Aural eavesdropping is fun – bits and pieces from random lives put together and completed like a puzzle. Guessing national origin takes familiarity with language but also an eye for distinctive coloring, hair, and facial features, and a good sense of comportment. Europeans walk and sit differently than Americans, speak quietly, and don’t bark when they laugh. A tawny-to-dark-skinned man with tight, curly hair speaking Arabic is likely to come from Algeria, but possibly from the Sudan. West Africans are characteristically large and big-boned and speak with a lilting, musical, tonal accent. Rwandans have a certain guttural breathlessness; and Tutsis are thinner and taller. It is easy to distinguish Malays from Thais. Malays are much darker, and their language is atonal. It is all but impossible to distinguish Malays from an Indonesians with whom they share a close ethnic heritage. At first glance many aborigines resemble Africans except for their straight hair.
Australian and New Zealand accents are very similar, and it is often hard to tell the difference, but there is no mistaking the white Afrikaner. A joke made the rounds in the PGA a few years ago about a well-known South African golfer who, when asked what he liked best about August National, said. “No blicks”.
High-class Japanese often have very white skin – not the ruddy white of Americans, but a powdered or paper white – while Chinese are darker and often to have a yellowish tint. Chinese is a complex tonal language while Japanese is not, and their accents in English are completely different from one another.
There are some nationalities I can guess by process of elimination – Finns and Turks, for example have languages like no others. Finns speaking English have a slushy lisp, and Turks have classically Caucasian features but with especially dark hair and eyes.
Over the years I have gotten very good at pinpointing American accents, and I eavesdrop all the time to try to guess where people are from. Once I have put an accent through the first broad-mesh sieve – New England, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, South, etc., I then refine by sub-region. The accents of Mississippi and the Low Country of South Carolina have very little in common because of their unique histories of settlement, slavery, and foreign influence. Louisiana, as close as it is to Mississippi and Arkansas, has a distinct accent very different from the drawl of the Deep South – once again because of its particular historical roots and settlement patterns.
Once I overheard someone whom I knew was from the Midwest, but had trouble pinpointing where. I situated her somewhere in the eastern part of the region, heard the broad accents of Ohio but also edges of a Southern drawl. The speaker had to be very close to the Ohio-Kentucky border, probably in Kentucky. I guessed Covington and was right.
Deciphering family relationships from only fragments of speech, physical appearances, and behavior can be challenging. Siblings don’t always look alike, but there is usually and uncanny similarity in ‘attitude’ – the way they sit, speak, move, tilt their heads, smile, or gesture. Distinguishing between friends and lovers is easy. Lovers hold their gaze longer and smiles seem more genuine. Mothers and fathers are always parents to older children, so patterns of speech, tone, and regard never change.
Visual eavesdropping is a completely different category altogether. It is done less to figure out where people come from or what their relationships might be, and more to observe whole scenes or movie clips from their lives.
My aunt and uncle used to live on a large manmade lake in a suburb outside of Washington. Large homes were built on the lakefront, and all had floor-to-ceiling windows to take advantage of the view. The houses were built for inhabitants to look out, and no designer gave a thought to anyone looking in. But look in I did. On dark summer nights I would paddle the canoe along the shoreline, close enough to see through the windows but far enough out so that lamplight did not reach me.
All houses on the lake were at least three-stories, and I could watch family scenes unfold on each floor and then follow each member from room to room and from floor to floor. I watched fights between teenage daughters and their parents, then followed them as they ran up the stairs, rushed into their rooms, slammed the door, and threw themselves on the bed.
I saw wives say no to husbands, and watched the husbands kick the dog. I watched people sneak a pull from the vodka bottle, shove whole slices of cake into their mouths, fall asleep in front of the TV, and cry on the telephone.
Every house was different. Every night provided a different episode. I was hooked, and went out every evening. The lake was big, and by the end of the summer I needed a good hour of paddling to get back. Some nights I returned to a particular house, one in which a drama had begun but not resolved. If I saw family members in separate rooms, I knew that nothing had changed. People were still pissed. If everyone was laughing in the kitchen, I knew I could move on.
