In Richmond in the 1980s I lived next door to Kent, a Baptist missionary who was off for Tanzania soon, “Bringing the word of the Lord, just testifying.” One afternoon I heard a bit of that in the backyard after birds had comprehensively soiled his laundry, sheets and shirts splattered by what must have been a truly Hitchcockian flock. “Bastards… 27 pieces, got 21. Son of a bitch….” This went on for a while, addressed to nobody, and I was impressed. For a missionary, the man could curse.
I don’t know why such things are often more interesting than being spoken to directly. I’m probably not any snoopier than average, although being a writer might make you that way (or vice versa). I’m certainly avid for ideas I don’t have to come up with myself. And I’ve gotten some good ones by listening to what isn’t, strictly speaking, any of my business.
I don’t do it as an eavesdropper. Technically that requires you to stand in an yfesdrype, Old English for “the place where rainwater drips off the roof,” which is likely to involve muddy shoes, legal action and, at least where I live, firearms. But it’s simple enough without all that. I keep my ears open, I’m extremely temptable from productive work, and I have the concentration powers of a fruit fly. So I hear things.
The words back me up. German for “eavesdrop,” lauschen, is cognate with both “loiter” and “lurk,” two of my favorite activities, and with the Dutch for “delay” and “linger” (ditto), and even with the Gothic for “mislead.” Somebody’s been doing this for a lot longer than we’ve had names for it. Journalists and gossips aren’t the only ones curious about what they’re not being told.
In any case it’s hard not to overhear. It’s unavoidable now. People sprout phones like derringers from coat sleeves to yammer in restaurants and elevators, on trains, at ball games and movies, and for all I know at funerals. The cellular revolution has altered, along with much else, what counts as private. Somehow the act of speaking in public with a person who isn’t there, once the surest sign of madness, frees us from old prohibitions against airing dirty laundry, or even the most mundane personal particulars, among complete strangers at volumes appropriate for hailing a cab.
I’m a little too private to feel so free myself, but I’m as interested in people’s stories as anyone, so what’s curious is how little attraction most such conversations hold for me. I like the kind with a touch of mystery and a clear and present listener, someone who isn’t me. There’s none of that in a one-sided, half-shouted discussion of lunch plans or what Ted said at the shareholders’ meeting.
We all live for stories, though, live by them. And for me the word-snatches that separate themselves from the noise, leaping out of the rhubarb — a word I’m told actors say in crowd scenes (along with “watermelon”) to sound like conversation — provide a story in embryo. A website called Overheard in New York invites city dwellers to send in their favorites, and the first two I looked at were:
Italian dude: So, are you interested in men?
Coffee house chick: I’m only interested in alternative lifestyle karaoke characters.
Guy looking at books, to no one in particular: I don’t want to hear or see anything about the devil, demons, voodoo or big hairy black guys.
Admittedly these could be made up, who knows. The temptation to embellish, at least, must be strong. But if you hang around humanity long enough, loitering and lingering, this begins to sound like people you’ve met.
It’s funny though. Whether overheard or not, just talking to people other than yourself or God (or as with Kent, possibly both) doesn’t render you more honest, less filtered, or suddenly fascinating. Another curiosity, then, is why I ever find such conversations interesting. But I do. In Boston once, from the other side of a hedge (an organic eave), I heard a construction worker tell his friend, “Sox gonna take dat dive anyway. Don’t mattah how fah they out, still gonna take dat plunge.” Nothing very illuminating, especially if you were a Red Sox fan in the ‘90s, but it delighted me anyway. As did hearing this between two women at a mall, on a stone bench screened by potted plants:
I had the heart-to-heart talk of my life last night.
No, with some guy I met in the Jacuzzi. You can tell someone anything if you’re never gonna see them again.
Maybe the fragmented nature of these stories (and, like it or not, our life stories) makes us eager to fill in the blanks, connecting to clearer narratives than our own. I think one reason we read, and especially reread, novels is to experience a story from before the beginning to after the end, something that involves considerably more guesswork in real life.
Or maybe it’s just fun, especially when we get things wrong — as when I once heard my brother say from the next room, “I think I’ve found a way to use my obsession with sex to my advantage.” It was actually “sets,” but I don’t believe I’m the only English speaker who would have made that mistake. “Sets” makes for a very unlikely sentence, unless you know my brother. And besides, “sex” is one of those words we seem programmed to hear even when we’re not listening. I taught in college for years, and more than once I quieted an unruly class by saying “sex” with no more emphasis or volume than all my politer cues (“Time to get to work, people… Let’s settle down”) but with drastically different effect. Students ceased the rustle and chatter and looked around, vaguely confused, not sure why they’d stopped.
