Blake Eskin | Observer Quarterly

White Lines

The things we do on smartphones are often so absorbing that they create a barrier between you and other people in your social space. When these “other people” are your parents, children, lovers, or friends, they will decry your attempts at self-isolation, condemn your inability to resist its glow, resent the intensity of your focus on the touchscreen. That resentment could be interpreted as an expression of jealousy. Although it looks like you are merely looking at a screen, you are, in fact, looking through it and interacting with other people who sent a message, posted a photograph, published an essay, developed your favorite game. These other other people are distant, and the connections are invisible.

On the subway, where the vast majority of other people are strangers, barriers have their virtues, and before pocket-sized touchscreens, the most effective form of urban insulation was a pair of headphones. The Sony Walkman and its imitators came with wired, foam-covered plastic earmuffs that carried an electric signal from a cassette, converted it into sound waves that travel through the middle ear, then encoded it again and fed the signal to the listener’s brain. Headphones make an individual on a crowded subway or a busy street into an island in the stream. They give the illusion of privacy and solitude in places where there is none, and make the city livable.

Subway photography can easily slip into public shaming, or a parallel to whining about the noisy people in the Amtrak quiet car. So it took me a while to notice that sharing earbuds can be a beautiful, intimate phenomenon. One input, two outputs bring a pair of individuals into a Cone of Silence, like Agent 86 and the Chief, only the shared secret is a pop song, or a bloody scene from Scarface (although sometimes the expressions you see betray less than complete alignment). Lovers do it, so do parents and children; even teenage boys do not fear getting close enough to share earbuds. 


Capturing this rare two-headed beast is harder still, because the white cable that most often brings two people together is manifest by Apple’s hard-to-see minimalist design, so it has to be in just the right position. But that is the thrill of the hunt.


Posted in: Music , Photography

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