If there’s one thing guaranteed to raise my blood pressure, it’s having to listen to strangers’ cell phone monologues. I’ve wasted a lot of energy raging against people in restaurants, on buses, wherever, who insist on talking into their phones at top volume. It’s even weirder when you see people who seem to be talking to themselves, but actually have invisible phones.
After several years of futile fury I’ve discovered that the situation doesn’t have to be a total loss. In fact, for writers those conversations can sometimes be audible treasures. For when I tune in instead of out, I overhear phrases or even whole sentences worth using in a story.
The latest example came about when I was waiting outside a library for the doors to open. My poetry writing group was going to be meeting inside, so I tried to use the waiting time to read over the poems I was bringing that day. Unfortunately, reading requires something called Concentration. That became impossible when the woman beside me yanked out her phone and began to tell someone on the other end about the current newspaper story account of a woman diagnosed as “brain dead.” She went on — and on! – about the family being divided over having that infamous “plug” pulled. I fumed about being trapped into listening until she uttered one sentence: ”There are lots of brain dead people walking around!”
The writer in me pounced on that sentence. How could I not scribble it down for use in some piece of fiction she’ll never know about? I now have a growing collection of overheard phrases – and bizarre scenes.
Like the evening in a restaurant where my partner and I hoped to dine peacefully. The couple at the next table was mercifully quiet as they gazed into each other’s eyes. Suddenly, that familiar ringing. Pulling his phone out of his pocket, the man listened to whomever it was for a minute, then said – loudly enough for the next ten tables to overhear- ”Of course I miss you darling, I’m so lonely.” I thought his companion would throw him a meaningful look, but she was too busy dialing her own phone. I savor this scene for when I attempt to write a Noel Coward style script.
You can gather material anywhere, even in the most surprising places. For instance, last summer I was strolling along Fire Island when I found myself on the nude beach. A man walked past me clad in nothing. No, not nothing, he was wearing a cell phone, and shouting at it: “I can’t hear you, the waves are making too much noise!”
So I’m now a walking tape recorder. And I suggest that writing courses include a class in the art of eavesdropping. (Is there a libel law for stealing someone’s words?)