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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Now, Friedman and I stand near its edge, at Hamilton Avenue and Court Street, looking up at the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. It’s like the underbelly of a giant snake, veiny and rounded and long.
“I feel like I’m in a totally different city,” Friedman says. “This feels like ... some third world megalopolis. This is how you can travel without much money. It’s what’s good about New York.”
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OINN grew out of Friedman’s need – compulsion, even – to catalog what’s good about New York. The quest made the routine of moving around the city – going to work, running errands, getting stuck on the subway – into something of an adventure. Soon enough, he was spending his free time wandering for no good reason at all. “My website is an outgrowth of my walking around. Part of the charm of walking around is listening to all the conversations ... getting little glimpses of other peope’s lives,” he says. “ ‘Overheard in New York’ is getting that glimpse.”
Friedman is passionate about making sure those glimpses are diverse. So when he’s wandering, he pushes himself outside the average person’s comfort zone. And today, that means taking the roal less traveled, in this part of Brooklyn, under the expressway and through the projects.
“Hipsters don’t venture on the other side of the highway. In between there’s lots of sketchiness,” he says, and adds sarcastically, “but I’m particularly strong.” Though he likes the cafes and the delis gentrification brings – “I’m part of the gentry,” he says – he finds the tougher side of city life more interesting.
In fact, some of his favorite material on OINN is from New Yorkers who, arguably, have it the toughest: Homeless men.
“I get a regular stream of homeless men ... writing from some Internet cafe and telling me how much they love ‘Overheard in New York.’ ” Friedman says that the site is the one place where the ways in which New York City’s poor are poor is articulated by the poor themselves. He says it gives the homeless a voice they lack in the mainstream media.
Sometimes, that’s a brazen voice, as in this conversation on the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 57th Street:
Panhandler: Forty dollars... anybody got $40 so I can eat? Anybody, $40?
Businessguy: Forty dollars?
Panhandler: You want to make a deal? All right, $35.
Other times, it’s just funny, like a one-liner overheard at West 10th Street and Seventh Avenue:
Hobo: Folks, help me out. I am trying to get my rotor blade fixed on my helicopter!
Though there’s nothing clandestine about how OINN collects its material, Friedman is especially transparent. He will walk up to people whose conversations he might use and hand them a business card that says simply, “I heard that. overheardinnewyork.com.”
But the 21 “top spies” who submit much of the site’s content don’t necessarily work the same way, and the lack of consent may give some people pause.
Friedman sees it differently. “I think it’s obnoxious to gossip about people you do know,” he says. “However, when you don’t know them ... it’s a really exciting intellectual challenge. The data you have is really constrained.”
Friedman’s team makes interpretations, and then gives clues in the way they set up quotes. Every New Yorker, for example, knows that the Upper East Side is stereotyped as posh, maybe even a little cold. New Yorkers, of course, sometimes criticize themselves as self-involved. So something resonates with everyone, even if it’s just disgust, as in this unflattering tidbit, captured at a department store on East 86th Street and Third Avenue headlined: “Retail Therapy Soothes Even the Most Troubled Upper East Side Soul”:
Upper-East-Side lady on cell: I know, but I was at a funeral all day....Yeah, it was sad, but I really didn’t know him at all.... The saddest thing was seeing his daughters upset. They’re the same ages as – WOW! This shirt is only $19!! You can’t even buy a freaking Frappuccino for $19! I’m getting it in blue.
In the city that never sleeps, a place that 8 million people call home, so much interpreting can be exhausting. So Friedman makes trade-offs.
“I have zero celebrity data, and I’m not interested in politics. Imagine sports, politics, celebrities – that you didn’t talk or think about them for even a second. You’d have an extra 103 hours a week,” he says, acknowledging, when pressed, the exaggeration. “That’s time you can spend walking around, noticing things and talking to people. Welcome to my life.”