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Overheard lives: an appreciation of eavesdropping in the city

Few of the films or TV shows I write about are as fascinating and full of unruly life as the encounters I have each day in the city. New York is an immense, honeycombed theater of interactions, some deliberate, some incidental, seemingly constructed for eavesdropping, casual conversation and unexpected moment of mutual empathy, as well as eruptions of misery and rage. Every city has a touch of this sort of literal street theater, but it’s harder to avoid in cities that have a tradition of pedestrian life. Some encounters only last a few minutes or a few seconds, but you remember them forever, so vivid are the personas involved. Some encounters have the dramatic shape of a clever joke, a terse but beautifully crafted short story, or one of those subplots on an episode of television that you wish were the main plot because it’s more original and surprising than whatever the main characters are dealing with. Others just sort of hang there in public space, like an empty picture frame in a surrealist painting.

I first became aware of this phenomenon on an unseasonably chilly November night not long after moving here from Dallas, Texas, a city so suburbanized and car-centric that a lot of its major streets have no sidewalks. Strolling home with headphones on after returning a laserdisc to Kim’s in the far West Village—neither laserdiscs nor Kim’s exist anymore; ask your parents about them, kids!—I noticed pedestrians ahead of crossing to the other side of the street, ducking into stores and doorways, even turning around and walking in the opposite direction. I took my headphones off, but before I could perceive the threat, much less react to it, a group of people ahead of me parted like a curtain, revealing a tall African-American man with long straightened hair, wearing a long black coat and boots, gesturing in the air as if casting a spell. “I WILL SLIT YOUR THROATS AND DRINK YOUR BLOOD TO KEEP ME WARM!” he roared, then gave a hearty bass laugh. “Ah HAH HAH HAH HAHHHHH!” The plumes of breath coming out of his mouth sold the evil laugh. He repeated these exact words and the laugh as I passed him, then did it again and again as he receded behind me. I have no idea if he was mentally ill, just messing with people, practicing for an audition, or taking a Halloween costume for a test spin, but he was fearsomely convincing. Then, twenty paces behind him I saw two older white ladies, walking at roughly the same speed as the blood-drinking spell-caster and apparently unfazed by him, and heard just one line of their conversation in passing: one said to the other, in a raspy New York honk, “And I told him…that there is no way….that you are putting that thing…in ME.” 

I’ve named this kind of super-brief encounter a Doppler moment, because it happens in passing, often while you’re walking in the opposite direction of the speakers, or when one of you is in motion and the other is standing still. You only hear what’s happening in your immediate personal vicinity, as if stumbling upon a few random lines while flipping through a novel.  

I still think about three sentences I overheard from a fighting couple walking past my apartment building on Election Night, 2016: (“…You fucking broke it!” she cried, “You broke it! Own the fact that you broke it!…”), as well as a snippet of another fight I overheard last month, also on my block (bad feng shui in my nabe, I guess), between a woman who walked fast and a man who didn’t: “G’head,” he rumbled, clearly at the end of his rope, “Run to the end of the block, see if I care.” I didn’t need to imagine context for the first conversation—I heard the word “Trump” a few times before the couple got close enough to hear any other words—but the second spat is vague enough to become the pivotal moment in a hypothetical short story about a relationship. In my imagination, the couple’s failure to negotiate a common pace indicates a larger failure to listen to each other’s needs and sacrifice a little. Whether she fast-walks to the end of the block after he berates her might determine if this moment constitutes the middle of the story or the end.    

I am not alone in collecting these moments. Overheard in New York has compiled them for a long time. There’s a spinoff site, Overheard Everywhere. The New York Times' “Metropolitan Diary” has been doing the same thing for decades, and certain “Talk of the Town” items in the New Yorker feel like more elaborate versions of these eavesdropped encounters. They’re also conversational currency among like-minded people. I have several friends who begin conversations with me by saying something like, "So I was on the B-63 and I overheard this woman talking about her liver.’"

It’s still a bit startling to realize that these publications aren’t making this stuff up. It's a real thing that happens. At least, it happens if you know how to listen. 

Sometimes it happens even if you don’t feel like hearing it. I seem to have the kind of demeanor that makes people want to tell their stories, even if I’ve never met them before. I bet you know somebody like that. Maybe you are that person.

