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People-Watching With New Warmth

I confess to being a people-watcher. When I'm waiting at the airport or riding on the metro, I love to pass time by observing my fellow travelers and speculating on their life stories. I've rejoiced with Great-Aunt LooLoo when her grandniece has stepped off the plane for a visit, and I've shed a few knowing tears as college student Betty has said goodbye to summer boyfriend Bernie.

I've noticed that my almost one-year-old daughter, Nicole, has picked up this habit as well. Whenever we are on the bus or metro, her blue eyes open wide and gaze intently at the other passengers. As a novice, though, she doesn't realize that people-watching is to be done discreetly, and she sometimes starts smiling and waving at people. On occasion, she even lets out a yelp to get someone's attention. Fortunately, when you're less than 1, this type of behavior is acceptable - and it often wins a friend for the duration of the trip.

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A few months ago when we were on the metro, Nicole was laughing and playing with one of these new acquaintances. When I glanced up to see her friend, though, I was somewhat surprised and began to question my little daughter's judgement. This person, who could be described as hygiene- and hairbrush-challenged, was far from my idea of a perfect companion. As I started to divert Nicole's attention elsewhere, though, I was suddenly struck by the huge smile she was giving this person, clearly oblivious to his appearance. Turning to take another look, I realized that beneath the surface there did seem to be a kind young man. I decided to set aside my bias (and the disapproving looks of the friend with us) to let my daughter enjoy the rest of the ride home playing with him.

An experience a few days ago reminded me of that incident. After a shopping excursion with Nicole, I had so many packages that I wasn't able to lift Nicole's carriage down the stairs into the metro station myself. Standing at the top of the stairs, I tried to flag down someone to give me a hand, but people just kept rushing past. The only person who seemed to notice our plight was a rather scruffy-looking guy loitering in the station and eating a hamburger.

As I looked past him to see if there were any more people coming who could help, he called out to me that he would be right there. Not sure that I wanted to entrust my daughter's well-being to Mr. Scruffy Hamburger man, I tried to wave him off with a ''Thanks, it's OK....'' But before I could finish my sentence, he had come up to us, thrust his half-eaten burger into my hand, and started down the stairs with the carriage. As I trailed behind him with the remainder of his lunch, I noticed Nicole beaming up at our most unlikely helper. I had to agree with her - as I'm sure that I will have to do countless times to come: Gentlemen do indeed come in all kinds of packages. I have also had to admit that, despite my years of people-watching, my one-year-old daughter, with her unprejudiced eyes, is a much better judge of character than I am.

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