Headphones are everywhere.

Headphones are everywhere.

by Hugh Gilmore

What this guy I know says is: Modern people are afraid to be alone, afraid the universe will come crashing in on them. They’re convinced the sounds from their headphones are the only barrier between themselves and the unbearable silence of the void. Like, if one is not listening to music, there is nothing else to be heard. That’s not true, says this guy, the one who walks around without headphones

His war started when he went to a house sale, in 2005, where a deceased disc jockey’s estate was being sold piece by piece by his sons. He got there early and was pleasantly surprised to find an entire room whose walls were covered with racks of music CDs.

Lots of Folk, Classical and Blues. In fact, several hundred Blues recordings, many of them rare. He loves Blues music. This collection included many of the “Bigs” (Big Bill Broonzy, Big Joe Williams, etc.) and the “Blinds” (Blind Willie Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and so on). And much Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry, and Lightning Hopkins, plus lots of field recordings made in country church basements.

“How much?” he asked.

“Buck apiece,” said the older son.

He counted. There were 283 of them. Not what he left home that morning expecting to own, but, what the heck. “Okay,” he said.

But a year passed without his listening to the Blues CDs. He claimed he couldn’t find the time to sit back and listen. Much of what he does in a typical day requires concentration and he needs quiet to do that.

On the second anniversary of his buying those recordings, his friends told him, “You should get one of those iPods. You can put all your CDs on one of them and still have room for more.”

But when could he listen to his iPod?

“You’re always taking long walks. You could listen then. That would be perfect.”

So, in the spring of 2006, he drove out Route 309 to CompUSA (remember them?) and bought a sleek, black, smaller-than-a-cigarette pack, Apple iPod Nano G4. Capable of holding several thousand songs, it was a gorgeous little machine. When he came home from the computer store he decided to take a nice long walk before learning how to use the device. He walks a lot.

He says that whenever he gets out in the open air and feels a breeze against his cheeks, he looks up to the sky and takes a minute to remember people he’s cared about who aren’t around any longer. He pictures those old friends and loved ones and taps his heart lightly as he says their names. And then he concludes this ritual by remembering the philosopher/poet, Loren Eiseley, buried beside his wife, and the words carved on their gravestone, “We loved the earth, but could not stay.”

“It sounds a little morbid to some people,” he said, on the second-through-seventh anniversaries of the iPod, “but it makes me feel that no matter what kind of problems I’m up against, I’m lucky to be alive. I should enjoy what’s here, right now, as I walk.”

“After that, do you listen to the music you bought?” people ask.

“Well, I haven’t yet,” he says. In fact, he still has not opened the iPod package. He feels that if he put on headphones and picked a song and pushed Play, he’d be inviting someone to yell into his head. He doesn’t think that would work for him.

Other folks say, “Well, that’s kind of deep, I guess, but we’re just talking about playing a song here.”

He says “just” doesn’t pertain here. A song is someone else’s thoughts, philosophy, opinion, rant, or complaint. Too invasive for him, when he’s looking forward to letting his own ideas ferment. Besides, he likes hearing his own footsteps. And the sounds of birds. And an occasional plane that will stream across the sky, making him imagine all those destinies onboard and wonder what awaits them when they land.

And sometimes when he walks at the track of a local school, he likes seeing the children playing during recess because it always reminds him of his own youth – something he still wonders about, but will never understand.

If he wore headphones, he says, it would be like what happens when you go to lunch with a friend at a loud restaurant and have to lean forward and strain to hear.

“But you’re missing out on all that good music,” his friends say.

“Life is about choice,” he replies – maybe he’ll get to hear those Blues CDs some day soon, but right now he’s busy listening to the world and can’t seal himself off from it.

How many years now since he bought his iPod?

“Nine,” he said, “It’s still in the box. Every year I celebrate the anniversary of its purchase by taking a long walk without it.”

Hugh Gilmore is the author, among other things, of the recently published, best selling memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Available everywhere books are sold, most easily on Amazon.com in either paperback or Kindle formats.