Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Things People Say

I’ve been accused of being an eavesdropper.

I deny the allegation.  Eavesdropping is rude, after all.  From my perspective, I simply pay attention to the stuff that loud strangers hoist into my involuntarily captured ears.

It’s amazing what one overhears if one simply listens.

Yesterday in the gym locker room, one young woman told her friend (loudly) all about some guy who was obviously unhappy in his relationship and just biding his time before dumping his dull, undeserving girlfriend.  “I think he hopes she’ll figure it out on her own.”  The woman who was speaking was apparently all ready to move into his apartment once the breakup happened.  “There’s even outdoor space.”  Hopefully she hasn’t given up her lease yet.

The stuff I overhear in the locker room at Bikram Yoga always makes me feel guilty.  “Are you doing a double today?” “No, I did one yesterday and will do one tomorrow.”  (Mind you, this is a 90 minute class in a 105 degree room with 40 percent humidity.  The only kind of double I’m thinking of when it’s over is a double-long nap.)

My favorite overheard exchange after yoga went like this: “Are you doing anything for your birthday tonight?” “X is taking me to Y.  I can’t wait.  I’m going to let myself have a glass of wine.”

Based on these overheard conversations, I should have known better last week than to try to strike one up with the familiar face next to me.  Me: “If I’d known it was going to be so warm out, I would have gone running instead.”  Her: “Just do both.”

Thanks to bad cell phone etiquette, the elevator’s another place I hear stuff about strangers (or I guess neighbors), and it’s always stuff I’d rather not know.  Business deals.  The scheduling of appointments.  Those endless, “Where are you?  What are you doing?” phone calls that women of a certain (young) age just can’t seem to help themselves from making — on crowded elevators.

Overhearing people on the street is best of all, because all you get is a two-second clip of some larger conversation – a conversation that, if you’re me, you’ll be left wondering about for the rest of the day.  For a while, I even kept a list of crazy stuff I overheard on 14th Street, the busy street where I live in Manhattan.   Here are some of the more interesting, humorous, or simply odd gems (verbatim, seriously):

“You ought to try that space out. During the day? Looks like it could be pretty cool.”
-one panhandler to another

“How socially aware.”  “Yeah, those guys totally deserve to get stabbed.”
-an exchange between two high school kids after they passed two idiots wearing blackface on Halloween

“She said excuse me. I was like, excuse me? Excuse you! I’m standing here. You can walk around.”
– Dude blocking the Union Square subway entrance

“I ended up crawling on the ground looking for all kinds of shit. Like, shit I don’t even have. Like, I knew I’d find a jar of peanut butter”

“All he wants to do is go to these daddy parties.”

“That wretched, ungrateful wench.”

“I’ll trade this girl for some Taco Bell. Any takers?”

“I don’t do porn.”
– sidewalk DVD vendor to customer

“No use lie-ing. I just want a beer.”
– Okay, technically, I saw that on a panhandling sign.  I didn’t hear it.

“Every time I think something’s going to happen, it doesn’t happen. This has been my year of, like, …nothing.”

“They skype, like, everyday.” “Oh My God, they have to work out. We have to make sure they work out.”

“My ex-wife is cheating on her current husband to be with me.”

“That dog is not going to eat broccoli.”
– OK, technically I didn’t overhear that one either. Someone said it to my face when I stopped to let Duffer try to eat a piece of brocolli dropped on the sidewalk.

“…with some man who said he wanted to kidnap me!”
(See above comment about odd, out of context conversational snippets)

“Just get a bunch of product and make it messy Kate Moss hair.”

“Don’t you even try to say a word to me. You the one got two babies by two first cousins.”
(Yep, that was the one that prompted me to start keeping a list.)

My apologies, but only fans of Arrested Development will understand the relevance of this picture

So, how about it?  Do you “eavesdrop”?  What have you overheard lately?

Where Ideas Come From (or Things That Make You Go Hmmm)

Of all the questions writers are asked, the one many of us hear most is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  I think I actually have a decent answer: Ideas come from everywhere if you only use your imagination.  (Hey, I said it was decent, not groundmaking!)

