by Sean Chercover
I was drinking alone in a bar. Calling the place a dive would be charitable; it was a dump. A drunk woman slid off her stool and weaved her way to the ladies’ room. As she passed the jukebox, she stopped short, thrust an accusing finger at the music and said, “That can’t be Gene Autry. Gene Autry’s dead.”
I wrote it in my notebook, convinced that it would someday find its way into a story.
A few months ago, I sat in the waiting room of an auto dealership’s service center. There were a half-dozen customers sitting around the room, some reading magazines, some watching the morning news on television. One kid was plugged into an iPod. Across from me sat an elderly couple. And by “elderly” I mean old. Very old. Very frail. I wondered if either of them should still be driving, and thought how sad it will be to lose what little is left of their freedom and independence. The service department cashier stood in the doorway, reading a work order. And then called out to the room.
Cashier: Edgar Batista? Is there an Edgar Batista?
Old Woman (to her husband): What?
Old Man: She said, does anybody want a pizza.
Old Woman: I don’t know anybody named Lisa.
I jotted the exchange down in my notebook. Had I been plugged into an iPod, or watching the morning news, or reading a magazine, I’d have missed it. Had I left my notebook at home, I’d have remembered it incorrectly.
One more: Last October, I sat in a generic chain coffee house in a generic strip mall in a generic suburb. Reading a book and drinking coffee, killing time before an appointment. Two generic suburban yuppie women sat at a nearby table and chatted about their generic suburban yuppie lives. The women were named Susan and Gail. They mostly complained about their kids, who had names like Dakota and Kyle and Brittany. I tuned them out and returned to my book.
Having just categorized the women according to stereotype, I almost missed what came next. But the tone of their voices changed. I heard Gail say, “I’m afraid to ask, but how’s Paul doing?” I closed my book.
“He’s got less than a year . . . maybe six months. They discovered it too late, and it’s a fast-moving cancer.” Susan then told Gail that she asked her husband what he wants, what she can do for him. “He said he wants go to a Blackhawks game and sit down front at ice level. I’ve already ordered the tickets. And he wants me to dress up as Olivia Newton-John from Grease for Halloween, and . . . you know.”
“Isn’t that kind of insulting?” Gail said. “He wants to fantasize about someone else?”
“He’s dying, Gail,” Susan shot back. “If he wants to fuck me and pretend he’s fucking Olivia Newton-John, I’m happy to do it for him. Christ.”
I’ve got a dozen notebooks filled with snippets of overheard conversations, observed situations, random graffiti. I browse through them every now and then. A few entries made their way into Big City, Bad Blood.
They usually need some rewriting, or at least tweaking, to fit into a piece of fiction. A few are perfect just as they happened. Some will never make it into a story, but will provide inspiration for a character, or a scene. And of course there are many that leave me scratching my head, thinking Why the hell did I write that down?
To aspiring writers: Do yourself a favor, leave the iPod at home and carry a notebook instead. Get into the eavesdropping habit, and you’ll be richly rewarded.
To writers who’ve already cultivated the eavesdropping habit, what are your favorite places to listen? And what have you heard lately? Crack open a notebook, and share.