Living in a city crowded with pedestrian traffic has its advantages. For one, people are less likely to notice when you've wet yourself. Also, I can stick up my middle fingers on the subway and scream, "YEAH, YOU! WITH THE SHITTY FACE!" and at least 40 people have to fight it out to decide who is the recipient of my unprovoked hostility. Generally, when that many people have to divide the blame of a double-bird, their own anger dissipates pretty quickly and all is forgiven.
Most days – particularly since the proliferation of cell phones, which allow the user to comfortably spread his self-involved wings and shamble along like a half-retarded geriatric even as the world clucks its tongue and pushes along behind at twice their pace – I get to overhear pretty wonderful bits of conversation. When I consider this inexpensive pleasure, it produces in me a certain amount of pity for the people of Los Angeles, as that city has the population of a large city without the public density. (this pity is unmarried to other LA-based pity over their unfortunate earthquakes and mudslides and plague of blister beetles genital warts.) LA residents seem to spend most of their days alone, in their cars, and miss out on this kind of thing. But in New York, eavesdropping is our compensation for living in a city with a paucity of good radio stations. Other people's conversations operate at every possible frequency – sweet, wise, evil, embarrassing.
I might have written about this before – I rarely remember anything I've written down, though I suspsect people think I'm making this fact up to cover up for some perverse pleasure I receive at hearing people repeat my own written words back to me – but nearly every time I sit down at a coffee shop or bar by myself, I end up inadvertently sitting next to a couple on a first date. One of the all-time great instances of this was being seated next to a blind date couple at Grey Dog Coffee. The woman was clearly a lonely careerist, set up by friends with a plotless stoner who, in his own words, watches A LOT of Northern Exposure. (In response to her innocent inquiry, "what have you been up to for the last six months, if you haven't had a job?" he replied, "have you seen that show Northern Exposure?" It got better from there.) He proceeded to spill a treasure chest filled with gems of socially disaffected awkwardness, each one more valuable than the last.
Naturally, I felt creepy writing them all down but I started to convince myself it was an historical responsibility. Without his apostles to record all of the good stuff, Jesus would have just been some ashy-skinned guy who went apeshit on a bunch of money-changers in the open market. His whole story would be "remember that guy the Roman guards hauled off last week? He had crazy eyes! I think he might have been a tweaker."
When asked what he had done recently that he was most proud of – at this point the date had deteriorated into a desperate interview session – the young gentleman proceeded to describe, in absolutely loving detail, a metal pipe cage he soldered together to house his Batman action figure. This cage clearly had a significant spiritual purpose, even if it lacked a more immediate, practical one. I could tell, in the way outlined the process of choosing the pipe gauge, that this Batman cage was Something I Finished™. An item on an imaginary To Do list that he'd been wearing like a yoke for months. He probably had the lengths of pipe in his apartment for weeks and weeks before ever picking up that soldering gun and Batman figure. But now he was Done! He was a man.
That was a long time ago, and I still remember every nuance of the conversation more than many more seemingly important ones in which I've actually been an active participant. I wrote a lot of it down, while pretending to be inspired by something entirely different. I know how to make those faces.
A couple of nights ago, still well within the shadow of the East Asian tsunamis, I was eating at a restaurant. (I AM A CALLOUS BRUTE) The room was cramped, and the patrons were seated at narrow, contiguous tables, making it a dining experience that was both communal and intimate. At one point another diner seated at a table directly to my left was scanning the menu silently. He took it all in for about a minute or two. Then, finally, his eyes widened to saucers, and he effused, "OH MY GOD LOOK AT ALL THESE BRUSCHETTA!" He said it with such un-self-conscious conviction that he could have just as easily made that statement while staring at a menu, seated on a pile of flaming kittens. We are all alone here, together.