When Sony stopped production of the Walkman, it had long been superseded by more advanced technology, but in the early Eighties, when it first caught on, it was a revolutionary urban sanity-saver. Before then, every time you went out in public, you stepped inside someone’s radio. It was the age of the boombox, or, in the rude frankness of slang, the ghetto blaster. Sometimes a youth would set one by the curb or the standpipe or wherever he was taking his ease and make a little concert hall. Other youths humped them on their shoulders and ambled along in a moving plume of thunk and salsa. If two passing blasters were tuned to the same station you got the double whammy; if they were tuned to different stations it was Charles Ives in the hood. If you want a quiet life, move to the country: agreed. But this was a quantum beyond. Then, like a magician’s wand, the Walkman turned the blasters off. Bloat cars with road-warrior sound systems are the only ghosts of those bad old days.
Now the noise fans nod autistically, each to the beat of his own ear-buds. My ears are fine. But something has happened to their ears, and thus to their voices.
Consider another meta-factor. When I was a lad the typical family (mine) owned one television. It sat in the living room, it was the bright cold fireplace. Then clever Japanese went to work, prices came down, and it became possible, then virtually mandatory, to own many televisions. Did proliferation create a trend, or simply speed one that was already afoot? Television changed from something you watched to something you didn’t watch, really — because it was on all the time, everywhere. Now the small screens harangue us in airport lounges and taxicabs. I await the toilet-stall model, whose broadcasts will begin with a health tip — about sexual hygiene perhaps, or laxative diets. The upshot: more hearing overload. And more need to speak over what is heard.
Item three: child-rearing. I used to feel guilty, in my teens, reading Right-world polemic about Spock babies: cosseted, indulged; too prosperous, too selfish. That was me! Now I feel like a son of Sparta. At some point in the last century parents decided that whenever little Weenus feels like yelling, he should let it rip. Nannies I notice are sterner on the whole; those ladies from the islands don’t put up with that nonsense. But Mom and Dad do, not so much from parenting liberalism as from battle fatigue: Golly, the little buggers are harder to handle than we expected. The guilt engendered by such passing second thoughts is so intolerable, however, that parents find it better to ignore the thoughts, and their screaming kiddies. Those youthful outbursts have consequences.
#page#The fourth horseman is rock ’n’ roll, and every other breed of amplified pop music. That is what roars through personal listening devices, but its kingdom is greater by far. Movie trailers, half-time shows, political conventions, megachurch services; malls, bars, stores, outdoor gas pumps — the high decibels enliven every occasion and venue, like shock therapy in a mad person’s cortex. Only courtrooms, Quaker meetings, and Walden Pond are exempt. No wonder Keith has been calling Mick Brenda and Her Majesty all these years; after 10,000 choruses of “Street Fighting Man,” Jagger can’t hear him.
Unless Keith yelled. There is the solution to the nation’s ear damage, supplied by the nation’s paideia: Scream like you are five again. Only the screamers are no longer five, but have an average age of, I would say, 27. Their vocal cords have matured. Women produce a harsh honk, men a loutish shout. The sounds I describe, and which the city vouchsafes me every day, are not voices raised in anger, drunkenness, or the meeting of true minds. They are the tones of ordinary conversation.
There have been ugly young-women’s accents — Valley, Jersey — forever. The new ugliness is in the amplitude. I am in an elevator. A young woman joins me, still talking on her cell phone, or two join me, talking to each other. Their voices make a beak, like a heron’s bill; they poke for frogs there, there, and there. The little ascending cubicle reverberates. After they get off, the door closes, and the ascent resumes, I can still hear them, like distant hunting horns, down the shaft. To its credit, girl honk does obviate the elevator silence of enforced proximity, broken by the weather conversation. “It’s a hot/cold one.” “Cooler/warmer tomorrow.” But maybe unease and banality are better.
Many things would be better than guys who room together. When apartments float out of rent regulation, landlords subdivide them like flophouses, and rent to posses of young men. They talk in all caps, as we did in the infancy of e-mail. Hey dude. Could they really, unironically, say, “Hey, dude!”? Surely I am stereotyping. But the caps are real. When they are in transit in lobby or hallway, when an open door lets out sentence fragments, when the walls become mediums for sound rather than barriers against it, you hear the unvarying pitch appropriate to a call of “Man overboard!” applied instead to salutations and chat.
When they throw skanks-and-booze parties — that’s not what they call them, of course, that’s just what’s served — they don’t talk any louder (that would scarcely be possible); they become louder because they have invited all their friends, and friends of friends, and there are ten times as many of them. Dude. Dude. Dude. This must be how they talk on dates; honk girls would not notice. Is it how they conduct job interviews? I majored in business ethics, man. How they talk to their elders? Your daughter’s a nice piece, dude.
Did I say they wear board shorts in the warm months? They do. It is the ugliest garment men wear, next to the thong bathing suit. So there is justice in the world, if not peace.