A guy with a big gut can pick up the scent of a backyard barbecue even if it’s a block away. Similarly, a scriptwriter can overhear potential snippets of dialogue in other people’s conversations even if it’s taking place across a convention hall. It’s not eavesdropping, really; it’s just that the writer’s sonar has detected a sequence of words floating through the air and it registers, “I might be able to use that.”
I don’t remember if this one ultimately wound up in a script or not, and I don’t remember where I was when I heard this exchange: “I can’t seem to find my sunglasses.” “You mean the ones on your head?” You can see why that sent me scrambling for pencil and paper, can’t you? That just sounds like it should come out of the mouths of characters on a TV show.
There are other times when overheard conversations wouldn’t be suitable for family viewing, but they have their own intrinsic entertainment value. A few years ago Sally and I were in New York and took the boat out to Liberty Island. We stood respectfully under the Statue of Liberty, our necks craned so we could look up at this monument to freedom. An imaginary orchestra performed “America the Beautiful” in our heads; it was a stirring moment. Behind us was a group of school kids. One of them asked, “Who wants to play drug dealer?” Several others enthusiastically responded, “I do! I do!” The imaginary orchestra instantly became an imaginary train wreck.
I’m still haunted by stuff I’ve overheard that defies plausible context. What had preceded some enigmatic phrase or sentence I heard? How had the conversation gotten to this particular cluster of words? And what followed it — a gunshot, perhaps?
Here’s an example; it also took place in New York City. The restaurant where we were eating was crowded and noisy, but there was a brief lull in the chatter and clatter, allowing us to hear a middle-aged man say to the woman across the table from him:
“In ten years, your great beauty will be gone.”
In an instant, I determined that we were seated close enough to the couple that we were probably in the splatter zone when she upended the table and stormed out of the restaurant. She didn’t do that, though; she sat there silently, glaring at him. That gave me the chance to evaluate his statement. Frankly, he may have been a bit generous in characterizing her as a great beauty. She was kempt and had the requisite number of facial features, but was not what you’d call a head-turner. She was attractive in the same way you might consider your aunt attractive.
But still! Why in the world would the guy say something like that? The noise in the restaurant resumed, so I couldn’t hear what followed. Oh, he continued talking, and she continued glowering, but I couldn’t catch enough actual words to know if, well, let me think — maybe he’s a plastic surgeon, using the great-beauty-will-be-gone line as a pitch for a facial tightening.
It briefly occurred to me that maybe she was an actress and he was her agent; he was trying to gently prepare her for the transition from leading-lady roles to “character” roles. Maybe he was saying that in ten years her only offers would be to play things like Matron #2 in a women-in-prison movie. But as I indicated, she wasn’t really the leading-lady type now.
OK… then were they a married couple, and he was trying to provoke a divorce? Or — almost too awful to contemplate — was this a first date? As a romantic overture, “In ten years, your great beauty will be gone” ranks only slightly above, “Whoa. Look what I just dug out of my ear.”
Sally and I finished our meal and left without getting any more clues to the mystery. Sometimes it would be better if I just didn’t overhear stuff like that in the first place, but I can’t help it. And ever since that night, anytime I’m in Manhattan and hear a siren, I can’t help wondering if that woman finally stopped that guy from ever flattering anyone again.