IN THE WALKMAN controversy, I am
of two minds.
I see where a New Jersey township has invoked criminal sanctions against the headset set. They will be fined or jailed, or both, if spotted in the street with their earphones on. I see the reason: Self-deafened people will not hear screeching brakes or policemen's whistles, and may walk into a truck or a ticket.
I think I also understand the unstated reason. The people of Woodbridge feel that a person wearing electronic earmuffs is delivering a message which is basically hostile. Sure, he or she may be listening to Vivaldi, and my esteemed colleague, New York Times columnist Sydney Schanberg, suggests that the city's savage beast may be soothed by such strains. But we all know that whatever the Walkman is tuned in to, he has tuned out the rest of us. What the headset says is, "Nothing you could possibly say could be of the slightest interest to me. Leave me alone."
If you are one of those people with a strain of paranoia -- I certainly am -- you feel put down. You see yourself tagged some kind of a dolt who takes potluck with sounds. You let yourself open to snatches of silly conversations, stripped gears, motorists' oaths, ambulance sirens, jackhammers. Going bare-eared in this clatter bespeaks a kind of auditory grossness on our part.
If the Walkmen were banned, I would be spared the necessity of wondering what its wearers are listening to. I would also not have to wonder if they know that the Japanese, who invented it, think the Walkman could be damaging to their eardrums.
I have no idea what the protocol is for approaching the Walkman-wearer to inquire what's on his tape. Depending on the answer, I would be jealous or glad. If I found out it was James Galway or Beverly Sills, I'd be tempted to ask if I could eavesdrop. On the other hand, if was the Grateful Dead, I would sink to my knees in gratitude for being shut out.
That brings me to my ambivalence on this matter. The Walkman-wearer may be rejecting me, but he is not subjecting me to his taste, as is the carrier of the suitcase- size transistor radio. Transistor-freaks like it loud, and a blast of heavy-metal rock while you are waiting for the light to change can turn the thoughts to homicide. As between the public nuisance and the private exclusion, I'll vote for headphones.
What I really want is freedom from inflicted sounds, and I'm not just talking about Muzak, either. If you have ever been part of a nasty family scene scene about the volume of the Christmas carols on the stereo, on the happy day, you will know what I mean.
Of course, half the world thinks that roughly the other half is wearing unseen Walkmen all the time, and do not hear us when we speak. Men say it about women, and vice versa. Ditto parents and children, doctors and patients, rakes and reformers, editors and reporters, Europeans and Americans, environmentalists and James Wattses. You can make your own list.
Our president is considered by some of his countrymen to be our foremost wearer of the invisible headset. He is always smiling. He seems to be tuned into some sound track which tells him that his economics are working, that the Russians are coming, that the Alliance is holding and that the government is being brought to heel. A few show tunes from the '50s and some good Bob Hope jokes round out his ration. He is a happy man.
Without his Walkman, he would hear more sounds from the real world. He didn't hear apparently that three-quarters of the American people want a freeze on nuclear testing. So what does the tuned-out man in the Oval Office do? He forbids all further talk about a comprehensive freeze on nuclear testing.
He wore his Walkman in Europe. NATO leaders told him they want to do business with the Soviets. They want specifically to help them build a gas pipeline. He wasn't listening. He came home and forbade U.S.- licensed companies in Europe to play in the pipeline game.
Sometimes he doesn't hear what he says he's been wanting to hear. This time it was the Soviets speaking, through the proxy of Poland's Gen. Wojciech Jeruzelski, but apparently they didn't come in on his private frequency.
The general announced that he is easing martial law, which Reagan says is the reason for the pipeline bans. He is releasing more than 900 political prisoners. Wasn't that the signal the president's men said he was waiting for? Apparently not.
He could have declared a victory and called off the sanctions, but he didn't. He was grooving on the news of French defiance. They are going to sell to the Soviets machinery made by Reagan's old television sponsor, General Electric. Will he put GE in jail? Will he invade Paris? Was he playing tapes of his old GE speeches?
You see why I'm in a quandary about the Walkman, both the visible and the invisible kind.