Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Eavesdropping Habit . . .

by Sean Chercover

I was drinking alone in a bar. Calling the place a dive would be charitable; it was a dump. A drunk woman slid off her stool and weaved her way to the ladies’ room. As she passed the jukebox, she stopped short, thrust an accusing finger at the music and said, “That can’t be Gene Autry. Gene Autry’s dead.”

I wrote it in my notebook, convinced that it would someday find its way into a story.

A few months ago, I sat in the waiting room of an auto dealership’s service center. There were a half-dozen customers sitting around the room, some reading magazines, some watching the morning news on television. One kid was plugged into an iPod. Across from me sat an elderly couple. And by “elderly” I mean old. Very old. Very frail. I wondered if either of them should still be driving, and thought how sad it will be to lose what little is left of their freedom and independence. The service department cashier stood in the doorway, reading a work order. And then called out to the room.

Cashier: Edgar Batista? Is there an Edgar Batista?
Old Woman (to her husband): What?
Old Man: She said, does anybody want a pizza.
Old Woman: I don’t know anybody named Lisa.

I jotted the exchange down in my notebook. Had I been plugged into an iPod, or watching the morning news, or reading a magazine, I’d have missed it. Had I left my notebook at home, I’d have remembered it incorrectly.

One more: Last October, I sat in a generic chain coffee house in a generic strip mall in a generic suburb. Reading a book and drinking coffee, killing time before an appointment. Two generic suburban yuppie women sat at a nearby table and chatted about their generic suburban yuppie lives. The women were named Susan and Gail. They mostly complained about their kids, who had names like Dakota and Kyle and Brittany. I tuned them out and returned to my book.

Having just categorized the women according to stereotype, I almost missed what came next. But the tone of their voices changed. I heard Gail say, “I’m afraid to ask, but how’s Paul doing?” I closed my book.

“He’s got less than a year . . . maybe six months. They discovered it too late, and it’s a fast-moving cancer.” Susan then told Gail that she asked her husband what he wants, what she can do for him. “He said he wants go to a Blackhawks game and sit down front at ice level. I’ve already ordered the tickets. And he wants me to dress up as Olivia Newton-John from Grease for Halloween, and . . . you know.”

“Isn’t that kind of insulting?” Gail said. “He wants to fantasize about someone else?”

“He’s dying, Gail,” Susan shot back. “If he wants to fuck me and pretend he’s fucking Olivia Newton-John, I’m happy to do it for him. Christ.

I’ve got a dozen notebooks filled with snippets of overheard conversations, observed situations, random graffiti. I browse through them every now and then. A few entries made their way into Big City, Bad Blood.

They usually need some rewriting, or at least tweaking, to fit into a piece of fiction. A few are perfect just as they happened. Some will never make it into a story, but will provide inspiration for a character, or a scene. And of course there are many that leave me scratching my head, thinking Why the hell did I write that down?

To aspiring writers: Do yourself a favor, leave the iPod at home and carry a notebook instead. Get into the eavesdropping habit, and you’ll be richly rewarded.

To writers who’ve already cultivated the eavesdropping habit, what are your favorite places to listen? And what have you heard lately? Crack open a notebook, and share.


Rob in Denver said...

Great post!

I carry a notebook with me just about everywhere I go, whether it's a little pad or composition book.

I'd love to say I get most of these snippets on the train, but I don't. Most everyone is pretty quiet and it's usually full by the time I get on. I barely have room to stand, let alone write something down.

But I do get them wherever I can hear them (I've lost about a third of my hearing). I got one in the Phoenix airport a while back. Two maintenance workers were trash barrels with filled trash bags they'd collected and talking at the same time.

"All those rules Donnie came up with make no fucking sense."

Then a few weeks back, I was taking my dog for a walk in my neighborhood and there was a guy in his 20s across the street from me and he looked a little lost, wandering like he was scared. I sort of hung back so I could watch him. Then, almost out of nowhere, a car pulled up beside him and the driver leaned over to the passenger side and screamed, "Get in the fuckin car, Lonnie!"

