The Earbud Epidemic

Earbuds have become a sore subject as Apple unveiled the iPhone 7, an iPhone sans headphone jack. I, for one, rejoiced. No more tangled cords! No more getting caught on armrests or strangers' umbrellas in the metro! Apple has unleashed us all!... or so I had thought. In fact, the iPhone 7 comes with regular old headphones that just plug into the power jack and an adapter for your other headphones.

Tangly and awkward as they are, earbuds are a necessity for me. I wear headphones for 2-6 hours every day, sometimes more. I pop them in on my walk to the ferry, when our We Work office neighbors start bickering about how to log overtime (or worse, play Shakira at 9:30 AM,) and again on my commute home. I wear them to the grocery store, to the coffee shop, to the airport. I rarely leave my house without them, nor does anybody else.

I picked up this habit when I moved to New York. An adult pacifier for the urban dweller, the earbud is as ubiquitous in New York as hot dog carts and withering stares. There's a lot of time to kill on public transportation, and it's all but forbidden to make eye contact with strangers, let alone talk to the person standing beside you on the subway platform. Like most New Yorkers, I want to stay productive (should I bring a book?) and carry my coffee (which I will definitely spill all over that book when I reach for my metro card.) Enter: the audiobook.

I'd heard this trick from many a "successful" business person. Want to read more books, but you don't have the time? Listen to audiobooks on your commute! Or, while you make breakfast! Well, I've taken this to the extreme. I'm subscribed to 18 podcasts (though some are on break between seasons), and have an Audible.com subscription. I brag often that I watch only 5 hours of TV or video a week, but then secretly consume a colossal amount of audio content.

In September, though, this all changed.

I was traveling alone in Italy, a couple weeks of rest and relaxation in Rome and the Amalfi Coast with a quick foray to Naples. My first destination once I unpacked my bags? Gelato. I grabbed a jacket, put in my earbuds, and was out the door.

I have never felt so self-conscious in my life. Well, that's not true. But yes, in my post-puberty adult life, this was the worst case of it: I was the only person wearing earbuds and walking around Rome. No exaggeration: the only one. I was struck by the absurdity. Did I really take a flight to another continent to listen to The New Yorker Radio Hour? The sense of place was so incongruous, and the notion of, essentially, wearing earplugs and walking around Rome so offensive. I took out the earbuds and ended up walking for four hours, listening only to sounds of the city.

There is an art to the Italian passeggiata. You walk leisurely. You push no one. You walk simply to enjoy the outdoors. You have no destination besides the street itself, and improvisation in route is encouraged. In other words, a tall order for a New Yorker who is in constant pursuit of a perfectly optimized route: “Should I take the G to the L to the N? I could take the G, walk from Fulton Street to Barclays Center, and take the N from there. I could take the G to the R to the N. Then, I’d pass right by the Trader Joe’s at Bergen Street. Is the N running after 5? I think it’s a Friday… Let me double check the planned service changes and recalculate.”

I was surprised at the sharp contrast in ways of life I saw between Rome and New York. American exceptionalism often plagues the mind, but I figured Rome would be just another city, another urban jungle. Half the people in New York speak English as well as the Italians do, and Italy shares New York’s obsession with artisan coffee. Big city life should look about the same everywhere, right? And aren't earbuds an irreducible part of big city life as we know it?

As I walked that afternoon, and for the rest of my newly unplugged vacation, I learned the art of existing without tasks, of walking down the street without a program playing in my ear to preoccupy my mind. I couldn't even remember the last time I heard the sounds of the streets in Manhattan, or the sound of the ferry traversing the East River. And it might be the reason that I miss Italy so dearly—that I actually stopped to listen. I can hear Rome so clearly in my memory, but New York, even as I sit in our offices at 85 Broad Street, I can't.

Of course, back in New York, I have again opted to plug in. Call it habit, compulsion, an adult safety blanket, a tool to discourage lost tourists from approaching me, but I still need my earplugs. —Earbuds! An apt Freudian slip. And, I vow that on days when I feel brave, I will leave my headphones behind for the afternoon and practice being present in my city. 

Maybe one day we'll all forsake podcasts and be rid of the earbud epidemic. Maybe we'll have computer chips implanted in our ears, or decide this Star Trek-inspired bone conductor looks cool. Maybe we'll all chill the expletive out and admit that relaxing in quiet is good for the mind and saying hello to a stranger is good for the spirit. 

But, for now, I'm queuing up a playlist for my after-work errands and taking Ira Glass to Trader Joe's. I’m learning moderation and, perhaps, learning what it really means to listen, one day at a time.


Image: New York commuters wearing Walkmans, 1981. NY Daily News via Getty Images.