I forgot my headphones today and I think I’m going to die.
I’m not exaggerating.
See, I’ve been blocking the world out, very successfully, for the past 31 years, ever since I got my first Walkman at age 10. It was a Christmas present from friends of the family. I strapped on those foam-padded headphones, slapped in those two AAs and tuned the radio (AM only). I was lost to the beat of “The Little Drummer Boy” the rest of the day.
I grew up in New York. In the city that never sleeps, I had no problem doing so, the backdrop of sirens and airplanes and neighbors’ arguments weaving a blanket of white noise to which I regularly nodded off. In summers, when we decamped to the Catskills, I had a miserable time falling asleep. It was too quiet. I couldn’t focus. Native to a densely populated Queens neighborhood, I quickly learned how to navigate the noise. Just home in and tune it out.
It’s not that I like noise, or thrive in chaotic environments. Very much the contrary. I loved when teachers would send me on errands, creeping through the deserted hallways and quiet stairwells to deliver memos. In between classes was panic-inducing, the crush of a 1,000 students all feeling freedom at once. Barely scraping five-foot-one, I was mostly unseen in the crowds, getting jostled and body-slammed regularly on my subway commute to high school.
My Walkman was the answer. It was on. All. The. Time. Walk to the train station? Not without my music. Running around the corner for gum? $1 and my headphones. All over campus, between swim meet heats, to and from my babysitting gigs – my Walkman went everywhere with me. The one time I was robbed, on the Q34, the kid snatched my Walkman and as he fled through the backdoor, headphones trailing after him, my only thought was: “Was he going to be as into the ‘Hair’ soundtrack as much as I am? No. What a waste of a Memorex High Bias II tape!”
I was so loyal to the classic cassette/radio design that I skipped the whole MP3 player phase and was still lugging around a mini boombox well into the aughts until the thing chewed a precious mixed tape from my fiance and I had to make the leap to an iProduct. But those earbuds aren’t designed to block out enough of my world. So I continue to sport the ear goggles, like I did in 1983.
Because NYC is a big space. And while I am used to having so much around me, tuning out, to music or a podcast, tucks me into a safe little bubble. There is nothing to react to, other than what I choose to listen to. I don’t hear the subway musicians, or the loud teenagers or sometimes my own co-workers. For the last 8 years, my job settings have been open floorplans. The only “privacy” anyone gets is by slipping on their headphones. It’s this century’s closed door in a time when office space is a premium.
Tuning out, specifically with headphones, is how I protect myself. So I’m not so vulnerable to everyone in my path who needs something at that very second. I covet my my time and space, which is incongruous to being a New Yorker.
So why don’t I just move? Get out of all all this crackling energy that overloads my senses and makes me want to hide? Because I like to know it’s there. That things are happening. That I am surrounded by life and progress and ambition and that even though it mostly overwhelms me, I could be a part of it if I wanted. It’s like watching a horror movie with your hands over your eyes – controlling how much of it you’ll let in.
Today, I must let all of it in. With no headphones, I am not just watching a movie with a soundtrack of my choice. I am actually a player in the scene. It’s loud. It’s distracting. I can’t gather my thoughts well. I don’t get that little moment of zen on my commute back home before I am greeted with two small children who will forget their inside voices as they talk over one another to get my attention.
It’s all a bit much. But I may be the only person on the planet who understands the reasoning behind Apple’s $3 billion Beats acquisition. They’re buying a lot of zen.