Etiquette for iPodding? Is there an app for that?

I’m on Pacific Avenue, near the corner of Walnut and I’m listening to my friend complain. He levels his gaze at a young woman walking past. “I can’t stand that,” he says, gesturing toward her.
I smile like a dolt but all I’m thinking is “What? It’s a perfectly normal person, in perfectly normal clothes, behaving perfectly normally.” Turns out, he’s referring to the thin white strands snaking up each side of her neck into her ears – her ear buds. She’s listening to an iPod. So what?
My friend is a gentleman of, uh – hmmm, how shall I put this? – considerable “vintage,” and apparently he’s not down with the near-universal habit of enjoying music privately in public. I suss him out a bit on the subject and he says that it’s fine to do iPodding while, say, jogging on West Cliff Drive or pruning the roses in your own yard. But walking down Pac Ave is essentially a social act and that it’s rude not to be approachable by friends acquaintances or even strangers you might encounter there. Wearing ear buds is, in my friend’s judgment, basically the same thing as wearing a black T-shirt that says, in big hostile letters, “Leave me the blank alone.”
I decide not to argue the case, mainly because I’ve walked down this same street listening to an iPod roughly 5,000 times. But now I’m preoccupied with the topic. Is this just a case of someone bellyaching that things aren’t what they used to be – “And another thing, the way these boys wear their pants …” – or is there a legitimate issue of etiquette involved here? And can someone please write down all these rules so we’ll know what they are? In the parlance of that obscure company that manufactures the iPod, is there an app for that?
We all know the problem: the toys of technology – in this case, the iPod, the Blackberry, cell phones, texting and bluetooth – always gallop way ahead of our ability to fold them elegantly into our lives. We now get that cell phones are a major annoyance in restaurants and a danger to drivers, but we’ve only recently come to a consensus on that subject. When cell phones first became common, the blinding coolness of them – “Dude, you won’t believe where I’m calling from. The beach!” – completely overruled notions of courtesy about their use. Those who whined about cell phones in the early days were thought of as cranks, but maybe they were, in fact, anticipating a coming trend. What Gramps was saying back in ’97 is what most of us believe now. Maybe my iPod-loathing friend is what the hipsters call “bleeding-edge.”
But iPods? C’mon. Isn’t private enjoyment of tuneage in the Constitution somewhere?
First, some personal history: Thirty years ago when I was a teenager, I had those infamous AM/FM headphones that ran on AA batteries that were, at the time, breathtakingly awesome. Each side was about the size of a jar of mayonnaise, and if you were to wear those headphones now, people would fall over in laughter. No one this side of Napolean Dynamite would try such a thing.
But I loved them, just as I loved their later iterations – the Sony Walkman, the portable CD player, the iPod shuffle and my beautiful newish iPod Touch. I don’t love my iPod more than I love my wife and children, but sometimes, it’s close. I use it for music, yes, but also for radio podcasts and audiobooks. My brain has become like a coal-powered locomotive, and my iPod is its shovel. My mind is in more-or-less constant need of input. Walk down the street alone with my thoughts? But I haven’t done that since the Clinton administration. I think I might go insane.
Yet, even a pathetic ear-bud junkie like myself knows enough to recognize limits. I instinctly disengage from the buds when I walk into a store, for instance. And to go to check-out plugged in? Tacky, really tacky.
I asked a clerk at Nob Hill recently, “Do some people pay for their groceries while listening to their iPod?” He said yes, but he shook his head slowly with a grim turn of mouth in blatant disapproval. If I didn’t idiotically have my own ear buds draped across my shoulders like a prayer shawl, I may have heard the full measure of his wrath, like I imagine he and his colleagues share with each other in the employee lounge – “If I have to say ‘debit or credit?’ one more time to some dirtbag lip-synching to Bon Jovi …”
So, where do we go from here? Do I have any ground to stand on resenting the guy behind me in line at the ATM blathering into thin air with his bluetooth in his ear? I’ve run into friends while otherwise engaged in my iPod, and the resulting moment while I pull out my ear buds, take out my unit and pause it, well, it’s not always comfortable. But I’ve seen people in similar moments pull out just one ear bud, while leaving the other in place. At least, I don’t do that. I mean, how gauche.
I also have teenager daughters who spend much of their time in my presence hunkered down over their own tiny keyboards texting to God-knows-who. Sometimes I’ll say, “I’m leaving your mother to move to Argentina with a 22-year-old samba dancer,” just to see if they’re paying attention. I’d fall over if I got so much as a grunt of acknowledgement.
Yet, things are only going to get weirder from here. In the near future, all the gizmos will merge into one, if the iPhone hasn’t done such already. And it will be so small as to be invisible. Soon we won’t even know if someone is listening to Bon Jovi or talking to their broker or zoned out on Rumi poetry. Soon we won’t bother to talk or nod to anyone, just assuming everyone is in their own portable private world.
Then, who’s going to be the bellyaching old coot? You and I, friends. That’s who.

One thought on “Etiquette for iPodding? Is there an app for that?

  1. Wallace, this morning (21st) I went up to the university. Deciding that I’d like a new photo of me with my cycling jacket, I patiently waited near the science library for some passerby to take the photo. But for about 15 minutes or more, everyone passing by was using an iPod, or a cellular phone, or text messaging. I couldn’t get their attention without being rude.

    Do you remember the 6-transistor pocket radio?

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