Lonnie jumped a little, startled by the car or hearing his name screamed at him (maybe both), and said, "Hi. You found me."

Lastly, I had a coach who liked to say, "You can't sneak into a street fight," and "Quit standin around like a bottle of pee... somebody'll pour you out." Those have been sitting in the back of my brain for 20 years!

Nina said...

Like Rob, I always have a notebook or index cards with me, and the quotes I like the best come out of modest restaurants or diners that a mix of locals (attorneys, loggers, and so on) frequent. A few highlights:

"You look worse than I do, and I'm goin' fishin'."

"He's a nice guy, I like him fine."
"Yeah, he goes by the rules."

1: "You don't know who's out there."
2: "No, you don't know."
1" "You don't know anything."

Bill Peschel said...

When my wife was in the hospital, I jotted down the following:

Overheard at the phones: "He burst his aeorta"

Passing by a room: "Can you tell me where you are?"
"The hospital"
Can you tell me what year it is?"

Two guys talking in the waiting room: "The operation went pretty well. They took out all her woman things."

Seen on a whiteboard by the patient's bed: "Ron! You are in the hospital!"

Steve Malley said...

I pick the juiciest stuff up in the tattoo shop.

The other day, a 32 year old grandmother (all three generations present) was complaining about those unfair police.

I won't transcribe the whole thing here, but the gist was that she ended up the subject of a homicide investigation when it was actually an accidental overdose. And all she did was rob the dead man's pockets...

Steve Z. said...

Ride the dog. Instead of driving or taking a plane to another city in your part of the country, hop on a Greyhound bus. Listen to your fellow passengers for a few hours. If you're really lucky, the bus might catch fire and all of the passengers will end up standing on the shoulder of the road, comparing tattoos and swapping stories while waiting for a replacement bus (as the one you were on fills with toxic smoke). This happened to my wife and I once. If you don't need to travel, just spend a little time at your local bus station. You'll see and hear some very interesting things.

Carnivals and fairs. The people-watching and eavsdropping can be great. Unfortunately, these are dying -- they've been replaced by giant theme parks. In Chicago, a number of the Catholic church parishes still have carnivals. These can be fun and interesting for writers.

Steve Malley said...

All day yesterday I couldn't shake that Olivia Newton John conversation.

Man, that resonated...

Erin, Capricorn Librarian said...

Sean, I too, particularly enjoyed the segment about Olivia Newton-John. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! You caught a real gem!

Wanted to tell you that I chose your book to read during Spring Break when I took my break from children's lit. I enjoyed it thoroughly! I was geeked to see that you wrote about The Monocle. I used to live in Silver Spring, MD and went there a couple of times when I was downtown. How I love reading about places I've experienced firsthand!

Hope you can come visit us again sometime. We certainly enjoyed hosting you and Marcus in March!

Michael Dymmoch said...


I posted my blog today before I read yours--no coincidence that we all eavesdrop.

For overhearing great stuff, you can't beat 26th & California. And you can't make up the things you hear if you have the patience to wait through the delays.

Last week I found out that regulars call the small caffeteria near the front entrance "The Gangbanger's Grill". And since the caffeteria closed for renovation, jurors and lawyers have been fored to eat out of the "roach coaches" parked along California.

At Belmont & Western, I saw a veteran criminal defense lawyer get a guy off who clocked a bouncer with a 1 pound drinking glass.

Sean Chercover said...

Hey Erin! Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the book, and we'll definitely plan another event for the next one. You are the hostess with the mostess, and we had a blast in Plainwell.

Thanks for sharing, everybody. True about the Olivia Newton-John story - it's not often that you catch one with that much emotional resonance, but they do come along.

Steve, I don't really want to add another tattoo, but, damn. Sounds like a great place to catch conversations.

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