The Spoken Word


By Louise Ure

"Just because you ran over him doesn't make you guilty."

– Man to man, overheard at Starbucks in Belmont by Harry Smith

There's something special about the spoken word that sets my heart a-thumping. That's true for dialogue in crime fiction, but also for the casual eavesdropping I do in coffee shops, at cocktail parties and in line at the bank.

Take the example above. It's part of a daily offering in our San Francisco paper, where hapless bystanders phone in the most bizarre conversation they've overheard that day.

Is that a story starter or what?

Maybe they're talking about running over a dog. Maybe a little kid darted out from between two cars. Or maybe the second man used his car as a battering ram in self-defense when some guy was attacking him.

Whatever the case, if I opened a book to find those words on the first page, I wouldn't be able to put it down.

It's a hook, certainly, as well as a glimpse into a character and a life. And it's all fodder for our work. Maybe that line will define a character I create (someone with the morals of a weasel, methinks).

Maybe it will become the basis for a plotline (a father telling his adopted teenage daughter that it was okay to leave the scene of the accident because he knew he couldn't afford to have the cops get her name, photo and fingerprints. Hmmm.).

Here are a few more "Public Eavesdropping" mentions from the paper that made their way into the Ideas Folder on my desk:

"Check it out, dude. those are isotopes."
                                                     -Young men overheard at the BART station by Robin Sutherland

"I am really attracted to people with hyphenated names. It shows extra effort."
-Uncredited Public Eavesdropping, SF Chronicle
"My parents' biggest disappointment in me is that I'm not a lesbian."

– Woman in clothing shop in San Francisco, overheard by Mike Pincus

"A marshmallow saved my dad's life."

– Man to woman, overheard at Longs in Oakland by Elyanna Snyder

We all do it. Pretend to be consulting your iPhone, but your ears are trained on the conversation of the two people in front of you in line at the grocery store. Stop to dig around in your purse, but you're just killing time so you can listen in on the fight in the car parked next to you in the lot.

A friend of mine proudly wears a sweatshirt that reads "Be nice or I'll put you in my next novel." I'd never announce my intentions  that way. It's too much fun to sit back unobtrusively and jot down the random craziness I hear in the next booth at the coffee shop.

Here are a few more from my own eavesdropping efforts:

"Unidentified transient odors are not enough cause for a warrant."
– Man in a suit to a cop, overheard at coffee shop in San Francisco
"She treats him like a flying carpet. Walks all over him and still expects him to take her places."
– Young woman to young woman, San Francisco Galeria
"If he touched my leg one more time I thought I'd have an organism."
– Preteen girl to preteen girl in Nordstrom's, Seattle
"I used to be your mother once."
-Middle-aged woman to teenage daughter wearing headphones in MacDonalds on I-5
"How would you know it was a real hot flash and not just July?"
– Woman to woman at Fry's grocery story in Tucson, Arizona in July
"Why don't you buy a slipcover for it?"
"Because then it would look like a couch wearing a condom."
– Well-dressed woman and man in line at Wells Fargo
"I think she was a Weather Girl in another life."
– Said with a sneer by a middle-aged woman in line for a movie
"I thought Greenwich Mean Time was the hour I was allowed to be obnoxious."
– Teenage girl to father in food court

And my current favorite:

"No, no. If you're famous before the trial, you get acquitted.
If you're famous because of the trial, you get convicted."
-Lawyer to gangbanger at a lunch counter next to the Hall of Justice, San Francisco

We couldn't make this shit up. And isn't that grand?

Sorry for the short post today, 'Rati, but I'm knee deep (along with Co-Chair Judy Greber) in the final programming for Left Coast Crime in Hawaii. Who to moderate this panel? Can we shift the time so that folks can get to see the lava flow? Is she arriving Saturday or Sunday? If you haven't signed up yet, please do so soon, or you'll miss out on the very best panel placement opportunities. This is going to be a blast.

And in the meantime, what's your very best "overheard" conversation?


36 thoughts on “The Spoken Word

  1. billie

    A man was knitting in a coffee shop. He was young and handsome and I’d already decided the fact that he was knitting a scarf was amazing.

    His girlfriend joined him, and she was sullen and immediately began to read a book, ignoring him for the most part. She had that “I’m too cool to act like I care” attitude.

    At some point he actually finished the scarf and stood up to show it to her. She refused to let him put it around her neck, so he draped it around his own.

    “I was with you when I cast this on!” He was so excited to have finished the scarf, and that he had both begun and finished the scarf while with her.

  2. Fiona

    My DH and I are terrible about this, especially when we are at a nice restaurant (birthdays and anniversary) and we will both start laughing at the same time.

    Our favorites are people who look like they’re on first dates. We were at a nice place for my birthday last year. The woman at the table next to us, who looked as though she wasn’t sure what to do with a cloth napkin, looked over the amazing menu and announced to her date, “There’s nothing here that looks good. Let’s go get pizza.” He said, “Go ahead. I’m ordering the tasting menu.”

