Several friends of mine make a hobby out of "people watching." They sit around in malls, bus stations, ice cream parlors, just to see the human comedy play itself out before their eyes.
I'm like that, too; though I'm more a "people listener."Unkind folks call me an "eavesdropper" - a term that calls up the image of some guy hanging by his knuckles from rooftops with an ear to bedroom windows. I prefer a kinder, gentler version of myself. I see me as a "collector of casual conversation."
And for casual conversation collectors, restaurants are like candy shops.
A couple of weeks ago I was on my way to Nampa, Idaho, to sell some rare books when I pulled into a Burley truck stop for a piece of pie.
Two women in the booth behind me were pouring out their bitter hearts to each other. I ignored them for as long as I could, but when the subject turned to underwear, my ears couldn't help themselves.
I jotted down a good deal of their conversation later. I have it right here, in fact. But only 50 percent of it is fit for a family newspaper. I can say this, however: It begins with one woman saying, "You know how easy it is to get Chucky drunk," and ends with the other woman offering an extended, brooding monologue about underwear in Idaho. "Unisex underwear will never make it here," she said. "Men won't wear it and they won't let their wives wear it neither."
In between those two lines I heard comments ranging from "I said if he did it again he could buy me 12 new pairs" to the ever-popular "Why I've stayed with that man all these years I'll never know."
That truck stop, in fact, may have been the high point of my entire people-listening career.
Most of the time I don't tune in everything, I'm too busy talking myself. But I do pick up a memorable phrase here and there. Last Thursday at the Park Cafe, for instance, I heard a well-dressed woman say "Can you believe it? They disbarred him! He doesn't even have the brains and ambition to be a decent crook!"
I also liked hearing this snippet at Hires Drive-In not long ago: "There's no middle ground for unruly kids. They either get their wrists slapped, or get their wrists slapped with handcuffs. Nothing in between."
I'm not sure what other people think about snoops like me. Perhaps listening is rude, but how else can you read the real pulse of your city? I know my parents' eyes pop open when they read one of their own casual remarks in this column that they thought was mere Sunday dinner-table talk.
Following up on that theme of underwear, for example, it wasn't long ago my mother explained over dinner that she wasn't raised around boys, didn't know anything about boys, and my aunt Jessie Lou told her if she hadn't had Dad around to help with me and my brothers she'd have probably started sewing lace on our underpants.
Comments like that tend to stay with a guy - whether he's a "people listener," a newspaper columnist or just a normal, everyday, All-American kid - like Liberace, maybe.