The Things People Say

by Alafair Burke

I’ve been accused of being an eavesdropper.

I deny the allegation.  Eavesdropping is rude, after all.  From my perspective, I simply pay attention to the stuff that loud strangers hoist into my involuntarily captured ears. 

It’s amazing what one overhears if one simply listens.

Yesterday in the gym locker room, one young woman told her friend (loudly) all about some guy who was obviously unhappy in his relationship and just biding his time before dumping his dull, undeserving girlfriend.  “I think he hopes she’ll figure it out on her own.”  The woman who was speaking was apparently all ready to move into his apartment once the breakup happened.  “There’s even outdoor space.”  Hopefully she hasn’t given up her lease yet.

The stuff I overhear in the locker room at Bikram Yoga always makes me feel guilty.  “Are you doing a double today?” “No, I did one yesterday and will do one tomorrow.”  (Mind you, this is a 90 minute class in a 105 degree room with 40 percent humidity.  The only kind of double I’m thinking of when it’s over is a double-long nap.) 

My favorite overheard exchange after yoga went like this: “Are you doing anything for your birthday tonight?” “X is taking me to Y.  I can’t wait.  I’m going to let myself have a glass of wine.”

Based on these overheard conversations, I should have known better last week than to try to strike one up with the familiar face next to me.  Me: “If I’d known it was going to be so warm out, I would have gone running instead.”  Her: “Just do both.”

Thanks to bad cell phone etiquette, the elevator’s another place I hear stuff about strangers (or I guess neighbors), and it’s always stuff I’d rather not know.  Business deals.  The scheduling of appointments.  Those endless, “Where are you?  What are you doing?” phone calls that women of a certain (young) age just can’t seem to help themselves from making — on crowded elevators.

Overhearing people on the street is best of all, because all you get is a two-second clip of some larger conversation – a conversation that, if you’re me, you’ll be left wondering about for the rest of the day.  For a while, I even kept a list of crazy stuff I overheard on 14th Street, the busy street where I live in Manhattan.   Here are some of the more interesting, humorous, or simply odd gems (verbatim, seriously): 

“You ought to try that space out. During the day? Looks like it could be pretty cool.”
-one panhandler to another

“How socially aware.”  “Yeah, those guys totally deserve to get stabbed.”
-an exchange between two high school kids after they passed two idiots wearing blackface on Halloween

“She said excuse me. I was like, excuse me? Excuse you! I’m standing here. You can walk around.”
– Dude blocking the Union Square subway entrance

“I ended up crawling on the ground looking for all kinds of shit. Like, shit I don’t even have. Like, I knew I’d find a jar of peanut butter”

“All he wants to do is go to these daddy parties.”

“That wretched, ungrateful wench.”

“I’ll trade this girl for some Taco Bell. Any takers?”

“I don’t do porn.”
– sidewalk DVD vendor to customer

“No use lie-ing. I just want a beer.”
– Okay, technically, I saw that on a panhandling sign.  I didn’t hear it.

“Every time I think something’s going to happen, it doesn’t happen. This has been my year of, like, …nothing.”

“They skype, like, everyday.” “Oh My God, they have to work out. We have to make sure they work out.”

“My ex-wife is cheating on her current husband to be with me.”

“That dog is not going to eat broccoli.”
– OK, technically I didn’t overhear that one either. Someone said it to my face when I stopped to let Duffer try to eat a piece of brocolli dropped on the sidewalk.

“…with some man who said he wanted to kidnap me!”
(See above comment about odd, out of context conversational snippets)

“Just get a bunch of product and make it messy Kate Moss hair.”

“Don’t you even try to say a word to me. You the one got two babies by two first cousins.”
(Yep, that was the one that prompted me to start keeping a list.)

My apologies, but only fans of Arrested Development will understand the relevance of this picture

So, how about it?  Do you “eavesdrop”?  What have you overheard lately?

31 thoughts on “The Things People Say

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Of course I eavesdrop. And the idiots who don't realize their loud end of a cell phone conversation isn't private are a gold mine.

    The most memorable one, from a guy walking behind me in the concourse at the airport: "I can't stand the thought of him touching you after all the love we made this weekend". I almost stopped dead and turned around, but restrained myself. I mean, dude. Really?

  2. MJ

    Great post (and I love Arrested Development – you nailed that one).

    I was at a very staid chamber music concert once, at a church hall, and a group of 80 year olds two rows up were yukking it up – one said something like "he had two bachelor's degrees? You need two of those like you need two vasectomies!"

    Thanks for the visual, dude. I started journaling more after that one (and including the remarks).

  3. Debbie

    I overheard this conversation between two girls in the restroom of the Rainforest Cafe restaurant.

    "Napkins, twenty five cents?"
    "Why would anyone pay twenty five cents for napkins when they are on the table for free?"

  4. Louise Ure

    "I'm not going to get a Ferrari until I'm worth at least a million dollars. Otherwise, I'd just be a poseur."

    Overheard at lunch, by a young man, who, alas, will always be a poseur.

  5. Jen Forbus

    Man! I never overhear anything good like this…one of the drawbacks of living in the Midwest?

    But hey, any fool who wants to talk about such things out in public deserves to be overheard!

  6. Dudley Forster

    I too, have never heard anything this good, but then the population of our entire county is around 100,000 so not as much opportunity to “accidentally” hear phone conversations. Most teens around hear text so not a lot teen drama either. We're kind of boring, unless you want to hear about what I see on people’s PCs –sheesh

  7. Allison Brennan

    My favorite overheard at Walmart a couple years ago in the medicine aisle, woman on cell phone: "I have too many things to do. I might go to the emergency room tonight if I'm not feeling better."

  8. Sylvia

    "Don't you even try to say a word to me. You the one got two babies by two first cousins."