I always come away from these encounters thinking about how different human interactions are in life as opposed to the movies. That’s not to say that drama is inherently inferior because it’s not generally as realistic, or as odd, as the real thing. Obviously, scripted encounters are trying to do something more pointed than the person who walks up to a random stranger and starts randomly telling you their life story, or recounting a workplace dispute to a friend over coffee (the teller is always the hero, I've noticed), or berating a significant other into a cell phone while cupping the mouthpiece to prevent the noise of a nearby dumptruck from drowning them out (something I just saw happen outside my office not too long ago). I just mean that the real thing is more earthbound, circuitous, mundane. 

Popular entertainment understandably gravitates towards the exceptional, the extraordinary, the horrifying and perverse. The audience wants, or has been trained to want, escapism, or at least something that could never happen—perhaps understandably so, given how dispiriting the familiar can be when presented by tedious storytellers. Whatever the explanation, though, living in this city has made me more keenly aware of all the fascinating stories that will never get told by the media I love, unless they can be wedded to a murder trial, a bomb threat, an alien invasion or what have you.  

As a result, we may not ever see a character like the cabdriver who told me during a ride home from LaGuardia Airport that he used to be a drawbridge operator, that his father and grandfather were drawbridge operators before him, that New York City has 25 moveable bridges, that the profession is part of the International Union of Operating Engineers, that the rank-and-file resent the higher-paid managers even as they strive to join their ranks, and that every time he has to wait in his cab because of an open drawbridge, he critiques the operator’s form and feels nostalgic for the days when he was working the levers. We may never see a character like Miss Finch, a former dancer-turned-choreographer who lived in the West Village apartment building where my wife and I stayed for a couple of years back in the nineties. She had bone marrow cancer and had to struggle to get up four flights of stairs to her efficiency apartment. She smoked Gitanes and drank two bottles of vodka a day—I know this because in the two months preceding her death, I and other residents of the complex used to go out shopping for her because of her mobility issues. Vodka and cigarettes were the only thing she ever asked for. Miss Finch had worked with Bob Fosse on a couple of shows, and while she was adamant that they never slept together, it was obvious from the way her face lit up when she talked about him that she was still in love with him and missed him.

A few months ago I finally got to know my regular barber, a 21-year old Palestinian who scrapes together enough money each month to pay rent on a hole-in-the-wall space a block away from me; our conversations had mainly been confined to my haircut, my son’s haircut, and whatever happened to be on the television, until one evening when he was visibly upset about something. I was in his shop by myself one night and heard him speaking anxiously and angrily in his native language to two of his young friends. I asked him what was wrong, and he proceeded to tell me that an older white man in the neighborhood had demanded that he stop using an American flag-patterned cape because it constituted flag desecration, on top of which, he “wasn’t even an American.” In the course of about ten minutes, I learned about how he’d learned to cut hair (from his father), why he decided to go into business for himself (he likes things done a certain way), that he had recently become engaged to a young woman in the former territories, and that he wasn’t sure that he wanted to bring her over here anymore. In this case it wasn’t any specific phrase that drew my attention, but a distressed tone. We’re friends now, and when I got a haircut and shave there right before getting married last February, he refused my money. 

Another Doppler moment that turned into a friendship happened several years ago when I was living over a jazz bar in Brooklyn with my kids.. “I think I’m gonna move to Florida,” an older man said to an older woman who lived around the corner from me a few years ago. “Cookie, who are you kidding?” the woman said. “You’ve been standing in this spot for forty years.” That made me laugh so hard that Cookie and his friend noticed, and he called out to me, “Well, it’s true!” Cookie was a retired longshoreman who got his nickname because he brought homemade baked goods to work. He took a liking to me and the kids, even baking cakes shaped like animals for their birthdays. 

“I always wondered about you,” he told me one time. “I’d see you walking up and down the street with your kids. I remember one time I heard you and your son talking about superheroes. You said that some characters shouldn’t be called superheroes because they don’t actually have superpowers, like Batman. Your son said, ‘Dad, Batman has a superpower. It’s money.”

Then he laughed. I laughed, too, realizing I was somebody else’s Doppler moment and didn’t realize it.

On his eighth birthday, Cookie gave my son a chocolate cake baked into the shape of an octopus. The kid still talks about it. 

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of, TV critic for New York Magazine and, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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