The Web site that captures idle chatter.

The Web site that captures idle chatter.

The Web site that captures idle chatter.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 18 2005 12:21 PM

The Word on the Street

The cumulative genius of Overheard in New York.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Click image to expand.

Every time you say something in New York, there are roughly 16 million ears in the immediate vicinity. Privacy is mathematically impossible. Over the last couple of months, I have heard actors rehearse Shakespeare in parking-garage entryways, real estate agents launch into nauseously implausible sales pitches, and homeless evangelists hack up epic free-associative sermons. I heard a famous actress say into her cell phone, "I need to act. I need money." I heard a Dutch woman and a young American discuss breast-feeding schedules in Washington Square Park. I heard an elderly Russian couple speak passionately, in Russian, about merchandise in the window of a lingerie store. I heard a group of movers argue about hitting a parked car: "That ain't a hit, that's bumper-to-bumper, man. That's why they make bumpers: so you can bump-bump-bump." I heard a man on Waverly Place say, "When you kidney gets fucked up you can't get laid no more that's what dey say." I overheard two older women on the Upper East Side:

A: "Well, what did you have?"
B: "I had, like [pulling down her puffy fur coat collar] looseness on my neck."

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I also had the inevitable, unnerving experience of hearing myself being overheard: An entire very small restaurant went totally silent just before I asked my table-mates, "Do you ever burp so hard it really hurts your back?" and the woman at the next table let out a powerful burst of unintentional laughter.

As street-chatter, none of the above is exceptional; it's the typical aural harvest of a few weeks of casual listening, the kind of thing the city gives you just for walking down the street. If we could somehow pool the combined eavesdropping of the entire city, we'd probably hear things never before spoken in human history.

This seems to be the ambition of the Web site Overheard in New York, which enlists a large volunteer army of informants (around 350, by my count) to report the conversations they hear on the street. As the site has become increasingly popular—media attention, a book in the works, an official spinoff, and many unofficial imitations—the virtual chatter has thickened into a steady roar. Two years ago, the site posted just one quote per day; now it posts 12 or more. Its archive has grown well into the thousands.

The site takes its motto from a comment overheard in Greenwich Village: "Anytime you overhear people, if you only hear a second of what they say, it's always completely stupid." (Take a moment to bodysurf on that tidal wave of meta-irony.) But the motto is misleading: The site isn't just a gallery of stupidity. Most of the comments achieve something more remarkable—they manage to be both massively stupid and infinitely meaningful:

Man on 2nd floor of the Port Authority: Wow, I didn't even know things existed here.

Hipster: Whenever they build a new road, it should be the blankth street ever made. 34th Street should be the 34th street ever built.

Girl: Mommy, what's the opposite of hair?

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I like to think of Overheard in New York as an immense grass-roots sociological experiment, a deeply profound (and yes, often moronic) verbal profile of the 21st-century urban-American street. In an information society that promises complete access to, and exhaustive analysis of, every piece of data in existence, there's something magical about overheard conversation. It is irreducibly mysterious, fragmentary, anonymous. Even the most vile fragment can be as suggestive as a line of poetry.

The site makes for good reading on many fronts: It's an irreverent digest of the day's political concerns (Guy on cell: Dude did so much K that he turned into Terri Schiavo), a handbook of urban multiculturalism (Thug: Paisano? ... It's like "my nigga" but in Italian), a sample of the verbal ingenuity of angry New Yorkers (Man: You two walk how old people fuck!), and a compendium of the bizarrely disgusting (Teenage girl: But I think it's always a bad sign when you see blood floating on the ocean, whether it's whale menstrual fluid or not).

It faithfully records the oracular pronouncements of the homeless:

The subway doors open. A hobo enters, holding a bottle of windex in one hand and a tube of toothpaste in the other.
Hobo: Which is the better time to read Dostyevsky [sic]? Winter?
He sprays the windex.
Hobo: Or Spring?
He squeezes toothpaste out of the tube.
Japanese girl: Spring!
Hobo: You are correct.

