New York City is crowded. I have two roommates, and outside of my home, there are roughly another 8,400,000 people living here. Everywhere I go, I’m surrounded by people. Whenever I get on the F train to go to or from work, it seems like each and every one of those 8,400,000 people is there. Sometimes, it feels like they bring their friends and loved ones with them, just for good measure.
I, just like everyone else in this city, am always looking for a little place to call my own, a little sanctuary among the madness. Some magical way to make my fellow denizens disappear, at least for a bit. I’ve yet to figure out how to get an entire F train car to myself, but that’s okay because I’ve long had another tool at my disposal: my headphones. For as long as I can remember, my headphones were essential to bring on my travels, short or long. As long as I had my headphones, I could make all of those people disappear. I would sit in my comfortable bubble of music, and all was right with the world. As time has gone on, this has gone from habitual, to instinctive. When I do my ready to leave home pat down, after phone, wallet, and keys, headphones are next on the list. I have been known to alter entire wardrobe choices, just to ensure that I have some way to carry my headphones with me.
Everywhere I went, I had my sanctuary. As long as I had my music, I couldn’t be touched. Subway delayed for 15 minutes? Cool, I’m going to be able to finish listening to that album. The train is horribly crowded and someone’s baby keeps screaming? No worries, can’t hear you! Pedestrians walking at stupidly slow paces again? I’ll just bob and weave to my tunes and walk right by you! As long as I had my headphones, I was invincible! But all that invincibility came at a cost. That 15-minute delay meant that my train was being rerouted and I had no way to hear the message. That woman with the screaming kid? I was blocking their way off the train and I didn’t even know it.
Sure, Superman has his Fortress of Solitude. But it’s located at the North Pole. Solitude comes at a price. What I was gaining by always having my headphones on, I was losing in the way of something else. So I began leaving my headphones at home and started on a quest to figure out what it was that I had been missing.
The first thing I noticed when I began leaving my headphones at home was an incredible level of discomfort. Before we continue, I think here is an appropriate place to backtrack a bit. I’m 31 years old and began riding the subway alone when I was about 12 years old—a fateful day when my mom knew I was a changed man forever—and for most of that time I was always plugged into either a Walkman, Discman, minidisc player (those were a thing and I had one!), an iPod, or a phone. That means that for roughly 19 years, for roughly two hours a day, particularly those two hours when I was most closely sardined together with my fellow man, I was in my own world, to some level unaware of what was going on around me. To you, that might not seem strange (and for most of my life, it didn’t feel strange to me at all), but thinking and writing about it now, I can’t help but be curious about how this behavior has impacted me on both personal and social levels.
Back to the task at hand! When I started leaving my headphones at home, it was uncomfortable. Something that had been so natural to me for more than half of my life was now gone. I felt so much more exposed to my environment than I had before. My subway rides seemed so much longer, so much more of a chore. I fidgeted, my mind wandered, and I had no idea how to combat this feeling.
The first thing I noticed that I did differently on the subway was the way in which I read. I always carry a book with me, but whether I did read on the subway or not was usually a decision in direct relationship to what I was listening to during my commute. Something too peppy? Good luck! I can barely keep still as it is, and trying to read while listening to music was never as effective as just reading. Maybe you are one of those lucky sorts who is able to listen to music and read simultaneously, but I am unable to keep those threads from getting tangled in my brain. I could cover entire pages, and have no clue what I just read. With no music around, I read more, and I think I became a better reader. I was getting books at a much quicker pace than usual and I felt like I was getting more out of what I read.
The most important thing I learned when I started leaving my headphones at home was that the less frequently I used my headphones, the less I needed to use them. You know what I mean by needing your headphones. It’s a day when you really aren’t looking forward to getting out of bed, or it’s already been a really long day, and the last thing you want to do is be stuck in a narrow, crowded, and in every way uncomfortable subway car. But you have your headphones, you’ve got that song, or album, or playlist, and you’ve been telling yourself as soon as I listen to this, my troubles are going to melt away, at least for a little while. You cue it up, put on your song, and zang! Your troubles are gone.
I know you have those moments because I have those moments. We all have them. Those moments when we’re stuck out in the wild of the world around us, and we want nothing more than the peace and serenity that is being able to tap into your own musical world. Those moments are fantastic. That’s one of the many reasons why music is amazing. It soothes us, it heals us, it gives us words to things that we don’t fully understand, and does it with more emotional precision than we are sometimes able.
