Stop Wearing Earbuds in Public, for the Love of all That is Good

Several months ago, in the dead of summer, I noticed something strange as I sweated on the corner of 16th Street—an older man rattled cherry red maracas from behind the wheel of his car halted at the stoplight. These maracas were the big ones, with the handles. He stared over at our group on the corner, his shoulders shaking to the beat of the Spanish music blasting from his open windows, to see if anyone was watching. He was performing.

This guy was doing his thing. And I watched him.

I turned around to see if anyone else noticed the spectacle before us, and in a crowd of 10 or 15 people, only one other young man had seen. Everyone else wore earbuds or stared at their phones. The young man and I made eye contact and exchanged a look of surprise.

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“Hopefully he uses his hands while he drives,” he said, and we laughed together.

This was months ago, and I have told the story about the old dude playing the maracas in his car to a number of people. Because it was memorable. I am thankful I was coherent enough to experience it. But so many people behind me missed it.

One moment witnessing an old man playing maracas in his car is life. And many people are overlooking theirs.

At a work gathering several months ago, I was speaking to two of my colleagues and mentioned how much I disliked people wearing headphones in public. I try to get around them on the bus and they don’t hear me, I said. Something funny happens, and they won’t notice. My reasoning summed up: They annoy me. But that wasn’t all I was trying to say.

My friends said that they wear earbuds in public all the time, and I felt a sudden sadness.

“I don’t want to talk to people,” one of them said. My face did not hide my disappointment, since the conversation became a little awkward, and I probably seemed like I was judging them. But I wasn’t, since that would make me a hypocrite.

Although I have worn headphones in public only once or twice because I felt like a zombie in pink Keds, I closed myself off in other ways: By whipping out my book the moment I sat down on the bus, by declining a seat offered next to someone who looked talkative, by not making eye contact with anyone. Only recently have I tried opening myself up to the world.

My colleagues said they wore headphones partially because they don’t want strange men talking to them. That’s fair, I said, but didn’t they feel like they were missing out?

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No, they both agreed. We changed the subject. I didn’t know how to articulate what I was feeling in the moment, but now I know it was heartache at learning that not everyone was with me on this one. A lot of people don’t mind being closed off, or they don’t know what they are missing.

But I am speaking from experience: Life is passing by.

The tiny, seemingly insignificant minutes are what we remember when we are 85 years old looking back. The mornings when my dog, Ruby, races down the hallway of our apartment building after she hears the echoing voice of the maintenance man, Will, because he is her favorite person on earth. “Hey there, it’s my buddy,” he says as he gives her a treat. The instance at my wedding when my dad came over to the head table where I was eating dinner and kissed me on the cheek, whispering that he was proud of me. The time I plopped down the largest rubber mallet available on the counter of Ace Hardware, and the checkout man looked up at me with a skeptical but wry grin. “This is not for anything like murder, I swear,” I said and we shared a deep laugh.

What if I had worn earbuds during these rich moments?

People in the Midwest wear earbuds much less often than in cities. And the sense of community is stronger, although there is also less openness to newcomers, but that’s another post. Many of us suffer with feeling like we don’t belong, like we have no place in larger society, and so every choice matters.

Let’s choose for ourselves to stop wearing headphones in public. For the love of all that is good in the world.

My next dispatch will be from Asia, where we are flying for an extended honeymoon. I have never been to that continent before, so this will be exciting.

Until next time,

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1 thought on “Stop Wearing Earbuds in Public, for the Love of all That is Good”

  1. I agree about the ear buds. But then again I grew up in that small town Midwest community too. I like engaging people, but I understand not everybody does. I guess maybe it’s a defense mechanism that developed in the absence of people respecting each others space? [Also, have a great trip!]

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