There is a difference between overhearing and eavesdropping.
Overhearing happens accidentally. You’re waiting for your daughter outside a dressing room in Urban Outfitters, and you hear two other teenagers comparing the merits of one pair of skinny jeans over the other. What they say flies like bits of paper through the air, bits you’ll never try to catch.
Eavesdropping — what spies like me engage in — is deliberate. While I don’t go around eavesdropping on my children’s phone calls or my colleagues’ conversations with students, I feel that public conversations among people who are strangers to me are fair game. I’ll hear a snatch or two of something provocative and, without changing the expression on my face, begin to listen intently and for the record.
On a recent afternoon in a chain coffee shop in my town, for example, I sat down at the communal table. I like the idea of communal tables: it seems easier to sit alone at a table for 14 than it does at one for two. On this occasion, the place was mobbed. People talked to each other, and many were on their cell phones doing business. The high school kids who take over the place, doing homework and buying $5 drinks, were in full force.
To my left at the communal table was a young woman on the phone with a wedding planner, and her work email was opened on the laptop in front of her. Her boyfriend, sitting across from her with a laptop open in front of him, kept getting up and sitting down, waiting for their coffees. As I settled myself, they talked about something (him?) that was “demoralizing” her. He, leaning across their open laptops to close the gap, said he did not want her to be demoralized.
Across from me were the two most annoying older yet handsome women I have ever eavesdropped on in my life. One had apparently written a book of poems on her neurological condition. What that condition was, I could not tell. The other one was incessantly helpful with suggestions. The faced each other; I had my head down into my open laptop. I raised my eyes, discreetly and only for two seconds, to study them for a family resemblance. While they had exactly the same white hair, it was styled differently, and one had a sharp-featured face and the other a lumpen one. Not sisters.
The “poet” kept calling her helpful friend “flip” — “Oh, you think this is so easy? To write! To publish! You sound so flip. You try it.” The Helper tried to elicit from the Poet why she was so fearful and tentative about her own work. Surprisingly, I was sympathetic to neither the Helper nor the Poet; there was a weird aggression underlying their “friendship.” It was more a volley than a conversation.
To my right was a guy, maybe in his 30s or maybe my age — it was hard to tell looking at him sideways without moving my head — he sat straight up in his chair with the iPad on his lap. I think the Poet and the Helper were annoying him too. He was pushed as far back from the table as he could, perhaps trying to block out the intrusion of the women into his mindspace as they assessed the state of the literary publishing industry and traded names of whom they knew who might know someone who’s in publishing. The Helper’s brother-in-law, for example, is assistant dean of surgery at [Famous Name] Medical Center, and reportedly concerned with doctors learning how to be human. “It’s very possible he’ll know someone.”
Interesting how I had no urge at all to help, although one could argue that their topic might be highly interesting to me, enough to intrude. There seems to be an unwritten code of conduct for these communal tables: Sit Among Strangers, but Do Not Commune.
The two white-haired malcontents talked about a “wild Latino poet who has the ear of Pinsky and all these big poets” as a potential contact for the one who wanted to publish her neurological poems. Apparently, the Poet emailed him. But she hasn’t heard back from him. The Helper suggested that this wild Latino poet obviously “doesn’t remember his roots” or where he started. (How, I wondered, can you have roots with strange people you’ve never met? Are all poets somehow the “roots” of each other?) The Helper recommended some woman poet to contact, who “hasn’t forgotten her roots.”
The Poet blurted, “I’d really like to get this accepted and out within the year.” To me, she looked rich. If you’re in such a hurry, I thought, just publish it.
At this moment, someone in the back of the store screamed, a teenage girl. We all looked. Oh, it was the scream of laughter.
Back to the Poet, who said, “Let’s talk about your brother-in-law at [Famous Name] Medical Center. I’d like to contact him. How should I do that?”
The Helper recommended that the Poet first turn the poems into a case study. That would make the doctor brother-in-law interested.
The Poet balked. “But poems are the work of the imagination. Not a chronicle. Have you read poetry? Some poems are hard to understand.” Yeah, have you read poetry, not-helpful Helper?
The Helper leaned closer to the Poet but spoke at the same volume: “But I don’t think my brother-in-law is willing to read a whole book right now. He might need a summary.”
The Poet nodded as though full of wisdom, or at least cunning. “So I need to focus him on the big idea.”
The Helper ignored the mention of a big idea. “I’d like to send him your resume. Do you have one?”
As if on cue, the Poet itemized her writing history out loud. She answered the Helper, “So yes, this is all on my resume.”
The two, in collaboration, came up with a tagline for her collection: “to induce doctors to listen to patients’ stories.” They seemed satisfied, and suddenly there was a lot of cup, napkin, and purse-gathering activity — the universal signal for Our Work Is Done Here.
I sat for a few more minutes, to finish the transcript of this scene and send it via email to James, my intended audience for this. Later he wrote back and called the Poet and the Helper “frenemies,” a word I had never quite understood until he used it in this context. And he added that all that the Poet’s work may induce in doctors is “vomiting or sleep, but not listening.”
And then James wrote, “Are you gonna blog this?”
Now, that’s a friend.