The thing of it was that no one ever expected anyone to be looking in. Everything in the lake community was about looking out – at the Fourth of July swim meets, the visiting Canada geese, fishermen, or a rare snowstorm. No one would ever look in. My eavesdropping was anonymous. I knew no one and was only an occasional visitor to the lake. I watched random people do familiar things. I never knew who they were or ever saw them again. I never asked who lived in the houses I watched and always deflected any conversation that veered towards identity; but I always remembered the soap operas, the three-tiered stages, the anger, intimacy, and separateness.
My visual eavesdropping took another direction during my babysitting co-op days. Here was another chance to observe not what went on within families, but to piece together what might have happened. Like listening to and watching people on a train, I tried to figure out what the bits and pieces left on tables, sofas, and beds meant. Was there any order in a disordered house? Were there any corners of precision, neatness, and predictability? Did slovenly women marry disheveled men and did they always have pigpen children?
I observed strict rules. Never touch anything, never rummage through drawers, open medicine chests, snoop into closets or cabinets. I never needed to. I already knew that closets in an orderly home were racked and perfectly aligned. Careless families left bent tubes of ointments and lubricants, open medicine bottles, extra mouthwash, foot powder, and anti-dandruff shampoo for anyone to see. I could see what was on bedside tables, whether the exercise equipment was ever used, and whether books were high-brow or romances. I could smell disinfectant, deodorant, laundry soap, dryer fluff, and perfume. There were either real plants, plastic flowers, or nothing but furniture and dishes.
I loved this privileged excursion into my neighbors’ homes so much that I racked up more babysitting chits than I could ever use. Because of my habit, my wife and I never went out on weekends, and were too knackered during the week to head downtown. I never kept a diary, nor even tried to remember which family went with which home. I never talked about my interloping and never shared confidences. It was like canoeing on Lake B_____. It was the drama that mattered – the random collection of interactions that make up a family. The bits and pieces that said someone lives here.
Margaret Hawkins, writing in the New York Times (2.28.14) talks about her eavesdropping and captures a bit of the excitement of anonymity, the challenge of puzzles, and the strange sense of perspective I felt:
These conversations lent a kind of Cubist sense to my world, flattening out perspective, showing multiple angles at once. We were here but at the same time they — it could be anyone — were, too, not parallel or even intersecting but simultaneous.
I have always found people I don’t know more fascinating than those I do. I travelled alone for most of my life as an international consultant, and nothing excited me more than sitting at a bar with fifty random, unknown travellers. The possibilities were endless. I sat for hours in restaurants, coffee shops, and at poolside bars. I went to operas, concerts, and movies alone.
I now wonder who lives in the trailers across the street from my temporary marshland home in rural South Carolina, whether they are black or white; whether choice of residence is of little significance if the price is right and the weather good.
It has never mattered to me whether or not I ever met any of the people I observed. It might have been interesting to see if I had guessed right – whether they were indeed from Covington, KY – but I would much rather conjecture and move on.
Hawkins at times has wondered what to do with the bits and pieces of overheard lives:
Do I put these bits and pieces of other lives in my writing, curate them into stories? The answer: Occasionally, though I think of these bits less as material and more as finished found art, like the perfect postcard or anonymous snapshot or canned food label you come across — beautiful until you frame it and after that, dead. Or maybe it’s just a matter of living in the moment. Do you photograph every beautiful sunset? Or do you savor the ephemeral moment, then let it slip away and accept the dark that follows?
She’s on to something, and senses that there is really no point in following up on these ephemeral glimpses. It is enough to witness the surmised drama. Filling in the blanks or teasing out the next mishaps or good fortunes is not necessary. I once described myself as an eye-painter, less interest in knowing why people do what they do, but only how they do it – what it looks like, smells like, feels like. I took mind snapshots, made imaginary pastiches and collages; made video clips, recorded sound bites, assembled puzzle pieces.
The more I am convinced of randomness and perpetual, predictable motion, the less interested I am in deciphering cause and effect. Shakespeare said it best when he wrote his Histories and described the same, predictable, unchanging course of wars, pretension, accession, and consolidation of power from King John to Henry VIII. Nothing new here, he said, except the endlessly fascinating ways that we express our ineluctable human nature.