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All Ears

Is it good for music to always be with you?




S anta must have thought I was a good girl last year, because for Christmas he brought me an iPod. I am now officially caught up with the rest of my generation.

I like the thing, but I haven't found much of a use for it yet. The iPod is delightful to listen to when I drive the truck Mr. Bir Toujour and I share, particularly when it's just me in the cab and the truck becomes a roving music bubble of early '90s hip-hop and every song is like a funky, miniature audiobook.

But these instances are rare, as I typically take the bus. The iPod should be a bus rider's salvation, and many of my co-passengers indeed sport the slender, telltale twin white wires descending from their heads. If you have to spend time on the bus, why not spend it commiserating privately—intimately—with the music of your choice? Handily, it not only drowns out the banter of crazies and grumps, it also discourages lecherous overaged creeps from starting up conversations.

But I learned to cope with all this in my pre-iPod days, and over time I've come to appreciate the ample slices of life the daily bus commute offers its hapless riders. My bus line is particularly savory, passing as it does multiple addiction-recovery centers.

I've come to recognize two gentlemen in particular; when they talk, their conversation evokes bulldozers facing off at a construction site. It's sort of sweet, them hanging out~and shaking their habits together, their favorite topics being the horrors of drug use and nostalgia for drug use.

One day, one of the bulldozers started talking about Metallica. "So in 'Master of Puppets,' the master is the dealer and the puppets are the addicts, see?" he said. Then he sang half the song, sounding like James Hetfield if he sang through one of those throat-cancer voice-box thingees. I have never wanted a tape recorder so badly.

No one else on the bus noticed the special moment, though. They were all plugged into their own music—it's even remotely possible one of them was listening to the Metallica version of "Master of Puppets" right then!

Every year when I was young, my parents would drive our family from Ohio to South Carolina for summer vacation. It was a 12-hour journey, which I happily passed by listening to the Beatles' 20 Greatest Hits and The Beatles 1967&–1970 over and over again in my Walkman, witnessing rolling hills become green mountains and then gradually spread out into southern flatlands, all to the same precious soundtrack. The images from the songs and the scenery mingled together in my thoughts, so that I'd tunnel through the songs into the passing landscape to make it my own. For a dozen hours in the backseat of my parents' monstrous diesel-engine Cadillac, the world was my oyster.

It's possible that for all of the iPod users, the daily bus ride becomes a compressed version of that 12-hour slog, and as the same sights pass faithfully by to favorite songs, they gain a special significance that illuminates an otherwise dreary aspect of life.

But I think about the time a mentally challenged woman sat next to me and offered to paint my fingernails pink (I let her); or the time a woman jumped onto the bus, breathless, commanding the driver to move fast because her boyfriend was going to kick her ass (the boyfriend didn't make it on, though he pounded at the window, cursing, as we pulled away); or the bedraggled man who boarded without a pass and proceeded to tell a convoluted story about getting shoved through a glass coffee table and getting discharged from the emergency room with glass still in his leg (by the looks of him, that's probably what happened).

I listen to the iPod now when I run, which is of course much less safe than listening to it on a sedentary bus ride. But I finally got to the point where I want to be there for the ride, not escape from it. And no way will I miss hearing that guy sing "Master of Puppets" again.

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