Overheard conversation

Voyeurism in three parts


A few years ago, I read an interview with Alex Turner, the lead singer of the Arctic Monkeys. The reporter said his lyrics were so realistic – where did he get his inspiration? He said a lot was overheard. He’d be at a party, standing near the bar, someone would say something interesting and he’d jot it down in a text message to himself. The nice thing, he said, with everybody always looking at their phones these days, no one knew you were writing down what they said.


The photographer Jeff Mermelstein just released a book of pictures he took over strangers’ shoulders while they typed on their phones. They didn’t know he was there. They were quitting a friendship, asking a relative for money, admitting they wanted to sleep with their trainer. “Voyeuristic isn’t the same as harmful,” Mermelstein said in a recent interview. “We’re all out there in the public domain, so part of everything we do engages with voyeurism.


The other night, we saw a friend who recently returned to town after living with her mother upstate for a couple weeks. Even before the pandemic, her mother was not the easiest person to live with. The house they shared upstate was quite small. Nothing went unheard. Nowhere was private. One night, lying in bed, our friend couldn’t take it anymore, the words WILL YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP flew out of her mouth.

“I’m noise sensitive,” she explained cheerfully. “But I also just hate my mom.”

#nyc by Jeff Mermelstein is available from MACK Books
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