Dear Juliette

Sorry for making that obnoxious joke about the music you were listening to on your iPod.

This happened yesterday, at the gym across the street from my apartment building. I was getting ready to start jogging on one of the jogging machines and you came in and got on the machine next to me. We said hello, because we know each other from the neighborhood. From the playground, mostly, where our kids, who are about the same age, play. We only know each other a little bit, you and I. We don’t often say much more than hello. But we’re friendly towards one another, and yesterday we chatted about the fact that there were none of the hygienic wipes or paper towels that are usually available at the gym — it was Monday morning, they hadn’t been restocked after the weekend. Your machine had the sweat of a previous user on it. We joked about how it was kind of gross. There was a lot of sweat; the person must have gotten a really good work out.

Then we both put on our headphones and started listening to our iPods and I started jogging and you started walking. Then a friend of yours came in and got on another machine, one of the bike machines in front of us. I think her name is Judy? She’s the mother of another kid who plays at the playground. We both said hello to her and I wondered whether maybe my voice was too loud, since I was wearing my headphones. You can never tell.

I continued jogging, focusing my attention the Ice Cube song that I’d queued up — “Really Doe,” from the Lethal Injection album, which I’ve been listening to a lot the past week, marveling at how magnificently good Ice Cube was back in the early ’90s when it came out, he was the best in the business, and how unfairly maligned the album was at the time. “SportsCenter” was on the screen mounted on the wall in front of the jogging machines, with closed captioning.

But I could still hear what you were saying as you talked more to Judy, about your busy schedules for the day, and how you both just had time for a quick work-out. I didn’t have the iPod’s volume set too high. And maybe your voice was louder than you intended, since you were wearing earphones.

“Should I take my music off headphones?” you asked her. And you had to say it twice; she didn’t understand what you meant at first. “Should I take my headphones off the iPod so you can listen, too?”

She shook her head. She was getting out her iPhone, to email or text while she pedaled.

“Okay,” you said. And then added, “It’s just some cheesy Black Eyed Peas.”

Here, because it was such a neighborly atmosphere, I decided to make another joke. I turned my head and smiled a friendly smile and told you, “Leave it on headphones.”

Because I hate the Black Eyed Peas more than any other music act currently in existence. Because it’s likely that I hate the Black Eyed Peas more than any other music act ever in existence. (Did Hitler make any music records?) And because I know that I’m far from alone in this feeling, that it’s a pretty well-accepted thing that lots of people — especially people who are not teenagers or in their 20s — hate the Black Eyed Peas. So I figured I’d acknowledge this, as you had to a certain extent yourself, with your use of the descriptive “cheesy.” And acknowledge the sort of funniness of how you were talking to Judy but not me even though we were right next to each other, and of how we were all working out in such close proximity, but separated by the privacy afforded by each-others’ headphones, so that if you were to have taken your headphones out of your iPod, I would have been forced to listen to the Black Eyes Peas. That standard, accepted, conventional-wisdom version of modern-world hell. I knew it wasn’t a great joke I was making.

“What?” you said.

I should have taken the opportunity to just say, “Nothing,” and not repeat myself. But I explained. “If it’s the Black Eyed Peas you’re listening to,” I half shouted, starting to pant from the jogging, “Leave your headphones in.” I made my smile bigger, to let you know I was actually trying to be friendly.

“Oh,” you half-smiled. “Sorry. I didn’t realize you could hear me.”

It was no big deal, obviously. I kept jogging, you kept walking, both of us with our headphones on. Judy pedaled on the bike machine and typed on her iPhone.

But then I got to thinking that that wasn’t a very nice thing of me to say. Even as just a joke, even with a friendly smile on my face. Yes, you had described the Black Eyed Peas as cheesy; I was in a sense following your lead. But you were in fact listening to them. Enjoying them, I suppose, somehow, or else why not press fast forward? As much as I hate them, who am I to deride your choice in workout soundtrack? I’m not the taste police. And I wouldn’t want to be. That’s an ugly, snobbish role to assume. Not that I don’t have some snobbish opinions about music. I do. Like lots of people do. But I should do a better job of keeping them to myself in certain situations. Like when I’m talking to someone I don’t know very well at the gym. What if you had inadvertently seen the digital display on the screen on my iPod and volunteered your belief that Lethal Injection was the album at which point Cube fell off? (Pretty standard conventional wisdom in its own right.) What if you’d implied that it was in fact a form of noise pollution? I don’t think I would have liked that very much. You know, don’t yuck my yum.

Also, sometimes, when I’m listening to my iPod on the jogging machine at the gym, I have trouble not air-drumming or otherwise gesticulating to the really good parts of whatever song is on. Like Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading. I catch myself sometimes and realize how ridiculous I must look. So I really shouldn’t say anything to anybody ever.
Photo by Shane Malachowski, from Flickr.