The Mystery of the Shared Earbuds

by Pessimists Archive

What does it take for two different people to find common ground? To answer that, we dig into a nine-year-old mystery. In 2011, two very different guys shared a pair of earbuds on the New York City subway. A photo of them went viral … but who were they, and what were they doing? All is revealed.


EPISODE NOTES

• Danny Rokit’s Break Fresh NYC

• Matt McDonnell’s dog, Midnight

• Where the photo appeared first: New York magazine’s approval matrix

•Where the photo appeared second: BuzzFeed’s “35 Tweets About NYC That Will Make You Laugh Harder Than You Should”

• Where the photo appeared third: Jason Feifer’s Instagram 

“Peach Fuzz” by KMD

Letters From Mesopotamia: Official, Business, and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millennia, by A. Leo Oppenheim

CBS News from 1981: “Why is everyone wearing headphones?”

Chris McDaniel against hip hop 

Geraldo Rivera against hip hop

TRANSCRIPT

This is Pessimists Archive, a show about how change happens. I’m Jason Feifer.

I want to tell you the story of the greatest photograph I’ve ever taken. It’s a photograph that’s gotten a lot of attention, and I’ve thought about it a lot since I took it nine years ago. It’s a photo that seems to capture a better world, a world of tolerance and equality that so many people are rightfully demanding right now. But in truth, it’s also a photo I never really understood, and that I made many wrong assumptions about. Because I didn’t know the people in the photo—and they had no idea I took it. 

So anyway, here’s what happened.

The year was 2011, and I was riding the subway in New York City, where I live. I was looking down at my phone as usual, and then I looked up for some reason and… saw this amazing scene. There were two guys sitting next to each other, who couldn’t have looked more different. The guy on the right was this medium-build, blonde-haired white guy, who looked like a… first-year lawyer. He wore a black pinstripe suit, with a tie drooping way past his waist, and he had a pencil sticking out of his front pocket. To his left was a man that was basically the exact opposite of him. It was this skinny guy with darker skin, a big afro, cool sunglasses perched on top, and he had these bright, flashy sneakers.

And by itself, of course, there’s nothing unique about these guys sitting next to each other. The beauty of New York is that it contains so many different kinds of people, and then it squeezes them together tightly so that they’re all shoulder to shoulder. But when strangers are next to each other on the subway, they usually stay in their own worlds. Not these guys, though! These guys were sharing a single pair of earbuds. Picture it. A blue wire coming out of each of their ears, joining together into an iPhone or something, which the white guy was holding. But the guys weren’t looking at each other. Both were looking at the phone.

And when I saw this, I thought two things:

Number one. What are they listening to?

And number two. I need to take a photo. Now.

 Because at the time, I was just thinking, this is like the New York moment. It’s the kind of thing that makes this city magical—when infinite possibility produces a perfect, small, beautiful moment in time. Here were two very different guys, from what I assumed were very different backgrounds, sharing something in this very intimate way. It’s life as it should be.

 And also, not for nothing, but this moment went against the way we normally think of technology too. When people started walking around with headphones in the 1980s, nobody saw the potential for shared experiences. Instead, they warned of the exact opposite. Here’s Associated Press radio in 1984:

 “Critics of the Walkman say the headset mindset excludes the outside world.”

 And here’s the CBS Evening News in 1981:

 “Just about anywhere you go this weekend you may be listening to music, or if you’re really lucky as Bernard Goldberg reports, you may be watching people listening to music.”

 “This is the me generation gone wild, the height of anti-social behavior… electronic snobbery.”

 But here, in front of my eyes, on the subway, the exact opposite of that was happening. A thing accused of people pulling apart was bringing people together… though it wasn’t entirely clear how.

 So I was looking at these guys sharing earbuds on the subway, and took a photo quickly and secretly, so they wouldn’t see me. Then I posted it to social media, and also sent it to some friends at New York magazine. They loved it and put it in the approval matrix, which is this page in the back of the magazine that ranks things based on whether they’re lowbrow or highbrow, and despicable or brilliant. They ranked my photo lowbrow and brilliant, and wrote: “Only in New York, kids.” Right next to it, completely unrelated but also ranking lowbrow and brilliant, was a photo of Yo-Yo Ma laying down on a bathroom floor next to a wombat.

