There’s a reason why magazines run “overheard” columns and you find social media accounts dedicated to the same. That humans are capable of saying things so unexpected, bizarre, idiotic, hilarious or filthy is one of the great, simple joys in life.
Strip such remarks from their context and they can indeed be elevated into art. Or perhaps you know the context, but marvel at the opinion or observation. You might let your nostrils flare in mirth, or catch the eye of the speaker to signal agreement. Then there is the jaw-drop of something utterly moronic said behind you on public transport. Messaging it to a pal to share the goods. Barking with laughter when remembering it, months later.
Children are great value when it comes to overheards. The New York toddler who waved to a pigeon and said: “Bye, street chicken!” Or the mother I heard saying to (presumably) her daughter: “No, betting isn’t a job, darling.”
But there are gems in every category, as a website called BoredPanda attests. Sex exchanges: “Have you ever been handcuffed?” “Sexually or by law enforcement?” Witty back-and-forths: “How drunk were you last night?” “I donated money to Wikipedia.” Snarky ones: “Doesn’t she have a tattoo that says ‘relevant’?” “Yeah, but it’s fading, so that’s fitting.” There-but-for-the-grace-of-God ones: “I was wearing that new camo jacket and someone thanked me for my service.” The tears-inducing, like a woman asking where to find the frozen vegetables and a cashier replying: “The freezer.” And the woman responding: “Thank you.”
A Twitter account popular among journalists is @OHnewsroom, for Overheard In The Newsroom. I went back to look at things I heard in the Guardian newsroom: a colleague remarking they had spent New Year’s Eve at L Ron Hubbard’s house; a mix-up between PJ Harvey and Brian Harvey from East 17; and someone saying: “Just Google ‘cat, parasite, depression’.” I can only imagine.
Why do I keep a note of them? Because overheards provide wonderful material. I heard a man say to his mate at a bar: “To some people, it’s black and white with Nazi criminals.” That one found its way into the mouth of a short story character.
The phrase is to keep one’s ears to the ground. I recommend keeping one’s head up, to catch the end of businessmen’s back-and-forth; the denouement of an argument; the riffs of reuniting friends. Nuggets of intrigue, comedy, shock. Please, go on: I’m listening.