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Eavesdropping on New York Cell Phone Conversations

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This past week, what I did with my imagination really blew my doorman's mind. I scientifically proved that all New Yorkers basically live the exact same life. We float down parallel rivers, pulled by identical currents. The same themes concern us. The same variety of names name us. I am convinced that there are also only ten different faces, but that idea deserves further research.

A recent study published in the Journal of Thoughts and Emotions, which is a peer-reviewed marble composition book that I put out almost annually, examined the cell phone conversations of over 30 different New Yorkers (n=31). Like Freud, I believe that I understand people.

With my team of nobody, I set out looking for that instantly recognizable image of hand-to-ear communication. I began eavesdropping on loud-talking, cell-phone-using, streetwalkers, to try to answer the question, "What are all these people talking about?"

I have always been interested in the private thoughts and parts of strangers. Do their concerns overlap? Do their worries sound like mine? Are we all related by blood?

While writing this article, I made a startling discovery. A man has been living in my closet for almost a year. I also discovered that if I strung together these snippets of seemingly unrelated cell-phone conversation into one coherent dialogue, and published the results, I could eventually unlock the closet door, and perhaps get that man to leave quietly.

I chose simple methods.

Using quite a smart phone to record the conversations, I took to the streets. Most days, I'll wear earplugs in the traffic to block out the sound of people yelling, "Hey look! It's MC Hammer." This time, however, I told MC Hammer that I preferred to walk alone, and that I'd meet him directly at Lansky's. I removed my earplugs, and started walking around. Two obstacles instantly arose.

First, I really had to strain to hear people's voices, even without the earplugs. Especially softer-spoken English lads. The city is louder than Eraserhead. It's as sonically dense as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, as intense as Shostakovitch's String Quartet No. 8 in C minor. And it relates to many other avant-garde cultural reference points that I've digested over many years of rigorous artistic and academic study. To properly break this story, I understood that I would have to get close, close enough to make out the words, maybe even close enough to make out.

Second, I kept getting the timing wrong. I noticed a classic case of the "observer-expectancy effect" wherein the scientist affects the behavior of his subjects. That day I wore my black shirt, with the top few buttons open. It caused commotion and forced many conversations to trail off into, "Right, so maybe I'll go, uh.... Maybe I'll go, uh.... Maybe I'll, uh..."

Whatever the cause, I missed a lot of perfectly fine fish who swam past way too fast for even an old salt like me to cast. Fortunately, that didn't last. I tied myself to a lamppost on the corner, like Odysseus humping his mast.

I wrote down my hypothesis for the experiment.

My prediction was that I would return safely, and that I would feel very sleepy afterward. I predicted that I would not get hit by any cars, and that any hearing loss would be minimal. I never expected that I would see David Duchovny the actor.

To best explicate the results of the experiment, I want you to hear the conversation as having occurred between the two speakers whom I remember best. One was a strong man with a big, strong head. The other was a little, old lady with a little, old lady head.

To protect the identity of the other speakers, I will preserve their original speech patterns. From here on in, I will be telling my story. If you think of any questions, definitely save them.

On the island of Manhattan, an old lady took out her cell phone, and stared at it for a moment. I slowed my pace, like a police car spotting my uncle Will on the street. The clock had just turned rush hour. I watched the old lady dial a number, and I began to move in.

"Wendy," she said into the phone, "It's Bradley." What an odd name for a little, old lady, I thought.

I turned to a fruit vendor, and said, "Only in New York, right?" He looked at me without expression, then deftly handed me a banana. "No thanks," I said.

On the other side of town, Bradley's son, Wendy, walked past a fruit stand with his phone to his ear. A six-foot-tall man with a shaved head and a red, brawny beard, Wendy could hardly be described as the typical American "Wendy." However, in New York, an atypical American Wendy, often becomes a very typical New York Wendy.

Wendy was pleased to hear from his mother, Bradley.

So, again, Wendy was a man, and Bradley was a woman.

With his muscles bulging from the sleeves of his tattered t-shirt, Wendy said, "I'm just walking out of Eataly."

Today's New York reminds us that stereotypical roles once held by only women, such as those in the food services and cleaning industries, often get filled by men. And that the high-powered positions that used to go only to men, such as Wall Street things and lawyer stuff, should really go only to women now. Often, within the same week, I find myself being sentenced by a female judge, and ordering lunch from a male waitress.

The Wendy-Bradley reversal principle for given names extends to other famous New Yorkers, who sport names borrowed from the opposite gender, such as Mrs. Bernie Madoff and Mr. Mom.

From what I could hear of the conversation, it sounded like the topic had steered towards finances. I heard Bradley, the old mother, use a phrase I had heard before. "Bank of America." 'Tis a phrase I have oft heard, spoke late nights through the closed door of my parents.

Wendy (the son) stopped at a traffic light. "I want you to know," the big, strong man said, "I'm prepared to go to arbitration."

