Stealing My Brother's Walkman

The Walkman turns 35 today. If you own one still, it is probably dusty, and maybe moldy, and definitely gross and old. But for a while, a Walkman was the thing. Especially in my house.

When I was young I wanted nothing to do with a Walkman. At 10-years-old I wanted what every other kid in my neighborhood wanted, if they didn't already have it: a boombox, with a CD player and a cassette player. It was nearly Christmas, so my friends and I were giddy thinking of our very own sound systems arriving under the tree. (We were united in coveting boomboxes but divided over the likelihood of Santa Claus, so those conversations often ended in tears and fights.) We'd talk about which CDs we would buy from Coconuts when we got our presents (Alanis Morissette!) standing in line outside St. Barnabas School, bare legs pink in the cold because our 4th grade hive mind had decided tights were uncool beneath our stiff tartan uniform skirts.

My dad already had a Walkman, and he clipped it on his shorts to cut the grass and shovel the snow, which remains the most dad thing anyone has ever dadded in the history of dads. It was the yellow kind. I was one of those kids who got obsessed with the Beatles, which irked my dad. He thought they were "soft." I mainly wanted to CD player to play my Beatles CDs in my room, since no one else in my family liked them.

Christmas came and went. No CD player materialized under the tree. I pretended I still believed in Santa and cried to my parents that he had betrayed me. I was bratty, but a bad liar, and they laughed. My brother Dan got a Walkman.

I decided I'd been dealt an unfair hand, bereft of my own listening device, my undeserving younger brother in possession of an inferior but undeniably intriguing personal stereo. So whenever Dan left his Walkman unattended, I'd pick it up and sneak off to my room with my White Album cassettes, holding the smooth silvery box in my hands and rewinding "Rocky Raccoon" until the tape got fried.

The next year, I got my boombox, but I ended up using my brother's Walkman more. I was hooked on the privacy, the feeling that only I knew what I was hearing. It was a feeling that has stayed with me; I listen to music with other people, of course, but nothing makes me feel more connected to a song than walking down a crowded street alone while it plays for just me, through my headphones. It orients me in myself. I suspect this feeling is common.

It's fun to laugh at how outdated the Walkman's technology is, but mode of accessing music it popularized has persisted like little else. It let people bring the songs they hummed in their head along with them in public. It helped us develop more intimate relationships with music. It wasn't cool enough for 10-year-old me, but my older incarnation is grateful for those days I spent sitting beside my bed in comfortable solitude, finally playing music only I could hear.