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.

Anne Hermes/Staff
Ear shot: Morgan Friedman (center) listens for funny and interesting conversational tidbits for his "Overheard in New York" website.

New York

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.

• • •

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.”

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.”

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.”

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