I’ve heard many writers talk about the “What if” process. You read a newspaper article or stumble on a little nugget of a thought and start to think, What if X had happened instead of A?  And then what if because of X, Y happened?  And then what if the reason Y happened was because of Z?  Before you know it, you have a plot that’s quite unrecognizable from its inspiration.

Ideas also come from characters, and, for me at least, characters come from watching the world with empathy.  I try not to wonder “What would I do in situation X, Y, or Z?”  Instead, I watch people in the world and wonder how they’d react, how they’d speak, and how they became the people they are today.

But not every story, and not every person, sends my imagination running.  There are stories, and people, who, in the once great words of C&C Music Factory, “make you go hmmm.

A couple weeks ago, I stumbled upon a little gem of a news story online about an Orange County woman who drove for months with the body of a dead homeless woman in her car. According to media coverage, a 57-year-old former real estate agent “befriended” the homeless woman at a neighborhood park in December and allowed her to sleep in the car overnight.  When the car’s owner found the woman dead, she was too scared to call the police, so simply continued to use the car while the body sat covered in clothes in the passenger seat.

Police broke a window to enter the car after first noticing a foul odor and then observing the dead woman’s exposed (and now mummified) leg beneath the pile of clothing.  They found a box of baking soda that the driver had placed inside to reduce the smell, although she told them that she had “gotten used to it.”

Comments posted online about the story tended to focus on the yuck factor.

Or to make jokes about the driver’s desperation to use California carpool lanes.  (Warning: Those of you who don’t like the course language or humor probably won’t enjoy this clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm…but the rest of you might.)

But yucks and yuks aside, this is the kind of story that made me go hmmm.  News reports indicate that police believe the driver, but that doesn’t mean a crime writer can’t go makin’ stuff up if she wants.  So what if the driver were lying?  What if she and the other woman weren’t just casual acquaintances from the neighborhood park but co-conspirators?  What were they planning?  And what went wrong?

But perhaps even more interestingly, let’s assume that the driver is telling the truth as all reports indicate.  Why did she offer her car to the other woman for sleep?  Might it be related to the fact that she is a “former” real estate agent who “once” lived in Corona del Mar, an affluent Newport Beach neighborhood, but is now experiencing “difficult financial times” and “staying with a friend” while she drives a 1997 Mercury Grand Marquis registered to her sick father?

And why was she so afraid to call the police when she found the body?  Did she do something she’s trying to hide, or is there something about her personality or experiences that makes her fear police generally?

And who was the poor dead homeless woman?  How did she come to be homeless in a park?  And how did the two women become friendly?  And how did she die?  Did she know it was happening?

I never know where these kinds of ruminations will take me.  I published a book earlier this year, 212, that involves women living dangerous double lives in New York City.  Many readers thought it was inspired by the so-called Craig’s List Killer case, where the victim was a New York woman who, unbeknownst to her friends and family, was using Craig’s List to book private massage sessions.

But I turned in the manuscript for 212 two weeks before that case occurred.  If I had to guess where the idea came from, I’d trace it back to a winter morning more than five years earlier.  I had just moved to the city and was staring out my little window in the east village, marveling that my Wichita-raised self was living in great big important Manhattan.

I noticed an attractive younger woman walking on Mercer.  She was tall, thin, well-dressed, gorgeous.  I wondered what it was like to be her.  She probably shopped at Barney’s, I figured.  Dated investment bankers.  Whizzed past the red velvet ropes outside the hot clubs she frequented long after the likes of me had fallen asleep.

And then she stopped at the corner trash can and looked in all four directions before pulling out a discarded pastry and eating it.

My fictional image of her life suddenly changed. The “character” I had momentarily created in my head was no longer cliche.  I had no idea she would reappear years later in the manuscript that became 212.

Human beings never stop surprising me.  I suspect that’s why I never stop watching them, thinking about them, and imagining their pasts and futures.  And that’s where my ideas come from.