Wow, I began to think, the man has just left Eataly, and now he's preparing to go to a second foreign-sounding restaurant. I wished I had his stomach. It struck me that so much of a New Yorker's life involves the painstaking balancing of finances and eating at restaurants.

Bradley, the mom, began slapping her thigh with a piece of paper, and walking in crazy patterns on the sidewalk. A freight truck thundered by, and drowned out her voice for a moment. When it passed, she said, "... paying 3,000 dollars on a monthly basis, and it's insanity."

"Yes," he said, and nodded his head as he walked down the block. "Yes," he repeated.

I guessed that their conversation had turned toward apartments, and dishonest landlords. If there's one topic that New Yorkers love to hate talking about, it's paying the rent. Picture a warehouse that holds crates of mannequins, stacked up one on top of the other. Most apartment buildings in New York resemble these crates. Furthermore, the mannequins often undress in the presence of strangers. I think I made this connection once when watching a saleswoman in a clothing store remove a brassiere from a busty headless plastic woman, and getting strangely excited.

The old lady let out a long sigh, and said, "No, I'm just doing four different things at the same time, and I should be resting, so..."

Aren't we all? I thought. Aren't we all? The fruit man handed me a second banana. "No thanks," I repeated.

I should now mention that the old lady was pregnant. Like most New Yorkers, she put her health and mental well-being second to her survival. The frenzy of honking taxicabs and screaming homeless ladies mirrored what the little, old, pregnant lady must have been feeling inside. Utter panic and alone-ness in a city where nobody cares.

The man, Wendy, passed in front of the Birch Wathen Lenox School, where he stepped into a tornado-like mass of children letting out from school. He pressed the phone into his head until it flattened his ear like silly putty against the floor. The harmful radiation from his cell phone bleated right up against his brain, whose own neural waves met the harmful rays at the entrance to his skull like the Sharks meeting the Jets, or the Bloods meeting the Kryps, or Freddy meeting Jason, or Oasis meeting anyone.

"One secant," he said, giggling and walking faster through the swarming crowd.

"One secant," he repeated as his brain waves began brawling.

"One-SECant. One-SECant. One-SECant. ONE SEC," he said, finally clearing the cloud of children, and easing his grip on the phone.

"Hello?" he said.

Suddenly, he found that the old lady was talking a mile a minute in Creole. Wendy the strong son did not understand Creole at all. He looked at the phone as though the phone were crazy. When he placed it back against his ear, he heard his mother speaking in Mandarin. Sadly, he understood Mandarin even less than he understood Creole.

They call New York a melting pot. In a coal-black, cast-iron pot you can put crayons of all different colors, then turn up the heat to scalding temperatures, and just watch the waxy bodies bend and bleed into a sticky, mold of goo. Nowhere else in the world do so many different cultures suffer the same existential boredom and competitive anxiety as such a unified, gooey mess.

I realized finally that this phone call might end at any moment, so I decided that I should make sure to catch the final words. I sped up my pace to trail Wendy the Man, more closely.

New York Wendy, as I may have mentioned, had very big muscles lodged throughout his skin. As a point of reference, I'll mention that his ability to wound my face far exceeded my own. If I had wanted to play it safe, I would have followed the old lady instead.

I decided to follow the old lady instead.

The old lady said, "Where are you gonna be?"

Then she said, "What?"

Then she said, "40th and what?"

Then she said, "and WHAT??"

Then she said, "Oh. Okay."

Then she said, "Possibly, I'll meet you."

Then she yelled, "POSSIBLY I'LL MEET YOU."

Then she said, "Okay."

Boring, I thought, as I preemptively pushed away the third and final banana that the fruit vendor wished to offer me. Why not take a risk, and leap to the other side of town to follow the man... Wendy?

I grabbed the fruit vendor by the lapels of his tuxedo and pecked him hard on the mouth, saying, "Tell all your friends about me," then I vanished. The fruit vendor stood scratching his scalp, a banana in his hand, and Revlon covering most of his face.

I was so close behind Wendy that I could smell his spice. He was telling Bradley some sort of address, perhaps a location for a meet-up or a pick-up, maybe even a drop-off. I could just barely hear, but I thought he said 40th Street. He mumbled the avenue. 40th and what? I thought. C'mon, Wendy, tell Daddy what Mommy needs to know.

Suddenly he turned, quickly as a turn-style to the nuts, and yelled, "C'mon man, you step on my shoe! No walk so close! You crazy?"

Well, there ya have it. Just a New York conversation rattling in my head. As a responsible scientist, I might just mention that the experiment may have suffered from a few flaws, including too much nonsense, and a complete overlooking of most segments of society, especially those with severe health, crime, human rights, and domestic problems. Also unclear thought. On a positive note, I have received word that this study will serve as the basis for some major policy proposals forming the backbone of the 2012 Republican Party platform.

Oh yeah, and I saw David Duchovny the actor on the street while doing this. See if that rewards repeated readings.