Alone in a crowd

There are eight million stories in the naked city, and they're all shouting to drown each other out. But I remain blissfully ignorant. As I walk the heat-addled sidewalks of Brooklyn, I am deaf to the surrounding cacophony: conversations in Polish, the rumbling bass of hip-hop, the tinny rendition of "Music Box Dancer" that signals the ice-cream truck. Safe behind wraparound shades and snug headphones, I am at one with the percolating synth-pop of Les Rhythmes Digitales, dodging pedestrians like the star of a primitive video game.

I'd forgotten how necessary a personal stereo is until I returned to New York. In Seattle, my Discman rarely saw action outside of the gym. Right now, I can't imagine leaving the house without it.

In a city where 10- by 20-foot shoe boxes in crappy neighborhoods command rents of twelve hundred bucks, and frantic commuters still haven't mastered the art of letting people off the train before trampling over them, personal space is a luxury. Those of us who can't afford a chauffeured limousine insulate ourselves by receding into customized environments of sound. When you select music to play as you navigate the crowded streets, you're exercising control over your surroundings, an unheard-of option in most aspects of New York daily life.

I remember my first portable cassette player, an ugly gray model not much smaller—or lighter—than a brick. Throughout high school, it was joined to me at the hip, like some lifesaving device I wore out of medical necessity. Perhaps it was. Had I not been able to drown out the taunts of my classmates, my mental health would surely have taken a sorry turn.

I'd only unhook my life-support system to hide it from the one or two teachers who went into conniptions at the sight of a Walkman and would attempt to confiscate it. I never understood what upset them so. Obviously I wasn't listening to it in class. Did they honestly think my taste in music was so subversive that it might incite me to misdeeds? Please. I found solace in Iggy Pop and Generation X and in the promise that someday I'd escape the godforsaken suburbs, but I had no intentions of burning the school down. Not until I got my SAT scores back.

Perhaps what peeved them was the notion of a student exercising a minute degree of autonomy—not a concept that high school aimed, or aims, to instill in kids. Or maybe they just couldn't stand the element of secrecy, being denied the chance to make a connection between the songs I took strength from and my supposedly bizarre behavior.

These days, I could understand their frustration on that last count, because I'm reading American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis. One of murderous ber-yuppie Patrick Bateman's countless consumer fetishes is his Walkman. But what tapes are in it? Christopher Cross and Stephen Bishop. If somebody in my midst was willfully listening to "Sailing" and "It Might Be You (Theme from Tootsie)," I'd want to be aware of that warning sign, too.

My day-to-day personal programming as a teen was surprisingly narrow. I stuck closely to weird British bands and dour balladeers. You could tell if I was listening to Classix Nouveau or Nick Drake because my pace as I moved along the halls synchronized with the music. I still favor variations on my high school reliables upon donning my headphones. Lately, all I want to play when I venture into the outside world are oddball UK pop acts like Hefner or Shack and Tram, or minimalist house/techno from St. Germain, Groove Armada, or Jori Hulkkonen.

But self-defense mechanisms can backfire, too, like when you fail to hear the conductor announce a change in service. The other day, I scrambled onto the G train for the final extended stretch of my commute. I'd slipped in the new Pet Shop Boys single on the platform. Sliding into a corner seat, the first notes of "I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Any More" swelled. Suddenly an immense, heavyset black man plopped down beside me, pinning me against the car wall, my Discman unreachable beneath his ample frame. I'd have to ride home in silence once the three-song CD ended.

But no. Apparently the Repeat function was accidentally activated in the crush. I was treated to five, six, seven spins of the same trio of tunes. After involuntarily hearing the creepy B-side "Screaming" (the PSB's contribution to the Psycho remake) ad infinitum, I began to feel a bit Patrick Bateman myself. I'd been denied my tiny degree of control.

So if you come to New York this summer and wind up on the subway next to a Discman-toting eccentric faggot who's humming "On And On" under his breath, you might want to change cars. Immediately.

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