 So that was fun, and I felt like I’d given this little New York moment its due. And, life went on. Five years passed. And then, in January of 2016, during a GOP presidential primary debate, senator Ted Cruz said this:

 TED CRUZ: You know I think most people know exactly what New York values are.

 [laughing]

 WOMAN: I am from New York

 TED CRUZ: We- well you’re from New York so you might not, but I promise you in the state of South Carolina, they do

Oh Ted Cruz! He seemed so proud of himself as he insulted… what, what was he insulting? People who work hard and live in small apartments? I remember sitting at home watching this and thinking, what’s my definition of New York values? And then that old photo popped into my head, the one of two very different men sharing music on the subway. That’s it, I thought. That is the beauty that this city stands for. So I tweeted the photo with the hashtag #newyorkvalues and it blew up, and then Buzzfeed included it in a post headlined: 35 Tweets About NYC That Will Make You Laugh Harder Than You Should. Which… ok, not exactly what I was going for, but I was glad more people got to see it.

And then four more years passed. In May of 2020, in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other black people at the hands of racism and oppression, demonstrations for Black Lives Matter spread across the world. I wanted to share something supportive on social media, and then thought, once more to that old photo, it just reappeared in my brain. At this point, I’d been thinking about this photo for years, and it had taken on a greater meaning for me. It felt like a shining moment … this image of all that could be right. So, I posted it on Instagram along with a note that included this: “We have the ability to bring each other so much joy. But that starts by recognizing how equally valuable we all are.”

Within a day, more than 1,000 people had liked the photo. And one of them was a woman named Maria.

MARIA 1: my name is Maria and I’m a lecture at the University of Illinois teaching language and literature.

Maria saw the photo and built a little story in her head. Maybe these guys were both commuting home from work, and one was interested in what the other was listening to, and then…

MARIA 2: two people just who are, who are in their own world, very unique and very accepting of who they are, who they truly are and their personality. They found each other.

So, she shared my photo on her Instagram stories—which, for those who don’t know, means it’s visible for 24 hours to her followers, and then it disappears. Maria has a private account with about 900 followers, so not a lot of people were going to see it… but at the 23rd hour, just before it was gone, a car detailer in Queens named Mike Pappas saw it. Mike met Maria at a coffee shop a few years earlier, and they became friends. And when Mike saw the photo, he had a very different reaction. He wasn’t thinking, oh that’s beautiful. He was thinking… what?

MIKE 1: I’m like, Oh my God. Some total stranger took a picture of my friend on the subway, just being himself

I didn’t know it yet, but the mystery of this photograph was about to be solved.

Now, before we go any further, I want to explain the purpose of this episode. If you’re a regular listener to Pessimists Archive, you know that this show seeks to understand how change happens, and what it takes for people to embrace change, and we usually do that by looking at the history of innovations. But right now, we are in a moment of massive and overdue social change, and it got me thinking about how innovations aren’t the only thing seen as scary and different. People are often seen that way too. And the reason for that is deep and systemic and historical and ugly, and I will not pretend to have all the answers here. But what I do have is this story—this delightful story about one small but beautiful moment, and the hopefulness we can draw from it.

So that’s what I want to offer you today. It is a feel-good tale of togetherness, nine years in the making. All will be revealed… after the break.

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Alright, we’re back. So, like I said: I posted this photo three times, in 2011, 2016, and most recently on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. That next morning, I woke up around 6 a.m., checked Instagram, and saw a very confusing DM in my inbox. Someone had sent me three pictures of a guy doing … breakdancing moves, or something? And then there was a message that just said: “Hey, he’s a good friend of mine.”

I was tired and bleary-eyed, and I stared at the DM for a while trying to make sense of it. I zoomed in on the breakdancing guy, who had a big beard and even bigger hair. Who was he? I didn’t recognize him. And then I sat up straight in bed, like a machine that had just been booted up, because I suddenly understood what I was looking at. It was one of the guys from my photo, the one with the big afro.

