For a brief moment in history, it looked like the onslaught of barbarians bearing boogie boxes (those gigantic radios) might be silenced by the arrival of the biggest street corner status symbol since alligator shoes. Enter the Sony Walkman and its myriad look-alikes, with their wispy headphones hooked up to lightweight tape decks.
Now not only has the township of Woodbridge, N.J. banned headphones for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers on its streets, but the whole country is clamoring to know about it, the whole world, even.
"I can't believe it, I even made a tape for the BBC this morning," says Robert F. Gawroniak, president of the township council. "I was on the CBS news in New York and one of our councilmen was on the 'Today' show. I've had calls from Minneapolis, Philadelphia, the West Coast. I got a call from San Diego, they said they like the headphones, they're getting those big box radios off the beach. I said, 'Beautiful, they're great on the beach. You want to jog in our parks with one, that's fine, too. But not on the streets.' " (Sidewalk use will continue to be permitted.)
The problem, says Gawroniak, is safety. Drivers and pedestrians "get oblivious, get wrapped up in the music. They're beautiful instruments if they're used right, but down on the Garden State Parkway, one of the toll booth attendants told me he saw four bus drivers coming up from Atlantic City wearing them."
Have there been any accidents?
"There have been a lot of near misses and close calls."
But no tragedies yet.
Woodbridge is a town of 93,000 people living 30 miles south of New York City at the place "where the Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway meet," Gawroniak boasts. It's also famous "for passing the first legislation against drug paraphernalia in headshops that stood up in court. Towns all over the country are copying it."
This time, legal forces for the other side may be better prepared. The ordinance hasn't even gone into effect yet--it may be superseded by a bill introduced in the state senate banning headphones on drivers--and the American Civil Liberties Union is meeting.
"We decided that the ordinance violated the anti-silliness provisions in the Constitution. That's as far as our substantive analysis has gotten," says Jeffrey Fogel, executive director of the ACLU's New Jersey office.
One problem with enforcement, says Fogel, is that since only the wearer can hear it, he can claim when arrested that he had it turned off.
Retorts Gawroniak: "I guess that's what you'd call a smoking gun situation."
Says Fogel: "We allow deaf people to drive vehicles."
To which Gawroniak replies that deaf people "are trained to compensate."
The Sony Corp. of America, manufacturer of the Walkman, has Harry Machida, director of corporate communications, about to start an investigation. "There was an ordinance in Chicago, they tried but it was not passed."
At the District of Columbia's office of traffic analysis, Officer Roger Calhoun says, "It hasn't been a problem here."
In Woodbridge, as elsewhere, the motto is safety first, but the comparison of headphones and headshops is bound to raise concerns that headphones are the latest menace to our youth. What previous drug has been powerful enough to inspire subway riders to start singing harmony to melody lines that no one else in the car can hear? Is there some sort of "harder stuff" that Walkmaniacs will move up to? What about the dread "Walkman flashbacks" in which even months after going "silent turkey" a former user may experience episodes in which he hears The Waitresses singing "I Know What Boys Like" at skull-crushing volume?
Other ramifications of the ordinance might include similar noise laws against, say, operating a motor vehicle containing more than two children under 10 years of age while passing a McDonald's. Other towns in New Jersey might pass ordinances against perfume, lest the sense of smell be so blunted that drivers are lulled into opening their windows while driving over the Pulaski Skyway.
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow, a truth that Woodbridge and Gawroniak are well aware of, after their experience with the drug paraphernalia law. Now they've gone from headshops to headphones.
Gawroniak confesses that "we don't get those big radios here," but Woodbridge's mission to the world will continue. As Gawroniak puts it: "We were hoping this would spark similar laws in other towns."
A groundswell! A trend! Woodbridge, N.J., where the turnpike and the parkway meet, (not to mention Routes 1,9, and 440): The whole nation is watching you.