Not having those moments, at first, was painful. I don’t have any empirical evidence to back up this claim, but I’m pretty sure that on the first day of this experiment, someone at the MTA decided it would be a funny day to mess with my commute, and invited everyone to come watch. It was one of those days when whoever usually runs the subway took the day off, and some drunk monkeys were running the show instead. I can’t recall the last time I made so many seemingly meaningless transfers, stop after stop, just trying to get home. The commute in and of itself was an ordeal, but not having my personal sanctuary to buffer myself from the experience, made it so much worse. If this experiment was going to go down in flames, that first day sure seemed determined to break my spirit. But I got through, I had survived . . . for now.
The next day went better. The triple threat of fate, a dysfunctional MTA, and my enjoyment in playing experiments on myself had all gone to their respective corners, and my ride was peaceful. I could hear people say excuse me, and because I didn’t have my own bubble of sound to stand in, I was more proactive in trying to be a better subway rider. I tried to move with the natural ebbs and flows of the traffic within the car, tried to anticipate how to get out of people’s way, and so on. Yes, these maneuvers are all possible while having headphones on, but I felt much more in tune with my surroundings without them.
My commutes took on a completely different feeling. Instead of making sure I had a way to carry my headphones, I picked books to read which would fit into the cargo pockets of my shorts. I tore through books at a pace I haven’t done in years, and it was great.
I was more conversational on the subway as well. Not that these conversations were anything special. Usually, I was just helping someone out with directions, but my entire demeanor toward these interactions was different. Before, if someone talked to me while I had my headphones on, they were interrupting my time. They were getting in the way of me being “alone” while I was sharing the space with a few hundred people. Instead, I welcomed these interactions. In a weird way, I felt like I was part of a community instead of a nomad on the move on his own.
Over time, I found that the less I used my headphones, the clearer I thought. Like I said before, my headphones, my time alone in my musical bubble, has been one of my forms of therapy for years. Bad day? Put on the music! Long ride home? Put on the music! Not looking forward to going to work? PUT ON THE MUSIC! As you well know, having that voice inside your head can be so soothing to get through the commute, or whatever. But, the less I used my headphones, the less I needed them.
My own emotional fortitude grew stronger. The less I had a fix it switch, the more I had to be in the moment with whatever stood in my way, and the more I was able to deal with it. No, I couldn’t stop those annoying kids from being obnoxious, no I couldn’t stop the subway from having bizarre delays, no I couldn’t stop the preacher from telling me I was living a life of sin. But what I could do was stop caring about it. I came to learn that for me, as much as having my headphones with me is a therapeutic tool, it’s also a crutch of escapism. It put me in a place where I never needed to worry about anything and I didn’t have to care about my actions because, well, I have my music on and I can’t hear you, so nothing you do really matters to me. Instead, I relied on my own emotional strength, and I think I did a better job of being cognizant of how I was reacting to certain things, and adjusting my behavior accordingly.
Of course, I knew this experiment was going to end one day. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know why, I didn’t know how, but I knew it would. It happened after a long day of work when I knew that today I needed my bubble. And so, as I got ready to leave, I took out my headphones, plugged them in, walked outside, and then you know what happened:
It felt weird.
I felt like I was walking out of step with everything around me. I felt out of sync. My heart rate went up, I felt panicky, and I all-in-all did not feel comfortable. It could have been a simple bodily response to having my headphones on again, but it was more than that. I had gotten so accustomed to having all my senses available to me as I walked around the city, that suddenly denying myself of my hearing just felt wrong.
Today, the experiment is over. I never had any specific idea as to how long I was going to try commuting around New York City without my headphones. But on a regular day, I have my headphones in my bag—just in case—but with no intention of using them. I like to think of them as being there on an emergency basis, in case I just, well, really need to listen to some music while I’m commuting to and fro.
But I offer you this thought of mine: the world is a crowded place. Whether it be physically, electronically, emotionally, or otherwise, we are more often than not, connected to a lot of people. A lot of the time, these people are strangers. If you live in a major city, you deal with this more often than most. If you live in New York City, this is your entire life. And it can be overwhelming, being stuck elbow to elbow with people who are on some level, getting in your way. With that in mind, headphones are great. Any awfully crowded place can turn into your own sanctuary with a simple plug. But, if our default position is to create that sanctuary, within that decision we’re also choosing to tune out the things we hear—things that are so unimportant to us that we need not bother listening. While it isn’t intentional, there’s aggression in that decision. By insisting that others make up for our lack of hearing, we are the rock which they, the wave, must break upon. Wouldn’t it be easier to join them, and be water?
More importantly, if we establish me time as time being filled with hearing someone else sing to us, is it really our time? Can we really reach peace and calm if we need someone else’s words to help us reach it? While I have lost my pleasant routine of listening to music whenever I travel throughout the city, I’ve gained a better ability to create peace for myself, no matter where I am.
Of course, carry your headphones with you. They’re too much of a delight to simply get rid of. But I invite you to try using them less often, so your ears are more open to those around you, and more open to yourself.