So, how did this happen? Well, it’s thanks to the internet magic you heard a moment ago. I posted the photo, Maria reposted it, and then Mike—that’s the guy Maria met at a coffee shop—well, Mike saw Maria’s post just before it disappeared, and recognized his friend in it.

MIKE 2: I’m like, yeah, I’m going to message him. He definitely took this picture. He would definitely love to learn more about the person in it.

Of course that is exactly what I wanted! So, OK, let’s start with the basics. The guy with the afro … his name is Danny. And if you knew Danny, it would come as no surprise that he’s sitting on a subway sharing earbuds with what appears to be a perfect stranger. Because according to Mike, Danny is just… unlike anyone else.

MIKE 3: He can mesh with anyone. If you put him in a room with four walls, the walls will love him by the end of the day. You know, it’s just how he is.

Mike and Danny became friends in high school, back in 2006. I asked Mike to share a story that captures the essence of Danny—like, the quintessential Danny moment. And so Mike told me about this day in high school where they decided to skip class. They met up with some girls, and then just started strolling the city. And as they did, the same thing kept happening: Danny knew everyone.

MIKE 4: we’re just going around the Chinatown, running into his friends in Chinatown, running into his friends in Soho, running into his friends everywhere. Everywhere we went that day we ran into people that Danny knew that were in different walks of life. And I’m like, dude, this guy is literally a chameleon. You could put him in any scenario or anywhere in your city, he has a friend there.

So… of course, I asked him to put me in touch with Danny. Danny, who I sat across from on a subway nine years ago, and whose photo I had blasted around the internet, and who I had wondered about ever since. Danny, who it turns out seems to hold a skill we could all really use, which is the ability to connect with people very different from us… and Danny, who, to my great relief, was very happy when he saw my photo.

DANNY 1: given everything that like is kind of going through our feeds that like we’re all posting and that we’re all saying, eh-fuck, it put a smile on my face. It was amazing.

This, of course, is Danny.

DANNY 2: the guy that I was sitting with his name is Matt. I haven’t spoken to him in years. I hope he’s okay, but, he was a good dude too. I remember that whole day. It was hilarious.

As it turns out, I had captured a very specific, very awesome moment. Like, Danny knows the exact thing that was happening, and the exact thoughts in his head, when I took that photo. But to really appreciate it, you first need to know a few things about Danny. So, let’s rewind.

Danny grew up in Harlem, and identifies as Afro-Latino. His full name is Daniel Nieves, but nobody calls him that.

DANNY 3: I feel like if someone’s like Daniel Nieves, it’s either like you’re presenting me with something or I’m in trouble.

Instead, everyone knows him as Danny Rokit—that’s R-O-K-I-T Rokit, which is like his stage name. Danny’s a member of a group called Break Fresh NYC, which sees itself as a defender and promoter of hip hop.

DANNY 4: It’s like a collective of the underground version of hip hop that I feel as if we hold true to and not what the media kind of like plays it to be.

So to be clear, here’s what Danny talks about when he talks about hip hop.

DANNY 5: hip hop is comprised of four elements. It’s going to be: B-boying, which is really what break dancing is called. Technically we call ourselves dancers at the end of the day, but let’s start with B-boying to, to make it easy. B-boying equals break dancing. So, uh, B-boying MCing. DJing, and Graffiti. Those four things are, in reality, what hip hop is. And then for the OG, the fifth one would be over standing, having an understanding that all of those things that equals one and that all of those things is hip hop, not one of those things, but all of those things.

So if you’re looking to have an extended debate about what is and isn’t hip hop, Danny is your guy. He will do that all day. Which artist is hip hop, which event is hip hop. He hates how the commercialization of hip hop makes things unavailable for people who are a part of the culture, and how it gets misrepresented through monetization. To push back on that, his group Break Fresh NYC does a lot of things. The way Danny says it, they hold events to have a safe space for the creation of hip hop as they know it to be. They have a DJ that spins actual vinyl, a mic in case anyone wants to rap, and they even make their own shirts to bring the graffiti element without, you know, spray painting the venue walls. Danny is the MC. They also produce videos and mini-documentaries, and celebrate hip hop’s musicality. And, his group will also show up at other events, events that they think are not pure hip hop, just to make a point.

