Heard on the beat

Heard on the Street editor Jake Malooley exposes the art of quote collection and offers a few theories on why we just can't get enough of other people's trash talk. Illustration by Ian Dingman.

They say some people just like to watch. I, on the other hand, like to listen.

The other night, I was having dinner with a friend at a Roscoe Village café and, as usual, I was eavesdropping. It’s okay; I was on duty. I’m the guy who compiles TOC’s Heard on the Street (HOTS) column, the mag’s often raunchy weekly collection of overheard quotes. At an adjacent table, four women in their early thirties chitchatted between gulps of pinot grigio (alcohol intake and HOTS potential are directly related). As I bent my ear in their direction, it became clear one of them was having a crisis of conscience. The wife of her supervisor was out of town for the week and he kept booty-calling, leaving voice messages at odd hours inviting her over to his house. The woman was intrigued yet conflicted about his advances, so she ran his proposition by her BFFs first.

“If I fuck my boss,” she slurred, “what’s the worst that could happen?”

My eyes widened. “Heard on the Street!” I uttered under my breath. I pulled my iPhone from my back pocket to capture the quote before it escaped into the ether. My friend scowled. “Have you been listening to me,” she growled, “at all?

Not to sound like a total creeper here, but I’m always eavesdropping: As you’re reading this, there’s a good chance I’m tailing a group of drunken bros who are comparing taco parties to gang bangs. Fellow TOCers also send in HOTS quips at all hours. Too many times I’ve been with my mom when I receive a text like, “I’m wearing nothing but a bear flag and a cock ring.” I’ll chuckle and Mom will ask, “What did it say?” “Uhhh, nothing! Wrong number.”

Digging through the HOTS archives, I’ve found countless offbeat meditations on sex (“It’s never good on a one-night stand when you have to pull out a vibrator”) and food (“Now the only culture they have left is their yogurt”). Ironically racist non sequiturs (“A black man hasn’t looked for something white since Jimmy Hoffa”) and casually homophobic quips (“I’ll take the Red Line home; I’m supposed to go to Homo Depot”) make frequent appearances. And I’m bowled over by people’s ability to seamlessly combine zeitgeisty cultural references with fifth-grade lunchroom humor (“Bernie Madoff took a dump on my free trip to Israel this year”).

But perhaps the most rewarding are those inadvertently trenchant takes on how we live today. Quotes have covered online socializing (“Facebooking on Ambien is the drunk dialing of the 21st century”), relationships in these economic times (“You can’t date a girl like that unless you helped cause the financial crisis”), and them darn kids (“The Gen Y ‘Who’s on First?’ is ‘Who the Fuck Is This Guy?’”). There is strange wisdom in some of these sound bites, no matter how tossed off.

I asked Northwestern University sociology professor Gary Fine, a longtime HOTS fan who specializes in gossip, why people love reading these random quotes. “It’s kind of like The Naked City,” he said, referring to the classic 1948 noir film. “There are 8 million conversations, and [Heard on the Street] tunes into a small slice. But it’s a puzzle. The reader has to create the context. Part of the pleasure is in trying to figure out what kind of person said this, in what circumstance and what they might be talking about,” Fine said. “It’s voyeuristic in a creative way.”

Fine had the same burning question all readers have about Heard on the Street: Do you make them up? (Answer: No.) Then how do you hear all those crazy things?! It’s one part serendipity—walking past the schizo cat lady on the corner just as she launches into another LSD rant—and another part going out on the town a lot, a key requirement of our jobs. The final ingredient is simple attentiveness. With our earbuds jammed deep into our auditory canals, maybe listening to each other in public is becoming a lost pleasure.

That would be a shame. After spending the last couple of years hunting for HOTS, I’ve realized you have a big, dirty mouth, Chicago. And thank God for it. Your chatter is the most entertaining train-wreck reality show out there. (Sorry, Snooki.) So consider this fair warning: Bite your tongue, cuz we’re listening. On second thought, don’t. It’s more fun that way.