"We're trying to capture to language of the streets," said Michael Malice on Wednesday before an audience at Barnes & Noble. He and his co-author, S. Morgan Friedman, were discussing "Overheard in New York"(Penguin), a collection of conversation snippets overheard around New York and drawn from their Web site www.overheardinnewyork.com. Mr. Friedman said the idea for the book came to him in a cafe 2 1/2 years ago when he overheard a hipster talking on a cell phone to his girlfriend.
The book collects the best of the humorous, curious, and sometimes quite raucous urban conversations New Yorkers have overheard and posted on the Web site. An example, which was read Wednesday, is this non sequitur between a tourist father and son:
"Daddy, I hate ground zero. Can we go?"
"Well, the terrorists hated it too but they came here."
Mr. Malice called the endeavor part of a projected "series of books like Zagats - but with homeless" people. He said the reason Barnes & Noble was a great place to listen for material was "everyone's quiet because it's kind of like a library, but they're also talking because it's kind of not." Many are "faux-educated," saying things like, "'Yeah, I read Anne Rice. I'm very well read' and they start rambling off about nonsense, and you can write things down in front of them because you're in a bookstore," he said.
The Web site and book are a kind of urban anthropology with ironic humor. Mr. Malice said that their project was not unlike Foundmagazine, which collects "love letters, birthday cards, kids' homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, telephone bills, doodles - anything that gives a glimpse into someone else's life." Likewise, McSweeneys.net/links/lists contains more lists of unintended humor: "What I Learned Listening to AM Radio" and "Actual Opening Lines Used on Me by Business-to-Business Telemarketers." Other, more sophisticated examples of contemporary urban anthropology include Cityreliquary.org, an organization that examines people's obsession with urban collecting.
Younger Americans brought up on David Letterman seem to enjoy humorous lists, and a lot of things have been turned into lists, Mr. Malice said. Ben Schott's Miscellany series, for example, is a comparable but more sophisticated example of marketing lists as entertainment. "Overheard in New York" has a "Candid Camera"-like voyeurism, only in print, Mr. Malice said.
Mr. Friedman is a kind modern-day flaneur, an urban wanderer. He has another Web site,walkingaround.com, about the varied neighborhoods of New York. In the foreword to "Overheard in New York," Marc Shaiman describes missing subway stops to listen to conversations. This makes one think of Walter Benjamin's comment in "The Arcades Project":
Basic to flanerie, among other things, is the idea that the fruits of idleness are more precious than the fruits of labor. The flaneur, as is well known, makes "studies." On this subject, the nineteenth-century Larousse has the following to say: "His eyes open, his ear ready, searching for something entirely different from what the crowd gathers to see. A word dropped by chance will reveal to him one of these character traits that cannot be invented and must be drawn directly from life.
Over the past century, there have been successful attempts to study "heap of broken images" that make up Gotham: William Labov investigated department store clerks' pronunciation; Meyer Berger observed vignettes of city interaction; William Whyte studied how people interact with a corner trash can; photographer Rudy Burckhardt caught the "the casual choreography of the streets," as Phillip Lopate once said. "Overheard in New York" provides raw material for studying the slang of the contemporary streets.
Mr. Friedman said their Web site might improve cell phone etiquette, since now there's a place for people to write down what they hear people saying. Audience member Alex Jacobson asked, "Wouldn't you assume it would go the other way, that people would want to perform now that there's an audience?" Mr. Malice responded, "This is a big meta-debate that we don't have time" to discuss.
Mr. Malice was wearing a tie as an armband. One audience member asked him about it, and he responded that they would find out about the answer his forthcoming book about the author Harvey Pekar.