New Yorkers say the darndest things – and “spies” await them
“Overheard in New York” captures the bon – and not so bon – mots floating in the urban ether.
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On a scorching September afternoon, Morgan Friedman, semi-professional wanderer, must stop. We’ve been moseying through Brooklyn neighborhoods for nearly two hours, because I wanted to know how Mr. Friedman, who’s achieved mild fame for knowing how to find the pulse of New York City, works. But now he needs a little nourishment – and, he is unashamed to admit, a little A/C.
We duck into a tea house, and Friedman orders a salad. No music is playing. No one is talking to each other. Fourteen people type on laptops; two fill in bubbles in test-prep books; one reads the Sunday New York Times. Only a pair of women sit utterly unoccupied, sipping iced drinks and staring out the window.
“Let’s sit here,” Friedman says, settling into the arm of a couch, where we will be literally surrounded by iBooks and people to spy on. “We need to reduce the human-to-laptop ratio.”
Friedman picks through his salad and watches the crowd. He looks at the pair of women gazing out of the window. “Do you think they’re mother and daughter?” he asks.
“Could be,” I say. He agrees, saying that too many years seem to separate them for the women to be simply friends. Also: “It looks like they have nothing to say to each other, which implies a familial relation to me.”
Friedman has made a name for himself listening to what people say, and what they don’t say. He watches their body language. He tries to find the most interesting people in any room – and listen in on their conversation. If it’s entertaining enough, he sends it on to the team of editors who run “Overheard in New York,” a website Friedman founded five years ago. The site has become a favorite exploration of New York City street culture.
Today, “Overheard in New York” gets 4 million page views a month, and its most memorable posts are collected in a book of the same name.
The site is somehow a natural outcome of Friedman’s idiosyncrasies: his childhood hobbies (writing software with an Apple 2E); his personality (“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have a bit of a voyeur in me”); his family background (“Before she was hard of hearing, Grandma Bibi was an eavesdropper.”).
But mostly, it’s the unintended consequence of his failed romances. He’d never even thought of keeping track of what he overhears on the streets until he listened to a guy on a cellphone arguing with his girlfriend. “‘You ask me how I’m doing, I tell you, and then you bring it back to yourself. You always do that,’” Friedman remembers the stranger saying. “I thought that was so funny, a summary of every girl I ever dated. Then I thought, ‘I need to start recording these.’ ”
Practically everyone, it seems, has a little eavesdropper in them. OINN, as regulars know the site, publishes only 12 entries a day from roughly 100 tidbits sent in by people who listen, maybe a little too closely, on the subway, in cafes, and on street corners to what other people are saying. Speakers are disguised with nicknames on the website, and what they say is made funnier by headlines added by Friedman’s team. As in this entry from Union Square under the headline, “The Buddha Was a Tough Kid to Raise”:
Mother: Don’t you ever do that again! [slaps child hard]
Child, calmly: Well, are you happy with yourself?
Every entry lists where the conversation was overheard and the name, or chosen pseudonym, of the submitter. Like the streets of New York, not everything on the site is clean, or inoffensive, or suitable for children. Friedman and his team don’t edit around this; the hate mail they publish on the site suggests they might even edit for it. But Friedman and his staff say they simply hold a mirror up to New York, which, as anyone who has walked its streets on a scorching September afternoon knows, doesn’t always look or sound or smell pretty.
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