    I love it!

    Some of the best ones I hear are from the kids playing outside:

    "If your dog is a boy and mine's a girl they can be in LOOOOVE. I mean real L-U-V-E love!"

    "Harry, don't stick your finger in there. It's just gross even if it is your nose"

    Or while doing the obligatory Christmas shopping:

    "I really thought he'd have a bigger inseam"

    "No ma'am, one size fits all in thongs really does have a limit" – I had to turn around to see this one. A woman pushing 400lbs. holding up a pair of HankyPanky thongs asking if one-size fits all was a guarantee.

  9. Jim Cox

    One day I was waiting to get my hip x-rayed to confirm my doctors impression that my problem was nothing serious (it wasn't serious). In the general waiting area there was a lady loudly talking into a cell phone near me. She was explaining that their sick relative had a fighting chance if "the tube stayed open". She told the person on the other end of the conversation to "pray for the tube".

    She wasn't praying for a miracle — only that the tube stay open. It was probably the strangest conversation I've ever listened to.

  10. Jim Cox

    Approximately thirty years ago, I was waiting in line to order a hamburger. Two females walked up behind me. One was explaining some relationship situation to the other. She explained in the most snide and sarcastic tone possible "and she thought everything was just hunky-dory". Something about her tone and air of superiority was most annoying. I wanted to tell her "Well, everything really is hunky dory". It's hard to believe I remember such nonsensical happenings from so long ago.

    Another time, also 30+ years ago, one of my (female) coworkers was explaining her weight loss issues to another (male) employee. He said, with an air of utter certainty "You're retaining water". He repeated this several times. He was just so sure of himself. I wanted to grill him about how he could be so sure of his opinion.

  11. Kagey

    Once, while writing in a coffee shop, a woman sat a table away and began reciting a litany of divorce woes to whomever she was talking to. I figured out she was discussing her daughter, who eventually showed up to join her for coffee. But the weird thing was, she didn't get off the phone. Her daughter waved to her, went and got coffee, all the while the mom is ripping the soon-to-be ex, and not really sparing her criticism of her daughter in the meantime.
    I actually pulled out my journal and started writing verbatim everything she said. It was priceless. And loud.

  12. Christine McCann

    Your well-placed Mickey cartoon? Hysterical!! And how adorable is the little one snoozing in the cubby?

    During an appt at my hair salon in Indiana, there was a woman complaining and dishing about issues going on within the local police department where her husband worked. She's in back getting her hair washed, but it's a small salon and we ALL can hear her. The funniest part was when she started one sentence in a confidential tone, "Just between you and me" to her stylist. I met my stylist's eye in the mirror and we both laughed about that.

    Talk about bad cellphone etiquette…answering or continuing a phone call IN a bathroom stall. Really?! I have yet to hear a phone conversation critical enough that it can't wait until they're done.

  13. Heather H.

    "There is no way I am eating cheese out of your back pocket."

    Yep, This lovely snippet was brought to you all the way from Brownstown, Indiana. (I walked into my place of employment, an auto body shop, and overheard a parts supplier say this to a mechanic. I kept walking.)

    God bless America folks.

  14. Alafair

    Once on book tour I was eating by myself at the hotel bar. Some guy tried a cheesy line on the bartender. I took out a notebook, wrote it down, and told him I was going to use it in a book. He was actually proud.

  15. Karen in Ohio

    If I'm in a public restroom and someone is also there, sitting on the can and talking on a cell phone, I flush the toilet twice. Weirdly, no one ever seems to care.

    In the Annie Proulx book Close Range, that also contains the story Brokeback Mountain, there is a story which includes overheard bits from a party line. It's utterly brilliant. If I hadn't given it away I could check to see which short story it was.

  16. KarinNH

    The strangest–and most horrifying–comment overheard in a public place?

    Walking through Copley Square in Boston, I passed by a woman just as she yelled into her cell phone, "You know, it takes real talent to be able to catheterize oneself."

    I did not want to know that was possible.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    Weirdest overhead thing I can recall off the top of my head was a conversation between two business-type guys in an airport restaurant. There'd just been a massacre in an Amish schoolhouse and the guys were discussing it, loudly, when one says to the other, "Yeah, but he only killed the women. " I'm sure what he meant to say was, "He killed only the women" but put like that it took on a whole new raft of possibilities…

    Other overheard delights:

    "You sound cheerful."
    "Oh, don't worry, it's all an act."

    "He had not a lot to say, but a lot of words to say it in."

    "That's not taking the mickey – that's stealing it at gunpoint."

    "It all adds to life's rich pageant."
    "Or detracts from life's rich expectancy."

  18. kit

    Ok..the one that completely blew me outa the water happened years ago also…like 30+yrs or so…it was between two teenage girls looking at music in a department store….

    "did you know Paul McCartney was in some band before he was in the Wings?……."

  19. kit

    also, it's an occupational hazard..something I picked up, after years of bartending….you listen to tone,pacing, inflection…and *brain-mouth-no filter*….the voice is like a musical instrument….you can hear all sorts of emotions in it…and that can stop drama or fights BEFORE they start.
    Haven't bartended in years, but even now…I still listen.

  20. Alafair Burke

    Oh Kit, that is so tragic. I once heard a woman in Barnes & Noble tell her friend that she "loved books, just not the reading kind."

    Today we overheard a diner next to us remark that the food at the next table looked delicious. I told the person what it was (queso) so they could order it. The person who had it had to add, "We know the chef. Just ask for Darren and tell him to send you what we have." The guy looked at me and said, "Or I could just ask for the queso."

  21. Reine

    Alafair – hysterical! And I am adopting that Mickey Mouse for my electronic stationery!

    I don't have to eavesdrop. People tend to think that wheelchair users are deaf.

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