On the Ravenswood el at Armitage
An old man got on the Ravenswood el at Armitage. He was singing and talking to himself -- scraps of hymns like "Rock of Ages" and "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," bits of sermons addressed to nobody in particular.
"Lord, if you take me today, I'm ready," he said at one point. "And if there are tears in my eyes, they're tears of compassion -- compassion for the sorry human race."
As we pulled out of the Library stop he paused in singing "Bringing in the Sheaves" and intoned, "Now Lord, I'm going to be getting off at Adams. I want you to be with me at Adams. Because Lord, when I'm walking along Adams, you and I are going to have to have a long talk." [Chicago Reader, July 3, 1998.]
Two guys on the el talking about numerology.
"And then there are the esoteric numerologists. They're crazy."
"They are crazy. They don't like five or eight." [Sept. 18, 2009]
Wednesday night in Florence: a crowd swells in the Piazza della signori to protest the war with Iraq, and a torchlight procession snakes through the narrow, mazelike, fantastically spooky Renaissance streets. Thousands of people, tens of thousands, carrying the ubiquitous Peace banners -- PACE against a rainbow background; people are wearing the banners as shawls, as scarves, as skirts. Florence has seen a lot of torchlight processions over the centuries, but this has to be one of the largest and certainly the most well-behaved; nobody shouts, nobody argues, nobody glares at the American tourists gawking everywhere; sometimes applause, apparently unprovoked, passes through the crowd from block to block like a thundershower.
At the Palazzo Medici Ricordi somebody has set up huge speakers in the ancient grated windows and is blasting out Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." One American tourist is saying to her friends: "You've never been there? It's the greatest city! You've just got to go!" I pass before I hear what city.
Another says, "There've always been wars, whether America fights them or not. So why march?" Another says, "The irony is, America kills more people with sanctions than we ever do with bombs." Another says: "Bush says he's from Texas. He's not from Texas. I'm from Texas. Bush is from Maine." [March 2003]
At the orthopedic surgeon's office
I was at my orthopedic surgeon's office for a follow-up on my broken shoulder. The only other people in the waiting room were a man in his mid-20s and his son, who looked like he was around nine or ten. The man was watching Jerry Springer, while the son rolled around on the floor, drummed his feet, and asked how long they'd be, where they were going next, what time they were having lunch.
On Springer, a man had just learned that his fiancee was having an affair with his sister, and there was a shot of the two women kissing in front of the whooping studio audience. The man suddenly scooped up his son and began tickling his sides furiously and shouting, "Are you turned on by two women making out? Are you turned on by two women making out?" The son laughed hysterically and yelled back, "No, you are! No, you are! You're the one turned on by two women making out!" [Chicago Reader, Feb. 1, 2002.]
Outside Beijing's Forbidden City
Outside Beijing's Forbidden City, where my wife and I were on vacation, there were crowds of hawkers and hustlers and touts, including one incredibly ancient guy with a battered, hand-painted sign reading, in Chinese and English, "Massage." He heard us talking and approached us crooning, "One dallah massage. One daah-laaah." We said no, and he drew himself up and uttered a stern sentence in Mandarin. I thought he was cursing us, and I asked one of our Chinese companions to translate. She listened for a moment and said, "He thinks that Afghanistan should turn over Osama bin Laden." [Chicago Reader, Oct. 12, 2001.]
There was a bookstore I used to go to in Chicago, where one of the clerks used to spend all her time on the phone -- I don't know who she was talking to, but she'd invariably be describing to this person in explicit detail everything that had happened to her the night before. You didn't have to eavesdrop; she was totally oblivious to her surroundings and you could hear her thirty feet away -- the first time, I heard her say "It was just so upsetting. After I had my orgasm I couldn't stop crying."
The next time, she was telling how a friend of a friend had talked her into posing for photos dressed as Bettie Page. ("It was okay. I just sat around naked all night while he fussed with the lights.")
After that I started bringing friends in to hear her, and she never disappointed. Once she spent twenty minutes explaining to her friend how she'd gotten badly sunburned because she had been playing a game of nude tag.
Then there was a bad moment when I brought a bunch of friends in and she wasn't there. But the day was saved: the two clerks behind the counter were retelling all the stories they'd heard from her over the past week, including one where an ex-boyfriend had walked in on her having sex with her current boyfriend. "She said, 'wasn't that horrible?' I said, 'yeah, I hate when that happens.' " 
At home in bed
We were awakened in the middle of the night by somebody yelling obscenities on the street below our bedroom window.
"I can't fucking believe it! That fucking bitch did it! She really did it!" A young guy was gesticulating wildly to a couple of his friends to come look at his car -- all four tires had been slashed. "I don't fucking believe it! Those were new! They were new fucking tires!"
