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Professional Nosiness: 'Overheard in New York'


Every once in awhile out on the street you're bound to catch a fragment of a stranger's conversation and find yourself listening. Michael Malice has made something of an art out of eavesdropping. Along with a friend, he runs the website OverheardinNewYork.com. The site collects snippets of stolen conversation; most of them sent in by readers of the site. Submissions are posted throughout the day in a steady stream of random strange, and sometimes offensive things escaping from the mouths of New Yorkers. The best of them have now been collected in a book. Writer Michael Malice says it's not just nosiness that keeps people riveted to other people's casual conversation.

Mr. MICHAEL MALICE (Author, Editor of Overheard in New York.com): You know, there's a love of language that fuels (unintelligible) in this book and when someone says, you know, a very kind of banal opinion in a very interesting way, that I find, great, as opposed to just stupidity which we see all around us in the news, on the streets all the time. Or like, you know, here I have one about, you know, a mom talking to her son, you know, the mom goes, if you don't get up off that bench I'm gonna kick your butt and he goes, can't kick my butt if I'm sitting on it can you?

MONTAGNE: Yeah, some of them come across as bits from... Oh god, I don't ever watch T.V., what are they called? What are they called?

Mr. MALICE: Sit-coms?

MONTAGNE: Sit-coms, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: What are those things called (laughs)?

Mr. MALICE: That would be good overheard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MALICE: What's that word on T.V. with the comedy?

MONTAGNE: Do you think they're all overheard or do you think people are having fun making up something that would be funny?

Mr. MALICE: I think that the ones that sound like they're made up, we have so many submissions at this point that if I'm suspicious about it, I'm just not gonna run it.

MONTAGNE: What would tip you off; if it was just too neat?

Mr. MALICE: Right, if it's too neat. If someone's just having like a little political point and basically people don't talk straight-line punch line. When we started the site, me and my partner Morgan were pretty much the only ones overhearing things and posting them, so we kinda had our work cut out for us because it's not that often that you overhear something not worthy and we wanted to have something on the site every day, so a little trick I had was to hang around NYU and if you see two sorority girls walking, just get in step behind them and you knew they're gonna spout something at some point that'll be pretty outrageous.

MONTAGNE: So, you have an example there.

Mr. MALICE: I have one right here--sorority girl. It's two NYU girls at Chris(ph) Dogs which is a gourmet hot dog place in New York. And the first one goes Aren't vegetarian hot dogs just as sketchy as normal hot dogs? and her friend says Maybe, but I'd rather eat the stamen of a sketchy plant than the anus of a sketchy pig.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MALICE: You know what I love about this one is that, yes, she's talking, being so vulgar, but she knows what a stamen is, do you know what I mean? It's not just she's talking some joke. This girl knows the parts of a plant and this just kind of--conflate these two things together in one sentence is why, is something I really much look for.

MONTAGNE: When you read the book, and even more so when you go to your website, there's a whole string of them that are quirky and odd but maybe not even laugh-out-loud funny, but you're still like, whoa! Did somebody actually say that?

Mr. MALICE: Oh, absolutely! I mean, things that are like racism, sexism and homophobia. The fact that people say these things in earshot in public I still find mortifying and it's very common and we always run those items and you kinda have to sit back and shake your head. This is kind of the down and dirty New York; the kind of things that you don't see on Friends and Seinfeld, but the kind of things you see in the streets and the subways every single day.

MONTAGNE: You know, one thing about the website, what happens if you spend some time with it, it starts adding up. You start feeling like you've just walked through a big street scene.

Mr. MALICE: Well, that's exactly what I'm going for. We're definitely going for that feeling of a walk in the day of New York or a subway ride in New York and the kind of characters and the people you'd be seeing. We have a lot of quotes from homeless people and a couple of times people thought that was a little bit inappropriate, but they're very much a part of New York and the kind of things they say are often hilarious and they're kind of ignored by our larger culture and this is us kind of giving them a voice.

MONTAGNE: For instance ...

Mr. MALICE: Oh, my favorite, absolute favorite one--and this is something that is so amazing that it could not possibly have been made up. (Reading) The subway doors open and a homeless man enters holding a bottle of Windex in one hand and a tube of toothpaste in the other and he says Which is the better time to read Dostoevsky? Winter? and he sprays the Windex or spring? and he squeezes the toothpaste out of the tube. And an Asian girl goes Spring. You are correct.

The thing with trains is that statistically you've got like, what, like 40 people on the train, so the odds of anyone saying anything funny and it being caught are much higher, which is why a big proportion of our material is from trains. But the thing is, in New York, everyone curses--a lot.

MONTAGNE: They curse a lot at tourists.

Mr. MALICE: Here's one, yes, here's a great one about cursing at tourists. The tourist asked the newspaper vendor, he goes Which way is the Empire State Building? What do I look like, a [bleep] road map? And the headline is No, roadmaps are helpful.

MONTAGNE: (Laughs) So if it's not precisely funny you try and make it funny.

Mr. MALICE: Right, I mean, the headlines definitely are kind of me tweaking the quote, but again, a lot of times the quotes are just things are just great New York moments or just moments of the human condition and I think that's why it resonates with people all over the world. The thing that we were very, very surprised about with the site, you know, at first we thought it was only gonna have local appeal, but so many people e-mail us and tell us this site makes me love New York and part of me is like, well, are you reading the same site?

MONTAGNE: Yeah, few people come across looking really great here.

Mr. MALICE: Well, the only times people come across great is great in a very New York sense is one someone's being obnoxious and another person puts them in their place but that's still hardly great in terms of manners and decorum. Also, if you're gonna be nice and polite, you're not gonna be speaking loud enough for other people to hear you.

MONTAGNE: The one I actually, in a strange way, maybe like the very best is just this moment where--your headline is Because that zebra gave me his gum.

Mr. MALICE: Oh, I love that one.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, and it's guy number one. It's just two lines here. You have just guy number one and he just kept chewing and chewing. Man I felt so bad. And, guy number two--what?

Mr. MALICE: The guy number two says, Dude, why did you give a Twizzler to a giraffe? Do you know what I say all the time, is that we're kind of like O Henry for the 21st century; that they're really, really, really short stories and that story you kind of have a beginning, middle and end and there's a whole - you know exactly what happened. This guy was at a zoo, a giraffe leans over, he whips out his Twizzler, he gives it to the giraffe and he's standing there while the poor old giraffe, I can only imagine the expression on its face. It's trying to get this Twizzler down. And then you're like, do I tell someone? If I tell someone, am I gonna be in trouble? Did I just kill this beautiful giraffe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MALICE: I mean, it's just such a perfect little story.

MONTAGNE: Michael Malice, thank you very much. It's been fun talking with you.

Mr. MALICE: Oh, thank you. It was a great pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Michael Malice, along with his friend, Morgan Friedman, put together the collection Overheard in New York: Conversations from the Streets, Stores and Subways. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.