DANNY 6: We’ll go to a, like a, a break dance event and not enter. We’ll just be by the sideline. And the cipher is getting, is getting hype on the, the side. We’ll battle the judges if we feel like they did a call, that’s like wrong, you know, if somebody wins off doing nothing but power moves and we feel like that’s not hip hop, battle us. That’s Break Fresh.

And I have to say, this element of Danny surprised me at first. Because here’s this guy who gets along with everybody, but he’s also… you know, haven’t we all met people who draw hard lines about what something is or isn’t? And aren’t they insufferable? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I have been that insufferable snob. I was a ska kid in the 90s, and I tortured people talking about first wave Jamaican ska, and who sold out, and how that band you like isn’t real ska, and—

[FIRST FEW BARS OF NO DOUBT’S SPIDERWEB]

No Doubt isn’t ska, OK? IT IS NOT SKA. … oh, sorry, I… guess I still have it in me.

Anyway, now when I look back at that time in my life, I see insecurity. Like, in a big and scary world, I’d found something narrow that I could claim as my own, and I used it to make myself feel better than everyone outside of it. It’s a form of resisting change, I think. Anything that might challenge me, or force me out of my comfort zone—well, I had an excuse for why it was bad. I was exclusionary. And yet, I just don’t get that vibe from Danny. He doesn’t seem like someone who needs that crutch. So I said to him, you know, what you’re saying sounds kind of exclusionary, but I don’t think that’s what you’re up to. And he said, yeah, he’s thought a lot about that.

DANNY 7: I had this great conversation with somebody recently. They’re like, well, at the end of the day, like, don’t you, don’t you think people are gonna see you to be like a hater of some kind. And I’m like, you know what, I’ll be a hater if it means I’m putting a stop to people bastardizing what saved my life.

What saved his life. He uses that phrase a lot. Like:

DANNY 8: anytime I talk about it, it’s because hip hop saved my life.

So I asked him: Can you explain what, what you mean there? You said it a few times. Hip hop saved your life.

DANNY 9: Yeah. I’m born and raised in Harlem. Uh, don’t get me wrong. I did school, but like, uh, how do I explain this quick? I feel like certain things aren’t like me, and given the circle that I have, given the experience that I have, given what I’ve been through and where I’ve been. It’s like, I feel as if I didn’t have something to, to get my emotions out in a way that’s like, not the norm, not like toxically masculine or like whatever people in the hood would say, like, like don’t do that. You can’t do that. That’s not the correct way to like, Hmm. Like growing up in the hood, you have this cookie cutter image of what you’re supposed to do. Who you’re supposed to be. How you’re supposed to act. And it’s really confusing when you don’t know what to do. You don’t know like who to turn to who to talk to. Cause it’s like, well, this is just, if you talk to somebody about that, it’s like, no, you can’t do that. I’m sorry that you feel that way, but you should stop feeling that way. So I was like, well damn, a lot of the times I was alone through, through most of it, trying to figure out who I was and like what I was supposed to do. Shit like that. But as soon as I found dance and I found like, this is a way to get that energy out, that’s like, like constructive, like I’m doing something. This could potentially be a career.

Danny’s parents weren’t married and lived in different parts of the city, so as a little kid, he spent a lot of time being shuttled back and forth between them. The hand-off spot was at Grand Central, and there were always dancers there. Danny was just amazed by them—he saw them as superheroes, these people in full control of their bodies, collectively creating something amazing. In middle school, he decided he wanted to learn how to do that… but the only class he could find was in the local high school, which wouldn’t allow him in.

DANNY 10: So in the middle school, I would kind of watch from the cafeteria windows and I’d see the instructor do something and then try it myself and then keep, like, just teaching myself through that. And then by the time I got to the high school, they still had the class, but they were teaching like beginners. And I was like, well, I kinda know this already.

So he just went out into the city, befriending and learning from people on the street. He’d see someone doing impressive stuff and he would just ask them how it was done. And in the process, Danny found exactly the thing he was lacking back in his neighborhood. He found belonging.