His friends finally persuaded him to leave. As they strolled off, one of them said consolingly, "Look, you got off easy. The last guy, she smashed his windshield." [Chicago Reader, June 12, 1998.]
On the Brown Line around Addison
On the el, two gangbangers were looking at a poster for the new Lawrence Fishburne movie "Hoodlum."
"You going to see it?"
"I dunno, man, I just don't get what it's called."
"Well, sound it out, right? That's what you're supposed to do. H-O-O-D. ... That's hood, right?"
"Yeah. I get that."
"So what's lum?" 
On the Howard subway
On the Howard subway, the young man across from me was singing along with his walkman (c)(c) really bellowing, although, in the roar of the tunnel, he was completely inaudible. Then he started rewinding the tape and playing one brief bit over and over again, mouthing the line with even more passion. As we cleared the tunnel after North and Clybourn, in the brief rush of quiet before he realized he could be heard, he sang out, "I got no time for bitches, bitches, bitches!" [late 1990s]
On the Brown Line south of Sedgwick
The two young men sauntered into the el train and sprawled across the seats by the door. They shrugged out of their jackets and loosened their ties, all the while talking loudly and merrily about a boxing match they'd just seen.
"And after all that," one of them cried, "After all that, he just put his gloves down. Like: I'm not going to fight that guy."
"I know, I know. How long did he train? Like a year? And he just can't go through with it. I mean, you never know."
They both dissolved in laughter; but one of them grew suddenly pensive: "You know? You just never know. Look at Sniffles."
The other nodded gravely. "You want to talk about a tough year? Sniffles had a tough year. His wife left him, he had a triple by-pass..."
They couldn't help it; they both began laughing again.
The other finished the thought: "And then the drinking, and spilling coffee over everything --"
"--Like his laptop."
"Like his laptop, shorting the fucker out, and then smashing up his neighbors' cars ... yeah, Sniffles had a tough year." He paused, and then, in a tone of cautious commiseration, said, "You know, it must be a drag clerking for a judge like that."
"Yeah," his friend replied morosely. "Tell me about it." [mid-1990s]
At a stop sign
The young man in the battered car tried to run a stop sign, and almost careened into a silver Cadillac. The driver of the Cadillac, a stout, bald man in a white shirt and golfing pants, reared out of his door and began screaming obscenities that you could hear a block away. The young man sat and listened impassively. Then the older man, clutching his chest, fell silent and began to get back into his car.
The young man then called out, "Let me ask you something. How did you get where you are today?"
The older man waved a hand dismissively. "It's all who you know. Took me twenty-five years." Then he drove off. [mid-1990s]
This has haunted me for years
This has haunted me for years. I was getting off an el train just as a man and woman were getting on. In that instant as we passed, I heard her say:
"Well, after the wedding incident, I asked if I could have another chance. But they said no."
Then the door closed. [early 1990s]
At the Art Institute's Goya show
At the Art Institute's Goya show, two women paused before the paintings of the witches' sabbath.
"Bob came home late last night," the younger woman said. "It was almost dawn. He had a burn. And I don't mean a little burn. I mean a burn. Of course I didn't want to ask him how he got it."
"No, of course not," the older woman said. "Did you hear about James?"
"He came home with a tube in his stomach."
"Too bad. Such a gentleman. He shouldn't have gone."
They turned for a moment back to the paintings.
"You see," the older woman said. "That's what's worrying me. Viruses."
"So what about them?"
"They're just out there. And you know where they're coming from. Everybody who's sick is going to keep getting sicker."
The other woman didn't answer. They both regarded the leering forms writhing through the blackness of the sabbath night. Then she said, "Well, at least we know about Goya now. He was from Spain." [maybe early 1990s]
At a Vietnamese restaurant
A couple of tables away from us, at a Vietnamese restaurant on the Near North Side, a group of young women were having dinner. My wife and I quickly gathered that they worked at a big law firm: they gossiped for several courses, with fervent concentration and great analytic skill, about the attorneys in their office.
Then they wandered on to movies and TV, and the whole group provided a detailed synopsis of that week's Melrose Place for the one person who'd missed it. Finally they got on to a postgame wrap-up of a recent party they'd all attended. The focus narrowed to a woman who'd been at the party but clearly wasn't at tonight's dinner. Her behavior, or her dress -- we couldn't tell exactly which -- had made her stand out, though we couldn't tell exactly why. They didn't seem sure themselves, talking her over: there was something maddeningly elusive about the way she'd been that night.
One woman groped to describe it: "She was just so -- so -- 1992!" All of them groaned in recognition. The woman hastened to add: "But I don't mean in a bad way." "Oh, no," they all quickly agreed. "Not 1992 in a bad way." [Chicago Reader, June 17, 1994.]