Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.

Okay, so I sometimes listen to what’s going on around me –is that bad? I don’t point at the source, so come on! You’re allowed to listen as long as you’re not hiding. And anyway, I like to think I’m just a passive recipient and no more to blame than a radio antenna.

We’re all antennae of course, we’re all sieves straining the air for food –land-locked, smallish Baleen whales. And frankly, it’s not my fault if some people go through their lives with their mouths open and their minds closed. In fact, usually I am more like Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV: ‘It is the disease of not listening, the malady of not marking, that I am troubled withal.’

But sometimes I can’t help marking -I am most especially afflicted by cell phone conversations, maybe because I only get to hear one side. It’s like the other side is whispering something –a secret, or curses not loud but deep. That kind of thing. It begs for conjecture, interpretation, more listening.

Of course, there are those who malign the practice, and vilify the effort as mere eavesdropping -vicariousness as a proxy for an interesting life. I suspect we are all closet palimpsests, though, if only by accident, and I resent any accusations of villainy. In fact, I recall reading a book about the subject –Eavesdropping: An Intimate History, by John Locke, a professor of Linguistics at City University of New York- and I was able to find an interview he gave in the August 2017 Quartz:

I feel better about my ears now. Actually, ‘[…] more often than not, eavesdropping isn’t an intentional choice or character flaw, but a habit that we’re wired for. For example, a paper in the journal Psychological Science showed that we find conversations like phone calls, where we hear only one side of the dialogue, more distracting than conversations between two people. This paper also concluded that less-predictable speech is more distracting for a listener.’ Exculpation at last… or at least ablution.

I was reading the article on my phone in the bus, when another pierced the air like a muffled banshee. I was sitting adjacent to the senior’s section –testing the waters, as it were- when I noticed a bony, large-veined hand emerge from a pocket grasping a tarnished and chipped, old flip-phone that it flicked open with the practiced dexterity of a retired biker with a switchblade. Perhaps I’m being unkind, but he yelled into the phone as if his hidden interlocutor was somewhere across a busy street, and it put me off. Nothing sharpens the ears like outrage.

“That you Mona?” he shouted. “Whatdya want?”

Suddenly his eyes found something profoundly disturbing on the ceiling of the bus, and several of us looked up, just in case. His head started shaking –slowly at first, but picking up speed as he listened. Either Mona was exaggerating, or she’d told him something terrible.

“Didya, pick ‘er up?” he suddenly blurted, annoyance dripping from his shout.

I was close enough that I could almost hear Mona, but her voice was more like listening to one of those old steam radiators that used to bubble and hiss in the night when you were trying to sleep. The sound stopped for a moment, and then a sudden bubbling seemed to incense the man, and his face transmogrified into countless ripples of loose skin.

“Whatdya mean you couldn’t?” Spittle now accompanied his disbelief, although to be fair, it was small and manageable. “Didya call whatserface?” He pronounced it like it was one word.

The radiator bubbled again with a soupcon of tiny hisses as punctuation. Or was it the other way around? I was getting confused with the rapidity of her speech. Clearly, she was upset.

“Mona,” the man interrupted, “Whadshesay?” More bubbles, fewer hisses, but a definite clunk this time, like dropped cutlery. “Well, that’s not gonna help, is it…?”

The phone must have been heavy, because he kept switching it from hand to hand. Or maybe from ear to ear –he had something sticking out of one of them that didn’t look technological, but it was evening and the light wasn’t great in the bus. I had assumed it was hair, but if so there was a curious asymmetry for which I couldn’t account. Age can affect people differently, I guess.

Anyway, I began to suspect that he wasn’t really sure what part of the phone the voice was coming from, because he seemed to be experimenting with different parts of the device. Even watching him made me feel a bit guilty –eavesdropping is one thing, but eaves-looking is another animal altogether.

I shifted my ocular attention to his feet as they tapped nervously on the floor, but this seemed even more intrusive –it was as if I was watching two suffering brothers, each trying to console each other with little success while the parent to which they belonged swayed in irreconcilable frustration far above.

“So what’ryou telling me Mona?” he spluttered angrily, scattering little salivary offerings onto his pants.  He listened to a few more bubbles and another new sound. “No, I won’t be home for another fifteen minutes or so,” he yelled at another part of the phone while the little keyboard cowered dangerously close to the dark thing in his ear.

“Speak louder, Mona,” he said, booming his voice to the back of the bus like a Shakespearean actor practicing elocution. “Walk up the hill…? Yes, I know it’s shorter…”

He glanced out the window and reached for the little cord to get off at the next stop. “Okay, okay, Mona, I heard you –and so did half the bus. Stop screaming at me, okay…?” He slammed the phone shut and put it back in his pocket.

The bus screeched to a rolling stop and he hobbled to the front door, grunted at the driver and then stepped off the bus and out of our lives. Almost…

“What do you think Mona was trying to tell him?” the woman sitting next to me whispered –or at least it seemed like a whisper now that the echoes of the man’s voice were subsiding.

I shrugged, but a voice from the seat behind wondered if Mona’s friend had collapsed. Or died… Then somebody across the aisle suggested that it couldn’t have been that, because the man was angry, not upset.

“Intimations of mortality, to misquote Wordsworth,” the man behind me said. “In old age, death is sometimes the inconvenient kiss at the door…”

“Death is a black camel that kneels at the gates of all…” the woman across the aisle added.

“Whoa! Profound!” the woman beside me said, turning to look at the other. “For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?” she said, smiling.

“Well, if you’re going to quote Khalil Gibran, how about his ‘Life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one’?” the man behind me said.

They all turned to me at that point. “I want my food dead. Not sick, not dying, dead…” -Oscar Wilde. It was all I could think of at the moment, but I think I let the bus down. Fortunately, it coincided with my stop, so I pulled the cord and disembarked just as the driver was starting to quote Shakespeare.

Sometimes eavesdropping is just the beginning of the journey, eh?




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