I know this from the other side of the eaves, too. One university where I worked had a large Asian population, and conversations on the shuttle bus flowed over me in Japanese, Chinese, Korean — I never knew which, ignorant of all — without my understanding a word. I didn’t listen (why would I?) but my brain evidently did, trying to make meaning out of rainwater. One afternoon I was startled to hear a young man in conversation behind me say “Niggaz is hard.” It yanked my head up from the magazine the way my name would have, or a sudden modulation from normal voice to a whisper, something that also pricks up our ears. I couldn’t ask him what he’d really said, of course, and I didn’t want to. On the same bus the day before, an Asian girl across the aisle referred abruptly to a “marijuana shit dome,” which made my morning. Brains are strange things. Mine, anyway.
I’m always pleased to find I’m not alone in this, whether it’s mishearing song lyrics or trying to force meaning from a foreign utterance like some linguistic lemon squeezer. In a bar in Wales I once found myself leaning toward people I didn’t think I was even paying attention to, my brain trying its damnedest to shape words from the English-ish welter of Welsh. The British slang for elaborate nonsense, “All my eye and Betty Martin,” derives from a sailor overhearing, in some Catholic corner of empire, the Latin prayer Ora pro mihi, beata Martine (Pray for me, blessed Martin). The happy fact that Saint Martin of Tours is the patron saint of innkeepers and reformed drunkards doesn’t alter the lesson at all, since I walk around half the time word-drunk, as most of us do from an early age. Before we can read or even speak, we listen. And the mystery of human speech, once solved, fiercely resists recoding. We make meaning any way we can, sometimes carving the puzzle pieces to fit.
The mystery, I think, is what finally appeals: that intimation you aren’t meant to share, the half-heard story you’ll never complete. I once found in a used book (The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, of all things) a 1968 drugstore receipt from Modesto, California with a handwritten name and an Rx number and price. Nothing earthshaking, but did Nancy S get relief? Did Dr. B make the right call? Was it worth $1.60? (Those were different times.) A more enigmatic message awaited me in a library book — it really should have been the Holmes — in the form of a scrap of paper scrawled in trembling ink: Prof. and Mrs. LeClerc: The repairman could not You don’t have to be unusually impressionable to hear the intrigue in that. What couldn’t the repairman? And why not? I still wonder.
Last words, famous or not, have always struck me as the ideal category of this. Not ones that strike the ear as scripted and rehearsed (Anna Pavlova: “Get my swan costume ready”) or the undoubtedly apocryphal, or even the perfectly apt but slightly early. Oscar Wilde, for instance, did say the legendary “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do,” but it was about a week before he passed. At the end he was murmuring a shred of Catholic prayer. My favorites are those that seem addressed not to a deathbed audience or posterity but to some version of Professor LeClerc, whether earthly or divine. Henry David Thoreau’s bedside exchange with a priest is often cited as a classic of the form, and rightly so, particularly as it seems to have actually happened.
Have you made peace with your God?
We never quarreled.
Aren’t you concerned about the next world?
One world at a time.
His final words, though, like Wilde’s, came later. I suppose this disappoints lovers of witty repartee, but how many of us will really be in the mood for epigrams with our last breath? And besides, I like his true farewell better. Those gathered around the muse of Walden Pond as he expired heard him say “Now comes good sailing,” followed after a moment by the single words “moose” and “Indian.” It’s a good picture, one that gives you a little room to move. I also like Steve Jobs’ valedictory “Oh wow, oh wow” and Thomas Edison’s “It’s very beautiful over there,” which might have referred to the view out his window or might not. There are things I like not knowing, and that’s one of them.
For chillingly appropriate endings, it’s hard to beat Robert Louis Stevenson’s. The godfather of Mr. Hyde fetched a bottle from his wine cellar and, uncorking it in the kitchen, cried out to his wife as a blood vessel burst in his brain, “What’s the matter with me, what is this strangeness, has my face changed?” This prompted Nabokov to remark: “Sometimes the destinies of authors follow those of their books.”
For Dante’s sake I hope this is true, because for my money he has the last word in last words. He composed the final line of the final canto of the Divina Commedia less than an hour before he passed, so his “last recorded words,” according to translator Robert Durling, were l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stele: “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Whoever might be listening, we could all do a lot worse.