Listen Up (and Sideways Too)

I read in Bob Newhart’s memoir I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This that, as a comedian, he eavesdrops to get material. Most people wouldn’t admit that but, as my sister pointed out to me, it’s hard to avoid in an age when people walk the halls yelling into their phones. Ironically, they are often doing this for “privacy.” I know because I’ve done it myself, though I have found a headset that requires no yelling and my phone calls tend to be about setting vet appointments (not screaming at spouses about their late nights out or demanding a refund from the tattoo parlor).

I was reminded of James Thurber, who once wrote about his own habit of taking snatches of overheard conversation and running with them. You can see the genesis of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in that practice. Listening is a valuable tool for any writer, if only because that is how you really “get” the cadence of real speech for your dialog. I do advise discretion (the tattoo guy din’t seem like he’d have a sense of humor about my hobby).

That brings me to the grocery store. This is the same store where I once heard a woman loudly announce into the phone she’d just dialed, “Oh, nuthin’…just shoppin’,” thus engaging in one of the silliest excuses for a phone call I’ve ever encountered. Why call someone if you don’t have anything to say?

Yesterday, I overhead the following and, as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. I passed a young woman and child with a cart trailed by an older woman, also with a cart, who whined in an earnest tone, “When IS the zombie apocalypse supposed to happen anyway?” I went down a few rows and came face to face again with the older woman calling out, “But I can’t FIND the peanut butter.” Okay, laying in some edibles for the shelter I suppose. About fifteen minutes later, the older woman was wandering the pharmacy section muttering, “Where DO they put the hydro-cortisone anyway?”

There may or may not be a story in all that but Bob Newhart could have made a great piece of stand-up I’m sure.


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