DANNY 11: this doesn’t make me feel like I’m doing something wrong. This is like, everything felt correct when I thought about it or when I was doing something or even if I was afraid to do something, it was like, well, try it anyways, dance. What could happen? You know, when a lot of my friends ended up dead in jail, selling drugs, doing gangster shit. It’s just what, it’s what New York city is sometimes. It’s what Harlem is. It’s what certain, certain projects are. So that’s definitely why I keep saying like dance and hip hop saved my life. Being able to find music, being able to host my own events that are safe spaces for people to think the way that I thought. Wasn’t safe to think and like have these conversations, you know. Or finding a group of people that I could do this with, that I wasn’t even throwing the event now. I’m just finding my people, you know, and it’s all the same frequency and energy. That’s why I keep saying it like that.

So when Danny is focused on this pure version of hip hop, he’s not doing it to be exclusionary. Quite the opposite. He’s doing it because he knows what this version of hip hop can produce—a life-saving community, a place for people who shared his journey. That’s not available in $250 shoes or $300-a-seat concerts, or events where nobody exactly agrees on what they’re doing or why they’re there. Danny sees himself not as a gatekeeper, but as an ambassador—someone who can bring people into this community, and ensure that it remains vibrant.

In time, Danny would become known in this world. He’d get paid to dance; he’d be invited to travel the world and educate people. But hip hop wasn’t the only thing Danny was interested in. He enrolled at the New York City College of Technology in 2010, to get a degree in computer information systems. In his second year of college, on the first or second day, he was hanging out between classes when a fellow student came up to him. This kid did not look anything like Danny. He was white, he was wearing a suit, and frankly… the kid just looked square. But, he was friendly.

DANNY 12: he noticed me, he was like, yo, so, what do you- what exactly do you do? I’m like, yeah, I dance. Uh, I’m about to go to the bridge to have a little smoke in between classes. So you don’t really look like the type. He was like, man, let’s go.

This is how Danny met Matt, the other guy in the photo. And in a few hours time, they’d be sitting across from me in the subway. Coming up after a quick break—we meet Matt. We finally learn what those guys were listening to. We explore just how much and just how little a picture can really show… and we try answering a question we all should be grappling with these days. What does it take for two people to find common ground?

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Alright we’re back. So, quick recap here. Danny is between classes at the start of his sophomore year of college, and he’s just met Matt, a fellow student who’s in his class. Then, the two go for a little smoke.

DANNY 13: we coincidentally had, the two same classes back to back. So he introduced himself that first class, I was like, alright, well, come on, let’s go chill. And we went back for the same class. And once again, coincidentally that we were done with the day. So we just took the train and, went home. 

They both lived in the same direction so were both taking the same subway, and as they sat, they started talking about the music they listen to. Danny was listening to a lot of MF Doom at the time, and started telling Matt about some of Doom’s early stuff—back when he went by the name Zev Love X, and was part of a group called KMD. And Matt said, oh, I know all about this—I love hip hop.

And of course, you know what Danny thinks when someone says that. He thinks: Do they love hip hop, or do they love something they think is hip hop?

So Matt takes out his phone to show Danny what he’s got… because remember, this is 2011. Spotify had just launched in the U.S. that year, so for most people, listening to music meant listening to something you’d actually gotten an mp3 of and stored on your phone. So Matt pulls up his music and hands Danny one of his earbuds to listen with.

DANNY 14: And I’m like kind of side-eyeing his phone. Because I- I really did not believe that he… I’m like, man, this guy is a business dude. He doesn’t listen to Zev love X, let alone Doom

And that’s when I look up from across the subway, and snapped a photo.

When I’ve looked at this photo over the years, I’ve always wondered about Danny’s expression. He looks so skeptical, and I figured he wasn’t into what he was hearing. But as it turns out, I caught the moment just before Danny realized: Oh, wow. This white guy in a business suit really does love the early work of MF Doom.

