rarely felt like work.

I've met all kinds of incredible characters: Alamo country bumpkins at heart, like me. Eccentric artists. Slick politicians. Wealthy playboys. Jovial war vets. Angry mothers.

Alamo and Danville are full of stories. I've loved hearing them and sharing them in print. And I hope that in some way, on some issue, I helped make things better around here.

Now, I'm off to Miami to write for another weekly - and to meet a whole new cast of characters. I'm hoping the folks in Florida don't think staring is rude.

Thanks for telling me your stories.

Stay in touch at inkonthepad@hotmail.com


Like this comment
Posted by Hal Bailey
a resident of another community
on Mar 21, 2008 at 8:22 am

Dear Natalie,

Thank you for staring deeply into our diverse, fractional cultures and at our cast of characters. In your reporting, you have displayed people in the events of our region, communities and neighborhoods. Always well-said, your stories created a starting point for our own continuing interest in stories around us.

Best wishes,


Posted from halbailey@yahoo.com

Like this comment
Posted by Erin's mom
a resident of another community
on Mar 21, 2008 at 11:41 pm

Congratulations, Natalie on your career success, and living the dream. It looks like you and Erin will be crisscrossing the country about the same time. We will miss you out here in the West--so don't be a stranger!

Like this comment
Posted by Lisa Wright
a resident of another community
on Mar 22, 2008 at 8:25 am

Posted by request of the author

Dear Natalie,

As you escape all the "legitimate" quotes from the self-proclaimed leaders of our region, take with you a continuing willingness to challenge such self-importance. Your writing, with our thanks, was a mirror for attitudes by such self-importance and allowed a majority of readers to judge what was legitimate and what was too political.

Job well done!

Lisa Wright
Diablo Vista region neighborhoods

Posted from Diablo Vista e-exchange via halbailey@yahoo.com

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Posted by sallybreads@yahoo.com
a resident of another community
on Mar 25, 2008 at 7:00 am

Hi, Nattie!!
Congrats on your new job and I loved your last column in Daville.
Grandma Anne loved hearing from you.
Aunt Sally
Hope you can come this June to cape May - Heidi and I have reservations for June19-21.

Like this comment
Posted by jenni brooks
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2008 at 12:36 pm

you are a incredible journalist natalie. keep doing what you are doing with all that people watching... you are already on your way to achieveing your dreams. love your work, can't wait to read more and more!