On Eavesdropping

by

02/27/2005

1 w 42nd st ny ny

Neighborhood: All Over, Multiple

“And three weeks later I found him dead in his apartment,” I overhear an old man say to his friend as I pass them on a street in the West Village. It’s all I get–the one, disembodied line.

Another day, another street. I pass a man and a woman, and at that instant the man says: “I LIKE eating raw flesh.” Maybe he’s referring to the sushi bar we’re walking by. Maybe he said he likes eating raw FISH. But I know I heard him right.

Clearly, eavesdropping is a New York City perk, but who knew it could be so…weird? I collect these lines. I love them. Hearing one makes the case for not owning an iPod, and it’s definitely something you can’t do in car towns. It’s for those of us out there on the sidewalks, those who skip the cabs and take the long way home. We hear them as we rush to appointments, run errands, wait for buses. Like butterflies, like an evocative scent, like a perfect cup of coffee they are; tiny works of art. Hence my little game, with its sole guideline: Whole conversations, or even partial conversations, don’t count. It has to be a single, free-standing line for me to scribble it down. Or perhaps a question and answer.

A different day, a different block: I walk past two guys smoking next to the restaurant where they work. “We’re bringing a suitcase full of booze and goin’ to the multiplex, man,” says one of them. He’s a tall, tattooed guy, and could be quite serious, in spite of logistical issues. I don’t stop to ask. The one line is all I need.

Some of them are little slices of comedy. In a restaurant, I pass two men sitting at the bar. One of them says to the other, “You fucking old fuck.” The young woman walking with her girlfriend who says, “His brain is smaller than his dick” makes me smile. The two old ladies at the Lexington Avenue subway station are hilarious, but I’m not sure if it’s intentional. One asks, “What’s the easiest way to get to 74th Street on the east side?” Her companion answers, “Cab.” And brevity rules when I get one line from a girl on her cell phone, who says, “So are we going out, or are you just using me for sex?” (May all cell phone conversations be this concise.)

Here’s a favorite. It’s dusk, and I step out of a building in midtown, stopping to orient myself. A man walks by, holding the hand of a little boy. The man looks down at the boy and says, “Do you know you were born five years ago today?” My mind fills with scenarios. I wonder if they’re having a birthday party that night. If Mom is home frosting a cake. If Dad is always so philosophical. If the kid does know he was born that day, or if he just accepts it, because Dad is holding his hand as they walk down a busy street.

The next exchange is less meaningful, but I love it. A guy and a girl stand on a corner in Soho as I walk past them. The guy looks at her, confused. “A vanilla omelet?” he asks. “Vanilla ALMOND,” she responds. It’s all very matter-of-fact. They don’t seem to find the joy in the idea of a vanilla omelet that I do. And that’s the advantage of getting it without the trappings of context. A banal conversation can beget a flavorsome line. All return, no investment.

While some snippets remain vanilla omelets, others contain hints at something more. On the subway platform in Times Square, I overhear one line between two businessmen before the train thunders in. “He’s a nice fellow, but he’s really stupid.” I don’t hear the word “fellow” a lot. It makes me think that the man saying it is also nice. I wonder if the stupid fellow will hold onto his job a little longer because of it. It pleases me when people are kind and generous in spirit.

And then things take a turn. I’m walking up Sixth Avenue when I hear this: “My grandfather came in and beat the shit out of me.” I don’t see the guy who casually drops that one, or who he’s telling. It comes from behind me, and I have to keep moving. Again my mind struggles to fill in the blanks. How old was he when this happened? Where were his parents? How many suitcases full of booze had his grandfather polished off? Although we New Yorkers are publicly forced onto each other every day, much goes on behind closed doors that is unknowable. Unless we listen.

I’m in my neighborhood again. I’ve just passed a woman at a bus stop who says, presumably to her child, “I’m not a lollipop, so don’t lick me. Don’t lick me!” The subtext in this one is subtle. It’s whimsical on paper, but the woman sounds angry. Not angry at the child. Just angry. Like there’s somewhere she’d rather be than picking up her kid from school on a bleak winter day. Maybe I’m way off. Maybe she just has a toothache, or the dry cleaner closed before she got there. But New Yorkers are so darn expressive–how can I not make assumptions? One day last summer, two guys in their twenties had ridden their bikes past me. “I love her–she’s great!” one shouted to the other. He could’ve been talking about an actress, a singer, a dog. But I hope it was a girl he was starting to get close to, a girl who was getting better and better the more he got to know her. Would that a boy on a bicycle shout that about me.

So I keep listening. And learning, and imagining. And loving these little one-line stories. In the words of a guy on the subway platform talking to his companion, “Even the smallest things are important in my life.”

Yes, they are.

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