  3. Gayle Carline

    My best eavesdropping takes a little set-up: I was waiting in line to buy tickets for my friend and I to see “Nell”. Behind me, two young, gum-smacking girls were talking about the movie.”Nell? Wha’s that?””I dunno. Some retarded girl or somethin.”This was replayed a few times. After I got my tickets, I heard them again as I stepped away from the counter:”Two for Dumb and Dumber.”

    You’re right. You can’t make that stuff up.

  4. Louise Ure

    Oh Lord, Fiona, that sounds like a blind date or an eHarmony matchup gone wrong. Let’s see … tasting menu versus pizza. Could it get much different?

    And Gayle, I think I ran into this same two coming out of Mel Gibson’s “Hamlet.” “I dunno,” one of them said. “The writing wasn’t very good. ‘To be or not to be?’ Nothing but clichés.”

  5. Doug Riddle

    Check out Overheard in New York and Overheard in Dublin……so funny.

    From Overheard in Dublin:

    Girl 1: “I did’nt know you could see through aluminium”Girl 2: “Ya can’t ya muppet”Girl 1: “Ya f**kin can”Girl 2: “Ya f**kin can’t”Girl 1: “Did ya never hear of aluminium windows”?

  6. Rae

    I don’t know that it’s necessarily eavesdropping, but I’m always fascinated and appalled by couples on dates in fancy restaurants, who each spend their evening on the cell phone with someone else. I’ve actually heard them discussing the menu with their cell-phone buddies – but not with each other. Very weird.

  7. J.T. Ellison

    “Sorry folks, my computer has the hiccups and won’t let me leave comments here. Thanks to JT, here’s a short reply. If you don’t see a response from me, know that I’m enjoying your comments but that little Post button won’t let me back in.

    Michael, the hyphenated names comment made me grin from ear to ear. It’s not waffling! It’s extra effort!

    Doug, I’m a regular fan of Overheard in New York, but I hadn’t tried the Dublin version. Thanks for that! And your example is a howl.

    Rae, you describe such a sad state of affairs, although I’ve seen it myself in restaurants or bars. Is face to face conversation such a scary thing?”



  8. Tammy Cravit

    I love overheard snippets of conversation…especially since I suspect the snippets are far more interesting than the whole conversation would be. As for my favorite? I once overheard two teenagers debating whether dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time. One said to the other, “Of course they did! Remember The Flintstones? Duhhhhh….”

    The problem with these snippets is that sometimes they’re so outrageous that nobody would believe them if you wrote ’em down.

  9. Murderati

    (Until I can figure out how to make love to my computer again, you’ll see me show up here today as “Murderati.” Hope you guys are having a better day than I am.)


  10. Allison Brennan

    I’m not a good eavesdropper. I tend to listen to the voices in my head more than the ones speaking outside of it. (Whoops, did I spill the beans? Damn.)

    However, I do watch people. I had to stop writing at one particular Starbucks because it had become the come-to place for first dates between people who met on-line. I couldn’t stop watching them. I didn’t care so much about what they were saying (I can NOT eavesdrop discreetly) but I focused on their body language and whether I thought they would be going on a real date, which one liked the other, whether it was mutual attraction or mutual repulsion, whether one of them would turn into a stalker . . . the only good thing was that I fix a plot point that bothered me while writing FEAR NO EVIL about how my smart victim could get lured by an online predator. But I had to go to a different Starbucks from then on . . .

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Great post, some wonderful examples, and I hope you and your computer can work things out between you amicably ;-]

    I have a couple of favourites that spring to mind. One was overheard during a walk round Whitby Abbey, “This is where – legend has it – that Dracula came ashore.”

    Erm, ‘legend has it’? Really? So, not just a work of popular fiction, then?

    The other was overheard in Logan International Airport in 2006, two businessmen discussing a suicidal gunman who attacked an Amish schoolhouse, shooting dead five female hostages before killing himself. One of them commented, “But he only shot the women.”

    Now, I’m sure the guy meant to say, “But he shot only the women.” Misplacing that one word altered the whole drift of the sentence for me, from a statement on the gunman’s deranged state of mind, to a far more telling one on the speaker’s own prejudices.

  12. Murderati

    Tammy, I’m clearly failing the love-making test today. I think my computer’s looking for a little action on the side right now.

    And Allison, can’t you just imagine the body language wrestling match between Fiona’s “pizza or tasting menu” duo from above?

  13. Michael McGovern

    Zoe- That’s exactly what you want to hear your defense lawyer say at your trial: “But he only shot the women”.

    Judge: *pounds gavel* Guilty! Now let the defendant pay his fine so we can all get out of here.

  14. Diane Whiddon-Brown

    This was a great, post Louise. I LOVED the hyphen comment. (wonder why?)

    And just as I’m thinking that I’m going to post about it, I read Tammy’s comment about the t-shirts. I’m SO getting one of those! 🙂 Thanks for the link.

  15. Louise Ure

    Zoë, that conversation in the Abbey is probably the same kind of thing you hear on all those “Da Vinci Code walking tours.” Ugh.

    And I wonder which version of “only” that guy really meant. I know Americans are often inarticulate, but are we also this insensitive?