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It charts the unpredictable overlapping of the city's diverse pop-cultural strata:

Lady on cell: ... so we were at this goth club and I moonwalked into someone…

Kid #1: Paper beats rock. BAM! Your rock is blowed up!
Kid #2: "Bam" doesn't blow up, "bam" makes it spicy. Now I got a SPICY ROCK! You can't defeat that!

Some quotes hint at such rich human drama that, handled properly, they'd make the basis of a great screenplay:

Girl #1: Well, tomorrow is the Philharmonic in Central Park.
Girl #2: You wanna go?
Girl #1: Well I do, but I have my brain MRI.

Guy on cell: I moved all the way here and now you won't even marry me?
Guy on cell: I'm off today. I ran over one of the kids with the bus.

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(This strikes me as a P.T. Anderson project, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a big-hearted tour-bus driver.) And some quotations just make me excited to be a human:

Ghetto guy #1: Who do you think is better, Bernie Mac or Mr. T?
Ghetto guy #2: Obviously Mr. T. He uses pronouns more efficiently.

Guy #1: That's a cute dog.
Guy #2: Thanks, she's my daughter.
Guy #1: ... How is that possible?
Guy #2: Yeah, that's right. I gave birth to her, she came out of my vagina.

Hobo: Does anybody on this bus have change for 36 nickels?

Woman on cell: It's really gay outside right now.

There are no individuals on Overheard in New York. Everyone gets a generic label: Guy, Kid, Hipster, Hobo, Queer. (Sometimes these are cruel: Anorexic, Fat Guy, Meathead.) As they're depersonalized—stripped of context, body language, tone of voice—the dirty, neurotic, local characters of the city start to seem archetypal; their comments take on universal resonance. It's like an allegory, but instead of a dialogue between Vice and Virtue we have the equally instructive "Dumb Teen" and "Smarter Teen":

Dumb teen: Hey, look at this! It says 'Train for jobs in beeyotch.'
Smarter teen: Fool! That word is biotech. Why you gotta be ignorant all your life?

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These aren't just the stupidities, malapropisms, failures, and arguments of your super or your mother or the bipolar guy on the sixth floor—they're statements about our entire culture, a transcript of the zeitgeist.

The parade-rainer in me wonders occasionally about methodology. How do we know the quotes are accurately transcribed? So much of an overheard comment's meaning comes from its offhand, real-life wording, and you inevitably lose some of that in the transition to print. Are the quotes unconsciously revised to sound funnier? And how can we be sure they're even real—that they aren't Fabricated in New York? Occasionally an entry strikes me as implausibly funny, like an old punch line inserted into the mouth of a real person:

Huge guy: So he comes up to me and gives me the $600 that he owes me. I took one look at the bills and thought this was the worst counterfeit job I've ever seen so I beat the shit out of him. ... Did you know they have a new $100 bill?

Others read like Mamet dialogue:

Suit #1: Sounds like Bugsy Siegel.
Suit #2: Yeah.
Suit #1: You know who Bugsy Siegel is, right?
Suit #2: Sure, yeah.
Suit #1: You know who he is?
Suit #2: Yeah. Look—
Suit #1: You know who he is?
Suit #2: Yeah, yeah—
Suit #1: Who is he, then?
Suit #2: Who gives a shit?

This is probably not so much a defect of Overheard in New York, whose editor, Michael Malice, is deeply interested in the subtleties of actual speech and carefully filters out implausible submissions. It's probably just an irony implicit to New York conversation, and one that's accelerated by a site like Overheard. The city's ubiquitous audience creates a feedback loop: People make their conversation overhearable (clever, aphoristic, filmic, full of punch lines) because they know it will be overheard. In this way, all conversation is overheard in advance. It won't be long before we're all walking around talking, not in movie dialogue, but like quotes from Overheard in New York, hoping that someone's listening.