I encourage it. I encourage it in the Harriet the Spy way – listening to people you can’t see and trying to figure out what they look like — but I also believe in just listening to people in order to appreciate the rhythms of speech and the way people organize the facts of their lives when presenting them to others.
Overheard today (ellipses sub out the questions asked by the hairdresser.):
“I’m moving to California so I want a new look . . . Wednesday. I guess I need bangs. Bangs are the thing right now, right? . . . Los Angeles. Glendale, actually. My uncle — well, not my uncle, but my mother’s friend — he lives there. And the thing is, because I’m moving, I’m going out a lot, to the clubs and the bars? And I’m having so much fun, I’m meeting all these cool people.”
Here the hairdresser asked if the girl had a boyfriend. “I’m talking to someone.” I love that answer, its implication that relationships are like business deals or jobs. She’s in negotiations. Either side might not decide not to go ahead with the transaction. “I’m talkng to someone.”
Then, on the way home, I saw a woman talking to her toddler, who had pointed to the piles of melting snow and said: “ooooooow.”
“Yes, that’s snow. But it’s dirty snow. It’s snow that’s been lying on the ground. It’s snow that was on the street and was pushed into piles, so it’s dirty snow. It’s snow that people have walked on and dogs have pee-peed on . . . “
Here, my pace took me out of earshot. But by then, _I_ was terrified of the dirty, dirty snow.
Back in the early 1980s, the writer William Least Heat Moon had a spectacular success with a book called Blue Highways, in which he drove the country’s secondary and backroads in a circular pattern. The dialogue in the book was uncanny. Enchanted by the book, my then-boyfriend and I wrote Least Heat Moon and asked if he had taken notes or recorded the conversations. He said he had been a journalist and found the presence of a pad or recorder hampered one’s ability to listen. He said he simply listened hard and then wrote down what he remembered at day’s end.
I wouldn’t approve of such a technique for most nonfiction. But I think he was right in the main. If you listen hard, you can remember.
One last snippet, overheard in Riverside Park a few days ago, a uniquely Baltimore conversation:
Boy: “You’re supposed to call it Washington Village now.”
Mother: “They can say it’s Washington Village all they like but it’s Pigtown and will always be Pigtown.”
Would-be Harriets: Get your your composition books and scribble down those delicious bit of overheard life.