    Tammy and Diane, I think we ALL need those t-shirts. (Especially the defense counsel that Michael envisions.)

  16. Catherine

    I wish I could remember overheard conversations that stood out. I tend to process them at the time and just laugh to myself(sometimes silently…sometimes not).

    I think a while back when my Dad and I had to wait at the airport,I gained some extra insight into my Dad. He showed me how he spends his spare time . Dad is one of those people that never seems to have spare time, but apparently all these years he has been not only people watching, but making up stories for who they are, and where they’re heading based on their body language for his own amusement.Frankly I was amazed at how he viewed people, and loved his explanations of why they were who he thought they were.

    Louise you have my sympathy for the stubborn post link.I’ve been lurking about for weeks with the same

  17. Catherine

    Wheee it worked, the last time I tried I received a very polite message from typepad saying ‘Sorry we couldn’t post your message.’ Only mildly dead obvious computer speak.

  18. Louise Ure

    Welcome back, Catherine. Yes, apparently Typepad and my computer liked the intricate foreplay I’ve been performing with them today … I can finally post again instead of seeing that floating dim “Post” button.

    And I think your father is a writer at heart. He’s already creating stories in his head.

  19. Camille Minichino

    Not surprising, my favorite is “check it out dude — those are isotopes!”

    My own most depressing “overheard” — one young sales clerk saying to another, “I’m not sure who’s going to propose first, Tommy or Dale. It’s so exciting.”

    I guess marriage is first-come, first-served to some.

    Camille Minichino/aka Margaret Grace

  20. toni mcgee causey

    I was waiting in the car while my husband ran an errand when a couple parked next to my car. Their windows were up, but the body language was obvious: they were having a screaming meltdown. In less than a minute, they climbed out of their car, continuing to yell at each other, whereupon the guy announced to the girl, “Why in the hell do you think I know what I’m talking about? Do I even *look* like someone who knows what he’s talking about?”

    I cracked up. My window was rolled down and they both looked over at me and I couldn’t even fake not listening at that point. [I was relieved my laughing made them laugh and quit fighting.]

    I love those overheard sites, too, like Doug mentioned above.

    Great topic, Louise. I hope your computer feels deeply regretful and makes it up to you for the rest of the year with fast and strong connections. (That did not sound nearly as dirty in my head.)

  21. Louise Ure

    Interesting, Camille, in that I “heard” that salesgirl’s comment entirely differently. I thought she was talking about a couple of gay friends of hers who were thinking about getting married!

    And Toni, sometimes we just can’t top reality. I was having dinner with a friend and former drunk … a guy I really didn’t like very much back in his drinking days. When he pitched a fit in the restaurant and went off of the waiter with the screamed phrase “DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I USED TO BE?” I had to laugh … and realize that it wasn’t the liquor that had been the problem with him.

  22. Sandy

    Overheard in a restaurant…She: “Ex-wife.”He: “What?”She: “In your story you said ‘my wife.’ Didn’t you mean ‘my ex-wife’?”Silence ensued…

  23. Louise Ure

    Uh oh Sandy. And he sounds like the kind of guy who might call out the ex-wife’s name in his dreams. I see trouble ahead. But what a great scene you could write starting with the dialogue you overheard!

  24. Jordan Dane

    Seriously funny stuff here. Thanks for the inspiration. I’m heading out to eavesdrop right now.

    And I’ve always wanted to record the usual conversation over a fondu pot. This works especially well when everyone has imbibed.


  25. bfs

    I laughed all the way through this quirky post! Inspirational! And great comments, too! Obviously, I don’t get out enough! I’m missing way too much!

  26. Fran

    At the VA hospital, I overheard an old black man say, “If you have to ask yourself if it’s true love, it isn’t.”

    And Lillian overheard a small, prim lady announce with authority, “I use the same bible Jesus used — the King James version!”

    Of course now I’m debating being Fuller-Watson, just so I can say I’m putting in extra effort.

  27. Camille Minichino

    I need to work on my “show don’t tell” Louise — the “girls” in the store were definitely talking about getting married themselves, not gay men.

    Anyway — great post and great comments.

  28. Louise Ure

    Happy eavesdropping, Jordan and bfs! We expect a full report.

    Fran, the “true love” quote should be sewn onto samplers. And I think you’d make a great Fuller-Watson.

    Camille, now I’m as aghast as you were when you overheard the brainless salesgirls.

    Bonus: today’s Public Eavesdropping quote from the SF Chronicle was “Christmas was really fun this year. We have a felon in the family for the first time.”

  29. Cornelia Read

    Overheard years ago at a luau by my sister Freya, the summer she spent sailboarding in Maui:

    “Ah yes, we have something similar in Connecticut. We call them ‘barbecues.'”

  30. Elyanna

    Hi this is Elyanna, from the marshmallow eavesdropping!

    I had a lot of people ask me how the guy’s father was saved, sorry to tell you this but I never got to hear the rest of the story. I tried to follow them down the isle but I was laughing so they spotted me and I had to turn and go the other way.

    But trust me, I’m as curious for the rest of that story as everyone else is!


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