Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Friday, October 28, 2005
 
Eavesdroppers and Conversations

After getting Rushdie's answer about great writers needing to be born with "an ear" for dialogue, I was thinking about the affection I have for eavesdropping. It's only a middling good habit for a journalist--at some point you have to identify yourself if you want to attribute the quote, and so most of what you learn will only be useful as background--but it's a great habit for a novelist. Oftentimes on BART trains, I like to just sit there and pretend to be asleep and absorb the conversational noise around me.

For example last week there were three people in their twenties, lounging relaxedly across two pairs of seats facing each other. A guy and a girl, clearly together, sat facing another guy with exquisite cornrows, olive skin, and an arched aquiline nose. He sat like a man in charge, and talked like a man in charge, and you could tell he was used to being the cool guy in charge. He was talking to the girl when I sat down across the aisle from them.

"Abdullah? Your brother's Abdullah? That's hilarious. I know him! I've worked with him. He's one cool cat."
And from the ensuing conversation I gathered that this brother did not approve of the boyfriend, and was making life difficult for his sister, and the boyfriend was asking the other guy, his friend with the cornrows, "do you think I can take him, yo?" and the guy with the cornrows said, "no way, I wouldn't let it happen," and was carefully pondering how to broker peace. The murmurs of conversation that drifted across the aisle to me painted images of young men bonding at construction sites and pool tables, doors slamming, and secret bad habits.

Another one: today I was going up an elevator in an office building in downtown San Francisco. Two guys in suits got on the elevator with me. They had clearly been talking to each other previous to getting on the elvator, but they smiled at me when they got on and then were silent. Perhaps their conversation was too confidential for a stranger's ear? Then, as we made our way up the stories, one opened his mouth. "You know," he began, and I braced myself for boring conversation, "you know. . . Jennifer was actually fired." "She was, huh?" "Yes. People don't know that, but she was fired. James told me." "Why?" "She was a disaster. She was just very--" and they stepped out onto their floor. I wanted to chase after them and get the rest of the story. And yet, they were completely discreet, because I have no idea who they were talking about, and neither, dear reader, do you.*

There has been much discussion online and in print lately about "Overheard in New York," which is indeed a stupefying and fun website, if frequently as obscene and cruel as life, and (I think) a bit racially suspect**:
Guy on cell: Yeah I know her, my sister went out with her when she was still a man. (Link)

Hasidic boy: Poppola, I heard a rumor that when a cow gets a cut from the milking machine, and blood gets in the milk...they have to turn it into chocolate milk, so people won't know it's there.
Hasidic grandpa: We should be so lucky! (Link)

Girl: These fish are big, yo! Or is this tank magnetic? (Link)

It is, however, a mere follower to the precedent established by the kinder and more subtle "Eve", a Berkeley alum who runs Inpassing.org, which is sadly infrequent now that she's a career woman:
"Even the Aztecs would agree that 64 ounces of hot chocolate is just plain wrong." (Link.)

"It's so genuine, and natural. There's just a certain... purity about it."
"Hey, it's just a smoothie."
--Two guys outside of Juice Appeal (Link.)
I am a sucker for these sites. I've also started collecting quotable sentences from my family and friends, which I often think I will put on t-shirts and sell on this blog to achieve world domination. So I was amused to come across a site, bash.org, that allows people to upload quotes from their instant messaging sessions and chatrooms. Now, most of the quoted conversations are really, unredeemably obscene, so I don't recommend you go surfing around there just any old time. Indeed it's quite depressing how juvenile, vulgar, and frequently racist, sexist and homophobic most of the conversations are. But somehow that makes the acceptable bits even more interesting. Here are a few odd ones, filtered out of the muck for you:

[jeebus] the "bishop" came to our church today
[jeebus] he was a f---- impostor
[jeebus] never once moved diagonally

[Patrician|Away] what does your robot do, sam
[bovril] it collects data about the surrounding environment, then discards it and drives into walls

[nick] grah windows just crashed again, unstable crap.
[yukito] Windows isn't unstable, it's just spontaneous.

[studmuffn] one day i will find a way to implant annoying songs in other peoples heads
[studmuffn] it will be my supervillian power

[rzrshrp] I want food
[NickBlasta] build more farms

[@Logan] I spent a minute looking at my own code by accident.
[@Logan] I was thinking "What the hell is this guy doing?"

So much of our mundane conversation and spontaneous wackiness is now recorded and distributed. It's like flying past a million people's bedroom windows and dropping in on their couches for milliseconds at a time. How much character can you imagine from a single couplet? The ancient coders, the smart-alecs, the childish, the stoic, the ranters and the ravers, secretive gossipers and clans undone. I wonder how all this will change our writers' sense of hearing.

*This reminded me of the opening issue of Journal of Mundane Behavior, on Japanese Elevator protocol.

**I think this b/c speakers are almost never identified as white unless it figures in the story, while they are frequently identified as black, Hispanic, or Asian even when it seems utterly irrelevant. Since most of the overheard snippets paint the speakers in a bad light, this is particularly unfortunate.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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