Archive for August, 2011


August 28, 2011

I don’t confine my eavesdropping hobby to New York; I’ve collected some fine specimens in London and Los Angeles too. So I thought we could play a fun game called “Guess the Nationality of the Person Who Said That.” *


1 )  “It’s 13 degrees here and vile. Vile! I’ve never known an August like this! Ever!”

– man on cell phone, walking down street


2)  “Yo. I have a new obsession. They’re called flannel shirts. They’re fucking warm.”

– man on cell phone, psychologist’s waiting room


3)  “The price is nothing. If I love it, I have to have it!”

– elderly lady at focus group for high-end department store


4)  “When you get old you need access to hospitals and doctors and… (pausing for a moment, struggling to think of another necessity)… Shops.”

– elderly lady on bus, on why she won’t move to the suburbs


5)  “How you an Aries and you don’t like cheese?”

– one grocery store clerk to another


6)  “Die means you go to heaven and you feel better. And then you come back, right?”

– little girl to her father, at an art museum


7)  “I don’t want to die.”

– the same little girl


8 )  “Who cares about dying, just don’t throw up!”

– one airplane passenger to her neighbor, on a turbulent landing


9)  “I spent all Sunday shopping. I have nothing to wear on the plane.”

– one teenaged girl to another


10)  “Men are men, women are women. I respect them, but just shut up. Know what I mean?”

– cabbie to me, explaining his views on the sexes



* Answers will be revealed in subsequent post.



August 28, 2011

I’ve been getting ready for my move, which basically consists of intensive puttering. I do laundry, rearrange objects, make to-do lists, and poke around in closets.

Most of it isn’t so productive, but the poking around got some results: I came across a little notebook from the year I lived in New York. It’s mainly filled with names, numbers, and to-do lists. (I’m big on to-do lists.) But it also contains scraps of overheard conversations – things real people said, which I wrote down, word for word, because they were just too good to be lost.

For instance:

 “She’s basically anorexic. Ish. She’s self-concerned. She’s 17.”

–       in reference to a daughter? step-daughter?

(Someone… husband?…) “wanted me to send Jeremy to Peru. But it’s like two thousand dollars a ticket. I was like, no way. I’m already taking them to St. Lucia.”

–       in reference to son or step-son

“Should I have gotten a bigger diamond on the side? Cause I would have. But if it was bigger it would be too yucky, right? Too massive?”

–       in reference to a sapphire and diamond ring

All of these came from the mouth of one person, a middle-aged blonde, who sat in the Savoy on November 12, 2006. She was the motherlode. Everything she said was I-can’t-believe-she-just-said-that quotable.

No accident that she was a New Yorker – it’s the top city for eavesdropping because a) New Yorkers say what they think and b) they say it loudly.

I’m looking forward to being back.


August 22, 2011

Tea puts the truth in stereotype.

The English drink it for breakfast, at tea time, after dinner, and in moments of emotional distress. (If you ever cry in front of an English person, they don’t offer you a tissue, they offer you a cup of tea.)

Everyone drinks tea. I once passed a burly construction worker who said to his ox of a friend, “Care for a cuppa tea?” *

It was strange. They looked masculine. For pete’s sake, they’d probably just laid down their jackhammers – and yet they were drinking tea. Tea, the beverage of delicate china and useless saucers and pinky fingers.

Tea is big here. I even read that the British Empire was built to satisfy the English taste for tea (and sugar and tobacco). Think about it: the English cultivated opium in India, then took it to China, where they “traded” it for the goods they craved – tea, and porcelain to drink it in.**

How the English became professional dope runners and somehow made it seem civilized, even romantic – the Orient, the Empire, women in white dresses playing croquet and sipping, yes, cups of tea – well, I don’t know how they did it.

But they did.



* They even have a name for the kind of tea that such men drink: “Builder’s tea,” which is strong tea with milk and sugar. “Normal” or “regular” tea is simply tea with milk. The only other thing they touch is Earl Grey. Propose a “vanilla tea” or “chai” to an English person and she’ll look at you as though you just offered a “banana-flavored coffee.”

** The Emperor objected; these were the Opium Wars. Which the British won.


August 14, 2011

I live across from some public housing* and earlier this week, I saw two little boys playing out front on their bikes. One of them raced across the sidewalk crying, “Nee-ner! Nee-ner!” The second boy said, “Okay, now you have to arrest me.”

That’s as close as I ever got to the riots. Which is to say, I didn’t see any burning cars or angry mobs. But I felt the change in atmosphere.

Our office, along with most businesses, closed early so workers could get home before dark. People took extra care of each other: “Is your cab coming soon? You could share mine.” Everyone went straight home, locked the doors, and turned on the TV news. Overall, it was what you’d expect if London had been invaded by a horde of vampires.

I don’t mean to be glib. It’s just that to me – an outsider, living on the surface, who hasn’t plumbed the culture’s discontents – the riots seemed to come out of nowhere. Then disappear again, just as mysteriously. So even though I live here, I can’t offer any on-the-ground reporting or insider scoop.

All I can tell you is that for a minute there, it felt pretty weird.



* I find it interesting that the English call public housing “council estates.” The “council” is just your local government. But “estate” seems to suggest land, inheritance, birthright. As if the people who are born there have poverty in their blood. The American word – “housing project” – is just as illuminating. A “project” is a task, an enterprise, an item on your to-do list.

Sure enough, English council estates tend to be a lot more solid and liveable-looking than American housing projects. Which makes sense. Why would Americans want to make such a pessimistic investment – housing for the poor – when poverty is surely a transitory state, something to be overcome, a mere speedbump on the way to the American dream?


August 6, 2011

Most of you know that I am leaving England.

This is not a sentence I particularly enjoy typing or, for that matter, thinking. There are lots of sentences that are equally true, and much happier: I am going back to California. I am not working for two whole months. I am taking a really long road trip.

But however much I love going new places and starting new things, I’m not a huge fan of their inevitable companions: leaving old places and, well, endings. Especially when the place I’m leaving is as strange and familiar, as bookwormy and tea-stained, as damp and improbably cozy, as England is.

Lately I’ve been going around like a cancer patient: Soon I won’t be able to ride this bus. Soon I won’t sit in this pub. Soon I won’t stand at this window. Soon I won’t hear the geese over the canal.

Then again, soon I won’t see that skinny man’s belly hair through the gap in his shirt.


August 4, 2011

The second half of my vacation was home in London, where Julie came to visit me. We mainly ate at restaurants, shopped at Selfridges, ate at Selfridges, and rode around on double-decker buses.

In between we did a little sightseeing and took a lot of pictures — holding the camera at arm’s length, the way you do when there’s no one else to be the photographer.

Julie and me on the bus.


Julie and me in a cab.


Julie and me on the bus again. This bus drops you off exactly at the entrance to Selfridges. The bus announcer voice even says “Alight here for Selfridges.” Alight here for shoes. Alight here for perfume. Alight here for unnecessary pretty things. Alight here, in a city that’s got its priorities straight.


At the Tower of London, with the creatively-named Tower Bridge in the background.


On the little bridge that takes you to the Tate Modern.


In which my head, neck and nose are doing a remarkable impersonation of Big Ben.


Above London on the Eye. It was, as they say, splendid.