Thursday, September 9, 2010

Things That Occupy Us

While I was attending college, there was a pretty big shift among which people walked around with headphones on. For a long time in my experience, the people who spent their days filled with music were typically music nerds of some type. There was the metal heads, hop-hop kids and audiophiles. Other than that most everyone else went without. With the advent of the MP3 player it became less cumbersome to bring one's favorite music along. I remember the days when I would take out my Discman to keep my occupied, not only was it's shape, size and media awkward but being the only one on the street with headphones on is a little socially uncomfortable.

As time passed heads of strangers were suddenly adorned with little white earbuds. The iPod had really started to take over and made a life filled with music much less awkward. This had a terrible implications for random social interactions. No longer was it important to be able to chat with the person next to you on the bus, instead you could burry yourself if your new favorite album. And with the advent of podcasting, mixtape production and the decreased price of MP3 players they have become so prevalent that rarely do strangers speak anymore.

Recently I have been frequenting interstate bus systems and there are few places that illustrate this point as much as a crowded charter bus. 3 to 5 hours sitting in close proximity to that large number of people should provide one with the wonderful and/or horrible experience of talking to a stranger. In my travels I have oft chosen to be the silent recluse with my headphones in but on my last few rides I have attempted to engage more in my surroundings. Sometimes this is great, I had an extremely candid conversation with two strangers about the medical industry as I was sitting across from a nurse in training and a physician's assistant. They told me wonderfully horrible stories about the stated of Chicago's emergency rooms and what it looks like when someone has tremendous amounts of bone structural damage. Other times I met people with mutual friends, heard stories about foreclosure, politics, weddings and living in different states across this country.

As true with most shared travel experiences, riding a bus from state to state is a pretty horrible experience, the seats are small and uncomfortable, stops are infrequent and there are no refreshments. A good conversation with a neighbor can make this experience a little less unbearable. One of my favorite modes of travel is taking the Amtrak train. The greatest part of this experience is the existence of the dining car. The Dining car is a social hot spot among train riders, a place to gather and enjoy an overpriced beverage, hot dog and/or vacuum-packed sandwich. If there were more places like this, I think we would be a more engage culture. A great example of German Beer Halls, who have long picnic-style tables that house all of their patrons, preventing anyone from refreshing in private. Here in the US we spend out time out and about immersed in our own lives, rarely moving into someone else's life.

So here is the challenge, I love the idea of talking with strangers but I also appreciate the anonymity that my headphones give me. Now that I have experienced the delightful lack of crazy people asking me for cigarettes, telling me far too much about their own lives and generally unpleasant background noise of travel I find it harder and harder to just leave my headphones at home. I would imagine there has to be a balance between private and public but where to find it.

Image Courtesy of E-Magic


  1. That was a good read! Even though I have the capability, I hardly ever listen to music and podcasts while just out in public. Now a long plane, train, or bus ride would be different, I would definitely have headphones with me at the very least. I think I would wait and see who I was sitting near and attempt to predetermine if they were interesting or not.

  2. This was very interesting! I was one of those audiophiles, walking around with huge over the ear headphones. I think that on my next long trip on a bus, train, or plane I will try to bring up conversation with the person that sits by me. Thanks for posting this!

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