Behind the Music: Deaf to the World, iPod Addict Unplugs

On a recent F train commute to work, I missed my stop. I watched with helpless misery as the doors shut and my subway pulled away from Lexington Avenue, whisking me against my will toward the wilds of Queens. Murmurs of frustration degenerated into self-loathing expletives. I hadn’t simply spaced out; I had a much more serious problem.

In the past year, I had grown increasingly numb to my surroundings, often oblivious to the world around me, trapped in a self-imposed bubble. My detachment stemmed from the twin white earplugs of my iPod, which in recent months had burrowed their way deep into my ears-and my psyche. A device, the size of a pack of Marlboros, had come to dominate my daily existence. On the train that morning, I decided enough was enough. I needed a break from the handheld music contraption that had taken over my life.

Looking back, the consequences of my iPod affliction ranged from the mildly comedic (trying to switch songs as I deftly doused my thigh with scalding hot coffee while the No. 6 train clattered down the tracks one morning), to the potentially tragic (not hearing the U.P.S. truck careening toward me on Atlantic Avenue near my apartment in Brooklyn). Almost anywhere I went, I plugged in and tuned out. Need cash from the A.T.M.? The Shins’ melodic “New Slang” would accompany me. Picking up my laundry at the Wash and Fold? How about Rachael Yamagata’s sultry swooning. My music even joined me in the bathroom each morning before work (nothing like Jack White’s angular guitar riffs to really get things moving ).

But my iPod addiction harbored a darker, more disturbing side. With more than 1,000 songs at my thumb tip, I could satisfy any desire, any time. My iPod was like a drug. I lived in my own self-imagined movie, instantly tailoring the soundtrack to fit, or inspire, my emotions. Some days unfolded languidly, similar to a Wes Anderson film, filled with nostalgic post-punk songs and the occasional Nico track ( yes , Nico). Other times, I blasted on the treadmill at the gym to thumping techno beats. This winter, after a girl I briefly dated abruptly announced that she was “still in love with her ex-boyfriend,” I spent the night trudging through the Arctic air of Greenwich Village with Conor Oberst’s wallowing voice on repeat. More recently, when an evening with romantic overtones ended on a positive note, I boozily left the bar amplified by the hopeful lyrics of Death Cab for Cutie front man Ben Gibbard. The music lent some kind of dramatic import to what I was experiencing. Without it, I felt empty. Mostly, I now realize, it just made my days feel like some cheesy Dawson’s Creek episode.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. I bought my iPod two years ago, when I had long forgotten what a pleasure portable music could be. My Walkman had been retired some time around 1994, along with my mix tapes. Minidiscs never caught on. And remember when handheld CD players would skip if they were jostled more than a hair? With my new iPod, I quickly loaded up all my music and then some, and was off and running. Well, listening. It was nirvana. Comporting my song selection to whatever I was feeling, I could craft my own private New York devoid of the city’s invading decibels.

Then, a few months ago, I watched with horror as my iPod tumbled out of my hands and broke open on the Manhattan concrete. The thought of being without a musical escape mortified me. Quickly-within days-I assuaged the withdrawal by replacing my clunky 10-gigabyte iPod dinosaur with one of those stylish new Mini models. At half the size of the original, I had no excuse not to take it everywhere. And I did. Until, of course, my iPod indulgences became more than just a whimsical way to pass the time. I even acquired the telltale signs of an addict. Just before leaving places, I fidgeted nervously while contemplating what song I would queue up. And on those horrid days that my iPod battery ran out of juice, I became irritable when I couldn’t get my fix.

I’m not the only one suffering from iPod fatigue. At a recent barbecue in Park Slope, a graphic designer for a women’s magazine told me she too needed a break from her iPod. “The other day on the subway, I was reading some New Yorker article about the 82nd Airborne division and the Iraq war and listening to something really depressing,” she said. “It was all just too much. The music, the soldiers-something had to give. I just had to turn the music off.” When my friend James’ iPod headphones broke a few months ago, he told me how much less distracted he’s been without the ever-present infusion of music.

All over town, Apple’s signature white earphones are emerging from New Yorkers’ pockets and purses like umbilical cords with an ever-greater urgency. As soon as we hit the sidewalk, we wire up. Indeed, the iPod might just be the perfect product for New York’s impulsive, self-absorbed populace, used to getting what they want, when they want it. Apple has certainly capitalized on this demand, selling more than three million iPods in the United States already-and judging by the teeming throngs that flock to the Apple store on Prince Street every weekend, it’s a safe bet a good many of those iPods went to New Yorkers. The most inexpensive model retails for only $249, but they may be getting more than they bargain for.

I’m about a week into my post-iPod reformation. Quitting cold turkey has been difficult, and I’ve certainly had my lapses. But I’m much happier now. I moved to New York, in part, because I wanted to experience the city’s sidewalk cacophony, everything from the rumbling buses to cabbies hollering “Get the fuck outta my way!” With my earphones in, I became deaf to the urban orchestra playing around me. Even worse, my iPod had sapped the energy that makes New York more exhilarating than the places we all escaped from. Except for better bagels, I had traded one kind of suburban isolation for another. So it’s farewell, my iPod. The sound of the city is starting to seem like the best song of all.