The Joys of Eavesdropping: Transcribing Conversations on A Bus, Part 1

A few months back one of my favorite writers, Sherman Alexie, tweeted during his travels, “Airports aren’t boring if you like to eavesdrop. And eavesdropping is part of my job.”

I couldn’t agree more as I sit at my dining room table, my bed, the library, a local coffeeshop, eavesdropping on the recordings of almost thirty Conversations on A Bus, instigated and steered in unexpected directions by the lovely Heather Hooton.

In case you didn’t know already, husband and wife photographers Heather and JD Hooton spent the month of July riding the Metro all over Omaha, approaching riders on every route and engaging them in conversations…on a bus, hence the name Conversations on A Bus.

As the writer in this project, my job now is to transcribe the recordings, mining each one for those moments where small talk gives way to something deeper. And this all sounds so serious doesn’t it? But the fact is, many of the conversations I’m encountering are, all at once, sweet and funny and strange.

Heather and JD e-mail me the audio recordings and the images separately, and though we’re dead smack in heat of August, it feels like Christmas as I open each file, trying to decide whether I ought to open the image or audio file first. Do I want to see these faces before I hear their voices? Or do I want to listen first, and then, after I’ve formed some picture of them in my mind, do I want to open the photo and see if the idea resembles the reality?

I almost always opt to listen to the interview before looking at the image. And I must say, based on their voices, their pauses, their laughter, their stories, what I imagine the participants look like never matches what I see when I finally get to gaze into their eyes.

And that brings me to what I think is beautiful about this project: when we rely only on our eyes to translate our surroundings, we almost never see people for who they really are. Think of how many times in your life you’ve seen a person and made some decision about who he/she is, only to sit down for a few minutes of conversation with that person and have your idea of that person, for better or for worse, blown out the window?

When I finally do put the voices to JD’s photographs, I’m struck by the fact that JD has done more than simply document a moment: he’s truly captured the spirit of each participant. If this all sounds a bit cliche, consider looking at the etymology of the word “spirit.” The word is derived “from L. spiritus ‘soul, courage, vigor, breath,’ related to spirare ‘to breathe.’ With the click of the shutter, JD brings each participant to life. These simple, black and white photographs, they thrum, they breathe, they speak.

Conversations with strangers matter, even if they never move beyond the smallest of talk (weather, football, weather, did I mention the weather?), because it is only after the conversation has begun, that  “that guy in the baseball cap with a tattoo on his neck” becomes Michael Smith, a young man studying to become a truck driver. Michael Smith, who loves to play basketball. Michael Smith, who sings and raps. Michael Smith who, when Heather shares how impractical her degree in Vocal Performance is, says, “Hey, you gotta follow your passion, though.”

As I continue to listen in on these conversations, I’m overjoyed that Heather and JD are following their passion, and I am so grateful to be brought along for the ride on this one.

So how about you all out there? Was there a time when you struck up a conversation with a stranger and came away from it changed?

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