I got an e-mail from a friend recently, part of which read something like this:
I took advantage of the iPod recycling program and my education discount to get the prettiest iPod I’ve ever seen. It can hold so, so many songs. Yet is it having a negative impact on society’s interactions as a whole?
This last sentence was a parody of the worried dialogue you hear a lot regarding the iPod: is it cutting us off from those around us? Are we so immersed in our portable MP3s that we can’t hear the song of the birds and the kind greetings of our neighbors?
Like my friend, I think this sort of strident complaining is pretty ridiculous. You never hear anyone complaining about people reading on the bus, about what a shame it is that everyone has to bury their nose in the newspaper rather than reaching out and making a connection to their fellow citizens. Is reading the Financial page automatically a higher plane of endeavor than listening to music? And doesn’t it involve the same sort of immersion in media, to the exclusion of personal interaction? The backlash against the iPod is basically identical to the backlash against the Walkman, or the internet. For every neato invention, there’s a paid corps of grumpuses to gripe about how our reliance on technology is leading us away from the good old days when strangers chatted merrily all the way to work. I’m sure some of them believe this. Others, I’m just as sure, know that there’s always good money to be made writing for people who react to innovation with suspicion and anger.
Besides, our portable gadgets are not the prime factor in our isolation, not by a long shot. If you want to pick a single invention that cuts us off from the world, you want to start, not with the cellular phone, but with the car, an enclosed, personal transportation bubble that absorbs one’s whole personality. (As has been noted elsewhere, we say “He hit me!” rather than “His car hit my car!”) If you want a symbol of our isolation, it’s not the millions of pairs of white headphones. It’s the highways of Southern California, where only a tiny fraction of the cars on the road contain the two people necessary to drive in the carpool lane.
However! The other day I had a sobering (and deeply embarrassing–it’s taken me this long to bring myself to write about it) reminder of the iPod’s potential for isolation. I was walking home from downtown Berkeley, with two bags of newly purchased CDs in tow. (Two more contributions to the list of Bands That Sound Like Several People But Are Really Just One: Cat Power [Chan Marshall] and Iron & Wine [Sam Beam].) I was listening to Help! and thinking excitedly about cracking open my new music when I got home. Walking through Ohlone Park, I passed a disheveled woman pushing a shopping cart. As I passed, she smiled a little, held out her hand, and said something. I couldn’t hear her through the music, but I assumed she was asking for money, and I didn’t have any change on me, so I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”
As I kept walking, I was dimly aware of the sound of her shouting. Thinking she might be lambasting me, I turned back and took out a headphone to hear what she was saying.
She was yelling, “A GIANTS FAN! I said, ‘You’re a GIANTS FAN!'”
I felt the same helpless nausea that I feel when I realize I’ve overslept for class. She hadn’t been asking for money; she had been commenting on the Giants shirt I was wearing. I had taken a gesture of camaraderie between strangers and assumed it was a plea for a handout. More insulting acts don’t readily come to mind.
With the calmness and clarity of mind that comes from having screwed up royally, I took out the other headphone and walked up to her. “I’m very sorry,” I said. “That was extremely insulting of me. I owe you an apology.”
She was still incredulous and angry. “I said, ‘You’re a Giants fan,’ and you said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you!'” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘what is wrong with this conversation?!’”
“I know,” I said. “I’m really sorry, that was inexcusable of me.”
She spat on the ground, then seemed to calm down and collect her thoughts. “I’m a forgiving person,” she said. “And I’ll tell you something else: I didn’t graduate from high school, but: I have been a single mom, I’ve had jobs, I’ve taken care of older people.” She looked at me significantly. “I believe it,” I said lamely.
“It’s the truth,” she said. “But now, I’m getting older. And I’m wondering, who’s going to take care of me?”
“I… I hope… I don’t know,” I finally said.
“I don’t do drugs,” she said after a pause. “I do”–she gestured with her hand–“drink every once in a while. But I don’t do drugs.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Listen,” she said. “I don’t want you to feel bad. You were just going down the street, listening to your music…”
“I am really sorry,” I said again. “That was so selfish of me, I was just absorbed in my own world.”
“I don’t want you to feel bad,” she repeated. “I’ve had guilt trips laid on me, and I don’t want to guilt-trip anyone. I think it was just a misunderstanding.”
“That’s very kind of you,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Lois,” she said. “I’m Tom,” I said, and stuck out my hand. “I’m not really the handshake type,” she said, and showed me her hand. It was weathered, and there was dirt under the fingernails. “My hands get dirty digging in dumpsters.”
“Well, good to meet you, anyway,” I said. We said goodbye, and she said again that she didn’t want me to feel bad. I started walking away. “Peace be with you!” she called after me, making a V.
“Peace be with you,” I replied. I walked home, with the cathartic feeling that comes after the resolution of a stern talking-to.
That meeting reminded me that none of us, no matter how liberal and understanding we feel we are, is immune to cutting oneself off from society, from taking refuge in one’s own reality. My self-absorbtion was a barrier between me and the world, as was, it must be said, having the money to afford a little device that lets me listen to the Beatles while I’m walking around town. Lois was much more gracious than she needed to be, and I got off much easier than I had any right to. But that’s part of the point, too: even after being egregiously insulted by some young punkass, Lois believed my apology and assured me that she didn’t want me to feel bad. Homeless people have every reason to be angry at the world, and I don’t begrudge those that are, but to be so kind and forgiving even after so much provocation, by me and by the world, indicates the sort of understanding and patience that one only meets once in a great while. And if the volume of my music player had been a little higher, I wouldn’t have heard her yelling and wouldn’t have met her at all.
But even then, I don’t think the lesson of this episode is, “Don’t listen to music while you walk around the town.” The lesson (and pardon the obviousness of this) is to resist the easy assumptions, stereotyping, and prejudices that our modern isolation encourages. I’ll continue to listen to my iPod, because I prefer it to the sound of cars going by. But I’ll make sure I can hear what’s going on around me, and if someone speaks to me, I’ll do what I should have done last Friday: stop, take out my headphones, and say, “Sorry?”