I Miss Few Things More Than Eavesdropping in Restaurants – Amy McCarthy

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The looming specter of COVID has ruined my favorite hobby: being in everybody else’s business

I am, by nature, an exceedingly nosy person. I am the type of individual who reads hundred-comment-long Facebook threads involving people I’ve never met, and I absolutely cannot resist an in-public spat between lovers. For better or worse, if there’s a conversation going on within earshot of me, I need to know what it’s about.

My insatiable desire to be in everybody’s business is a skill that serves me well as a journalist, sure, but lately, it’s also been a source of real frustration. There is perhaps no better place to overhear a conversation than in a restaurant, and given that indoor spaces are associated with higher rates of COVID-19 transmission, I’ve mostly stayed away from them. And so now, more than two years into the pandemic, I pine for the days when I can get back to my favorite hobby: eavesdropping.

Before the pandemic, restaurants were a place where eavesdropping was easy and abundant. Under the influence of a few glasses of wine and empowered by a night out on the town without kids or any responsibilities, people tend to drop their inhibitions and dish — sharing everything from the juicy details of their own divorce to the story of how their neighbors got arrested — at volumes that would not be appropriate in basically any other context. There’s even good dirt in quieter situations, like sitting two stools down the bar from a guy who’s just been dumped, or thinks he’s about to be.

Even when I do go to the occasional restaurant, I’ve found that COVID-19 has stolen that simple pleasure from me. It’s hard to hear anyone else’s conversations when the tables in a dining room are spaced six feet apart, and nigh impossible if diners are still wearing their masks. Outdoor patios make it a little more possible, but there’s something about the loud din of a restaurant, with its perfectly curated playlist pulsing in the background, the hum of conversation, and the essential sounds of service, that makes people feel more comfortable spilling their secrets in a room full of strangers.

More than that though, my own concern over contracting the virus compels me to stay as far away from other people — and their delicious conversations — as humanly possible. And if I do have the opportunity to listen in on someone else’s gossip, I’m too busy worrying about my own discomfort at being that close to another human to hear what they’re saying about their ex-sister-in-law’s recent arrest.

Of all the things I look forward to in the eventual “new normal” — after the Omicron wave subsides, after there aren’t thousands of people being hospitalized with COVID every single day — sitting at a cozy bar for a nice eavesdropping sesh ranks right up there with going on an island vacation, not ever having my glasses fog up again from mask-wearing, and of course, not potentially dying from a scary virus.

I spend an inordinate time thinking about the day when I can sidle up to a bar alone, maybe on a work trip or solo vacation, order a negroni, and just sit and listen. Maybe I won’t hear anything interesting, just the mundane details of some traveling businesswoman’s recent trip to a conference on sprockets or cryptocurrency. But it would be enough to simply immerse myself in the ruminations of a brain that is not my own.

Or maybe I’ll get lucky and butt my way into a fiery debate over whether or not it’s acceptable to skip your cousin’s kid’s third wedding. To quote the late, great Olympia Dukakis in her portrayal of Clairee Belcher in the seminal 1989 film Steel Magnolias: “You know what they say: if you don’t have anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.”

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