Sitting at the corner coffee shop in Burbank, I sip my iced tea, open a book, and inch closer to the pair at the sidewalk table beside me. I’m not reading a word on the page, and no music is coming through the speaker sitting loosely in my ear, but it’s still frustratingly difficult to follow along with the conversation going on just a few feet away. Cars zip by, baristas call out coffee orders, and the clientele talk in hushed voices, as if they don’t want strangers hearing their private conversations.
While I have no real investment in this particular conversation, as a rule, I generally make it my business to nose my way into other people’s affairs, spy style. Technically, I’m not a spy. What I mean is that I have no formal training or professional interest. However, I more than make up for it with extensive life experience and independent study in the sleuthing field.
Let me fill you in on my street credential. I started training as a youngster. My childhood book series of choice was Nancy Drew. Shows I found most compelling at the time were Scooby Doo, Matlock, and Unsolved Mysteries. The latter provoked me to start memorizing license plate numbers on suspicious looking vans at the ripe old age of 8. Since then, I’ve expanded my repertoire by perusing through spy instruction manuals, body language books, deception detection information, and more than my fair share of detective novels, movies and shows.
Wrinkles at the corners of eyes, feet and hand placement, pronoun usage, and head movement can all be interpreted. I watch from behind sunglasses and listen while acting indifferent. I decipher the truth behind what friends tell me, evaluate the earnestness of an employer, and detect a date’s level of interest. Today, I’m on one of my favorite missions: gathering random stories and uncensored wisdom from strangers.
People in the city are remarkable, and once you get past looking at them as traffic, they can really teach you a lot. For instance, I learned how to axe a worthless music video employee. I saw firsthand the mark a golf ball makes when it strikes a passerby’s rib cage. I heard both sides of the green movement debate from contractors’ perspectives. Most recently, I learned that a guy planning on breaking up with a girl will change his plans upon learning she’s moving away to a choice destination, on the grounds that it’s useless to hurt her feelings and that he will have a place to stay for free if he ever wants to visit said destination. This information is priceless, and it was all gained just from innocently eavesdropping and watching from across the room.
As useful as those sneaky techniques are for hearing bits and pieces of people’s lives, more profound intel comes from engaging people in conversation and then shutting up. People all have important, worthwhile knowledge and fascinating stories that they’re itching to share with anyone who will listen. When I present myself as a captivated audience, their floodgates open, and I get a wealth of primo wisdom from people I’ll probably never see again.
Take last month when I met someone who cares for a 109-year-old woman. She said the spunky elderly lady has been interviewed on her birthday for the last few years and always says the same thing when asked what the secret to a long, happy life is: “stay in your vegetable garden and out of the beer garden.” The quote now hangs proudly on my refrigerator door.
Today there’s a good crowd, and I’m prepared to listen in on the best thing I’ll hear all week. As I open my notebooks and inch my chair closer to the table next to me, my process is interrupted by a plump bearded old man asking if the seat across from me at my table is open. Caught off guard I welcome him to join me and watch under my brow as he arranges his croissant and gigantic mug of coffee. Realizing that my snooping efforts are inevitably doomed with someone paying attention to me, I flip open my book and start to read.
I notice him watching as I underline sentences and circle words, and I look up as he diverts his eyes and picks up his coffee for a sip. On the table between us is a guide book for southern California. I ask him if he’s visiting the area. He chuckles and comments on how funny that notion is, and explains that he only picked it up at AAA this morning because it was free. Of course his account of this is actually much longer with lots of details and rhetorical questions, and soon, with little urging on my part, I am ankle deep in his life story.
He tells me about his childhood adventures of cutting class and getting chased by truancy guards across the beach, about his two month road trip from Connecticut to California in 1967, and about his great niece’s equestrian endeavors. He laughs through details of conservative hotels and missed investment opportunities. He gives me a long list of recommended books and poems along with their background stories. All the while he takes turns getting chocolate croissant crumbs and coffee foam caught in his mustache. Finally, he gives me the insight I’ve been listening for all along.
We are onto earthquakes at this point. He’s been through quite a few, and he has a history of professionally inspecting buildings for their safety. Privy to his expertise, I inquire about which buildings are safe and which I should watch out for now that we’re having a higher frequency of seismic activity near Los Angeles.
Again, he laughs. He leans in. “Let me tell you something.” I lean in. “These buildings, any buildings… They’re just like us. They’re all coming down. It’s just a matter of when and how.” He waves his hand to the side as if this is inconsequential. “No one wants to think about it. No one expects it when they’re new and state of the art. But they’ll come down someday no matter what.” Now he’s smiling gently, no traces of croissant in sight. “Maybe it’ll be a hundred years from now, and it won’t mean much to us. Maybe they’ll take us down with them. Either way, they won’t last forever, and neither will we.”
As dim as his point is, the conversation still feels cheery. He shrugs, I smile, and that is it. We talk a while longer before I get up for a refill and he gets up to leave. I watch him as he heads for the street and flips on his Panama hat. His is probably the most ridiculous attitude for any building inspector to have, albeit a retired one. Eh, we’re mortal and it’s pretty likely an earthquake will do us in. Buildings fall. So what else is new? Someone in his position should probably be a bit more concerned with preservation. Be that as it may, I’m glad this is the conclusion he’s come to after all those years. It will give me some comfort, I think, when I’m lying in a pile of rubble. Instead of dismay and shock at the fact that the world as I know it is toppled, I’ll feel like I just solved the great mystery of the end of the skyscraper.