The Township of Woodbridge, N.J., wants to ban the Walkman. I am talking, of course, of the Sony Walkman, or any facsimile that involves putting on a pair of light headphones and listening either to a radio or to a tape. The town fathers say they need to do this for reasons of safety. But the truth is that they hate Walkmen. Lots of people do.
I know this because I use (wear?) a Walkman. I got it for my daily runs in the park, but I wear it from time to time while walking on the street. It is then I notice the hostile glare of passersby, the sort of how-dare-you look in their eyes. For instance, my boss, a man not given to understatement, saw me with one and said I looked like an idiot. A colleague was flabbergasted and another, who did not know about me, just ranted on one day about people who wear Walkmen. I didn't have the nerve to tell him.
If I ask the reason for all this passion, I am usually told something really profound, like "It's not right," or given the bogus safety argument the officials of Woodbridge want engraved into law. Truth to tell, the headphones can pose something of a safety problem. If you play the thing loud enough, you can drown out all other sound. But at moderate volume, the sounds of the street--especially buses and trucks--not only can be heard, but overwhelm whatever is coming out of the Walkman.
No matter. All I want to do is listen to music, but I am accused of either endangering the public safety or fragmenting society. The real reason for the hostility, I think, is that many people feel that the Walkman wearer is not only excluding everyone else from his experience, but excluding himself from everyone else's experience. To some people, this seems like just another way of dropping out--an electronic version of the 1960s. It is nothing of the sort, though. You can not be a true hippie and listen to National Public Radio.
With the Walkman, it seems as if the person wearing it is having a good time that he or she will not share. The truth, of course, is that they really are having a good time. After all, it is a far better thing to walk to work listening to Mozart than it is to walk to work listening to some garbage truck grinding trash into pig slop. No rationale will do, though. Ever since some teacher made us stand and "share with the class" something we had just whispered to a friend, we have been told it is wrong to exclude.
But people secretly exclude all the time. They listen to the music within their own heads, have conversations with their bosses that they would never have in reality, make love, make war, make money and do it all without anyone knowing it. Ask people walking on the street what they are doing and they will say "nothing" when the truth is that they are having wonderful imaginary conversations or adventures. The trouble with the Walkman is that like hippie beads or long hair, it advertises what is going on.
What the Woodbridge officials are trying to do is stop people from dropping out. They sense a nonexistent threat, a group of people who say by their Walkmen that they want to create their own environment. To your basic city official, it must seem as if there is the whiff of anarchy in the air. Maybe that's why some people see the Walkman as something hostile, something that says, "I don't need you." For me, nothing could be further from the case. I love people. I just love Mozart more.
But the Walkman can be the antidote for the ultimate in galling urban experiences--the kid with the blasting portable radio. Any college psych major can tell you that this kid is merely trying to gain some attention, but what is really annoying about the way he is doing it is that he is imposing his choice on the rest of us. There is no choice but to listen to what he is listening to--what, in effect, he wants you to listen to.
With the Walkman, though, the effect is just the opposite. No matter what you may think of the people who wear them, they do not impose their music or their programs on anyone else. They are the very soul of discretion and in a world full of noise and din there ought to be a place for people who, like Wolfgang Amadeus himself, love to walk listenening in their heads to the music of Mozart.
As for the kids with the elephantine radios, they can all go to Woodbridge, N.J.