(illustration: Matt St. John)
There are plenty of reasons not to wear headphones while traversing San Francisco. Maybe it’s the fear of getting smacked by an electric skateboard or robbed late at night. When there are new Jay-Z and Beyonce collaborations to catch up on, pedestrian safety doesn’t always take precedent. Then there’s hearing loss to consider, perhaps from turning up your music to compete with the apocalyptic roar of BART Whatever good reasons exists for leaving your headphones at home, none seem to be good enough.
Not that I’m any different. In fact, as a music nerd, I have it bad. I rarely leave home without them.
My obsession with headphones started as a child, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, My first job was as a paperboy, and the only thing that made it bearable was my Walkman. I would record mixtapes, both from the radio and my friends’ CD collections, and listen to them while I delivered papers. If it wasn’t for Tupac and DMX (and, OK, Backstreet Boys), I’m not sure I could have handled getting up at 5 in the morning.
However, things were different were different then. I didn’t have the entire history of music at my fingertips. Back then, when I reached the end of an album, it was time to listen to it again. Choices got better with portable CD players, but only if you carried a giant case of CDs with you. The fact is, if I were to bring Spotify back to my childhood, paper-delivering self, I would have thought I’d been given superpowers. “You mean I can select any NOFX album I desire, and it will magically appear in my headphones?” I would have asked in awe.
Now I’m an adult in 2018 and I have that superpower, though I wonder if I take it seriously enough. A couple months ago, as I was walking to work, a horrifying question crossed my mind: Why don’t I feel like listening to anything, when I can listen to virtually everything? It was like I was standing in front of a beautiful feast, but not wanting to fill my plate. I picked an album anyway, though the results were not satisfying. Somehow, with everything there was to listen to, I desired something headphones couldn’t provide.
I think I want…silence, I thought to myself.
So, I decided to give it a try. I made a couple simple and strict rules for myself. For a week or so, while outside of the house, there would be no Marc Maron, no new Pusha-T record. If I was outside, I would not listen to anything except the sounds of San Francisco.
The first couple days were the hardest. As I’d leave my apartment, I’d pat my jean pocket for my headphones, even though I knew I had left them on my dresser. Then, it wouldn’t take long for the emotion I’d been avoiding to rear its head: I had to face utter and complete boredom. Somehow, as a result of tuning out for years, I seemed to have the lost the ability to entertain myself. I was surprised by this strong and unfamiliar feeling. It meant that headphones had a stronger hold on me than I thought.
Perhaps the most difficult day of the experiment was California’s midterm election. As a consequence of registering to vote late, I found myself in the depths of City Hall, weaving through an endless line of similarly procrastinating voters. Normally, I would have caught up on the week’s new albums as I waited, but that wasn’t an option now. I trudged slowly through the line and wondered to myself: What the hell did people do before headphones? Stare at the ceiling? Check out their neighbor’s shoes?
After a couple days, the boredom began to thaw. I wouldn’t say I looked forward to my music-less walks, but I didn’t dread them, either. I started to enjoy having nothing to focus on. I’d daydream my way through Duboce Park, or just watch the sights go by outside a MUNI window. Other times I’d enjoy the weather if there was something about it to enjoy — a cool breeze in the Panhandle or a warm patch of sun on Divisadero Street. I also spent my time people-watching, and noticing the different kinds of pedestrians sharing the sidewalk with me. There were fast walkers, slow walkers, dancing walkers, sad walkers, and happy walkers, to name a few.
As it turned out, blocking my ears to the world had had some consequences. Listening to podcasts on walks is entertaining, even occasionally educational. However, encapsulating myself in my headphones bubble also made me miss a lot of stuff, like a cute dog on Valencia Street or a juicy display of road rage on the Wiggle. I wasn’t missing anything revelatory or crazy-exciting. Just the nuances of everyday life in San Francisco.
It’s been a few weeks since I did the experiment. For a bit after, I kept going — still foregoing my headphones for silence. But now, I’m mostly where I was before. I listen to music and podcasts outside. If I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll throw on a throwback-emo playlist, full of high school favorites like Jets to Brazil and Braid. If I want to space out on a walk, I’ll listen to (Sandy) Alex G’s record Rocket. Unlike when I was a kid, the possibilities are endless. But this is something I’m aware of now, something I appreciate more than I did before. Maybe I hum a little louder to the songs I choose or laugh out loud to the podcasts I enjoy. But, best of all, when I don’t feel like listening to anything, I roll my white earbuds up and stuff them in my pocket.
There’s plenty to listen to outside.