hidden stories eavesdropping

Illustration: Kate Bingaman-Burt

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Now They're Talking!

One autumn day in north London 13 years ago, I found myself standing in a video store, gripping a wooden display case with one hand, the other hand clapped over my mouth, shocked and delighted to be privy to a stranger's graphic account of a mutually satisfying sexual encounter: forensic in its details, plum-guts-purple in its prose. I didn't have to try very hard to hear her phone conversation. This lady—and you'd have never guessed what an acrobatic being lurked beneath her peacoat and spearmint scarf; the encounter she described was positively yogic in its variety of positions—had pitched her voice at a volume that said, Listen if you will. I have nothing to hide. Or maybe it was saying something simpler: It's 2002, and none of us have figured out public mobile-phone etiquette yet.

The cell-phone Wild West of the early aughts was a peak era for overheard conversation. Now that we've transitioned from yapping to tapping, there are fewer opportunities to eavesdrop—but that only makes for a more refined and rewarding art. At its best, eavesdropping feels like reading a fragmentary but delicious novel: The narrative meets you most of the way, but it's up to you and your imagination to fill in shades of context, foreshadowing, tantalizing dropped beats here and there. This morning my baby daughter and I went to Union Square Park in Manhattan. On the bench to our left, a male-female couple squabbled amiably about her addiction to Instagram; to our right, two teenage girls debated names for Kim and Kanye's second kid. My daughter began to squirm off my lap to inspect the structural integrity of our bench, babbling, and I babbled back, happy to join the chorus of stories wafting and streaming all around us.

—By Jessica Winter