The best place to eavesdrop and test the true jolliness of the season is in a crowded but quiet restaurant where the tables are pushed closely together but not close enough that it's obvious you are hearing every word of the conversation at the next table and you are more interested in the garlic in those words than in the gourmet mashed potatoes on your plate.
Eavesdropping is best done in conspicuous places: cafes in which the tables are not turned toward the street like in Paris; subway seats where you can look at the reflection of the person talking in the window. The worst place is in a restaurant where the host seats you far away from the gabbing women who are dressed in festive sweaters with loud Christmas ornaments attached and look like they are just dripping with gossip.
No, he seats you at a quaint table for one by the window where you can only read. And you sit there listening to Christmas music and hoping someone will come in and sit at the table next to you and talk loudly enough that the sound won't bounce off the arches, and the clink, clink, clink of glasses won't smash the words just when the conversation gets good.
You see there is an art to eavesdropping. And a reason: There are lessons to be learned in undiluted and unfiltered observances of human behavior. We are not who we say we are. We are what we say behind each other's backs. We call this the season of good will--is it? You go searching for truth, for Christmas cheer.
You think about the origin of the word eavesdrop--how it came from Old English and used to refer to a space under an eave outside a house to shelter a person from the rain, but it was a good place to hear what was going on inside the house. Eavesdrip became eavesdrop. And it is the perfect word for what you are doing.
Besides, what else are famous restaurants with grand acoustics and beautiful people with loud voices good for?
Intimate public conversations. You think no one is listening. You look over your shoulder to see whether the person you are talking about is there. He is not, so you assume you are safe. But that suspicious glance just gave you away--it says you have something juicy to say, and since you are in a public place, all bets are off.
Intimate public conversations are never private.
Judith Martin, Miss Manners, says there is no etiquette rule against eavesdropping, but there is a rule against the appearance of eavesdropping. "You are supposed to have a benign expression on your face as if you have not heard a thing." The rules of etiquette say that as long as eavesdropping is practiced in public places, "in plain view" and "with strangers," it is, shall we say, sanctioned.
Miss Manners says it seems people are talking louder than ever about their private affairs in public places, on cell phones and in e-mail, which she says gives the holy appearance of privacy but is anything but.
"E-mail is like a postcard," she says. "In theory, whoever gets the postcard reads it. In practice, everybody does. There are legions of stories about people who push the wrong button, who leave things on the screen. Bless their hearts. When they think they delete it, they think it is deleted."
More people are talking on television about private affairs, buttonholing poor strangers on the street and not caring who at the next table hears what they say.
"I don't think they are concerned about being overheard," Martin says. "I think they are concerned about not having a wide enough public audience. . . . Anybody who discusses private affairs in public in a loud voice is either naive or theatrical."
The polite observer maintains a vacant half-smile, an "I'm listening to the symphony" expression so as to not give the appearance of eavesdropping. "Under no circumstances," Martin says, "does one acknowledge comprehending what has been overheard."
So you smile vacantly as the woman across the bar is saying: "You told me your housekeeper only charged $85. He came to my house and said it would cost me $125." This woman has beautiful brown skin. She is dressed in a black fur and she is sitting at Savoy restaurant in downtown Washington, where the well-off and the politically well-connected mix and mingle. It is a hard place to hear conversations, especially when the cello player starts moving tables, getting ready for his gig.
And the second woman is now saying: "Yes, he did charge me $85."
The first woman, the beautiful one in black, is indignant: "Well, my old housekeeper only charged me $50."
The second woman says: "That's why she quit."
And you laugh quietly in your drink, but pretend you are only chuckling to yourself.
Suddenly the former Mayor for Life Marion Barry is standing there at the bar and he is shaking hands, but you can't hear what he is saying and you really want to but his voice doesn't carry. You think he looks relaxed, and you wonder what he does now that he is not mayor.
But just then an entourage comes in and with it his wife, Cora. She shakes hands with the women at the table and they hug. And you think: Washington is a small place.
But by this time, the pianist and cellist start to play, and the music drowns out all the good gossip in that den of look-and-be-seen. So you leave.
You see two women sitting in a cafe in a mall. "I don't feel that's right for a kid not to see his dad at Christmas just because he did something at school," one is saying. She is the woman sitting in the booth. She is wearing red-and-black plaid and at a glance (because you don't want to be too obvious) she has puffy hair. She is eating the chef's special: shrimp on an English muffin. The other woman is in a maroon sweat suit. They are under a huge painting of peas in a pod. It appears they know each other well because they skip around the conversation with no transitions and neither is lost by it.
The observer must fill in the blanks with assumptions.
"I say just put him on the bus," the woman is still talking. And you think: What a sad Christmas story.
"He broke his thumb handing a kid a pencil." The other woman doesn't even question this, but don't you think that is odd?
"He was handing a kid a pencil and the kid grabbed his thumb and not his pencil and the thumb broke."
They are getting up to leave now, to finish their shopping. Their cakes, a chocolate cake eaten by woman number two and the carrot cake by woman number one, are half-eaten. The swirls of caramel are wasted on the plate. The sprinkles of cinnamon and nuts left untouched. The napkins crumbled. One napkin, as if on cue, drops to the floor.
And you wonder who will pick up the crumbs. And what will happen to the kid.
A man is sitting in a ritzy restaurant with starched white tablecloths and waiters in black. The man in the gray suit is confident, and you know that because his voice is booming and he is telling the woman sitting demurely across the table that: "I am the jack of all trades and a servant to no one."
He is talking about the joint committee and he throws its name around loudly as if he owns it. You can tell this man is a master of his universe. He did this and he did that. But you can't hear exactly what the this and that are because the words fall like ice cubes in a clear glass.
The woman is simply nodding. Finally, he says thank you for lunch and "it was a pleasure talking to you." And you know it was his pleasure because he did all the talking.
And look, there are two girls sitting at a table in a food court. They are talking loud enough. We find out that the one in white with the small backpack dislikes a girl at school. "I hate when she does that to me," she is saying, loudly. The other girl, in orange, is agreeing. "Yeah, she's so loud and she's always talking about people."
A father is sitting at the next table. You know he is a father because he is barking. The little boy is crying.
"I said eat your food before you drink your drink."
The little boy says no.
The father repeats himself. And you think: What does it matter?
The little boy says no.
Who will relent?
Finally, the little boy eats one french fry.
The father is weary by now. Perhaps he is embarrassed because people are looking. He grabs the little boy's hand. And they leave.
And you're still left thinking: What does it matter?
A mother is standing in line at a toy store. Her two little girls are behind her. One girl is bigger than the other and she is pouting. The mother doesn't like that.
"You better wipe that pout off your face or we are not getting this." She is pointing to a doll the little girl is holding. The girl is still pouting. Who knows why. That part of the conversation you were not privy to. You have missed most of the movie and this is the state the characters are in by the time you meet them. You are trying not to look, but you feel a little sorry for the big little girl with the doll.
And you sense, even without the theatrical music, that something is about to happen.
Then suddenly without warning, the mother snatches the doll. Throws it on the counter. Grabs the little girl's hand. The big little girl is crying now. The little girl is crying, too. She didn't do anything, the little girl is saying. The mother says she'll buy the little girl something in another store, but the big little girl is not getting anything because "she doesn't appreciate anything."
In seconds, the scene is over. They leave the store. The mother, a tall woman with a shrill voice. And the little girl in a pink coat and the big little girl in blue.
They pass the fake Santa standing outside near a red barrel pleading for coins for the poor. The woman doesn't look at the fake Santa or drop a coin in the bucket.
And the Santa doesn't offer her a Merry Christmas.