[PEACH FUZZ STARTS PLAYING IN BACKGROUND]

DANNY 15: Like he’s a really eclectic a wrapper that his lyricism is beyond. So people don’t even really understand what he’s saying. So for me to put somebody on it, who was like, man, I know this check game. I was like, okay, let me see. He really did though. He had the whole album. Really cool time.

[PEACH FUZZ RAPPING CONTINUES]

This is Peach Fuzz by KMD. Danny doesn’t remember exactly what song they were listening to on the subway, but he thinks it was either this one or another one called Black Bastards. And that finally answers a question I’d wondered for nine years… except, it’s now been replaced with another.

How did this guy in a business suit become so well versed in MF Doom? Well.

MATT 1: Hey Jason, how are you?

Good. How are you?

MATT 2: I’m doing pretty well.

That is Matt.

MATT 3: You know, the nostalgia of just being on the train and looking back when I had a full head of hair, uh, you know, it was, uh, no, it was just great to see.

Matt’s full name is Matthew McDonnell, and, yes, he will admit. The last nine years have, not been kind to his hair.

MATT 4: I showed my wife. She’s like, you know, again, I’m bringing up the house and look at the hair

[LAUGHING]

As Matt and I talked about that day on the train, he says Danny was not the only one to be surprised by his deep knowledge of hip hop. He gets it. He sees what people see… and, you know, we’re not just talking about hair. 

MATT 5: there’s the idea that. having somebody like me, listen to, you know, the music I listened to, you might be like, Whoa, what’s going on here. But it’s all incredible. And I gave up on stereotypes. I joke about them, but I can’t take them seriously because at the end of the day, I’m a contradiction to most stereotypes there are, so

Matt was raised Jewish. His dad is Irish. And Matt is now married to a woman from Mexico who loves Marilyn Manson. Matt grew up in midtown New York, which is where he still lives today, and that provided him with a really diverse childhood. His mom’s best friend is West Indian, so he spent a lot of time in that community, and in his schools, he was often in the minority.

MATT 6: When I was younger, I went to a school called Ella Baker. I think I was one of like, four, five white kids in the entire building.

As he and his peers became older, they became aware of their differences, of course—but they were more excited about what brought them together. One of those things was hip hop, and some of Matt’s friends became rappers.

MATT 7: I’ve just always loved hearing people, you know, I even used the freestyle just for fun. I wasn’t any good, you know, we would, you know, we’d go in a circle when we were hanging out. Uh, and it was just. It’s so much fun

Matt talks about hip hop on a lot of different levels. He appreciates the pure art and skill of it, and the ideas it contains, and the way it can capture people’s experiences. And as I listened to him, it occurred to me that Matt was talking about hip hop in an emotionally similar way that Danny does—which is to say, it created community. Each found that community in different ways, for different needs. But still. It was something to bond over.

MATT 8: it definitely helps you understand what people go through, but I feel like there’s so many ways to relate to it. You know, like, people forget that the people that are either middle class or poor. Everybody, you know, unless you’re rich, you’re probably struggling somewhat in this world. And that’s a lot of what some hip-hop talks about. And to me, that’s, that’s what really drew me in the struggle. And to get past it, just motivation, keeping yourself in the right position.

Much earlier in this episode, I shared some old news clips that claimed headphones are anti-social… You know, all from people who could not have imagined a world in which Danny and Matt were using the technology the way that they did. And so I think it’s worth pointing out that much worse has been said—and in much nastier, more racist ways—about the music that, in the case of these two friends, was coming out of those supposedly anti-social listening devices. Like, here’s Mississippi state senator Chris McDaniel, in a teaser for a talk radio show he used to host:

CHRIS MCDANIEL: I don’t know anything about hip-hop that’s been good for this country. And it’s not. 

And here’s Geraldo Rivera.

 GERALDO: Hip-hop has done more damage to black and brown people than, than racism, in the last ten years.

Over and over, you can find things that actually bring people together… and then see pundits and politicians claim that these things pull us apart. And you have to wonder: Who wins when people are torn apart? And who might have an incentive to keep it that way?

And this is why I love the story of Danny and Matt. It’s about intersections. It’s about multiple ways into the same thing. It’s about togetherness now, despite where you started. And this got me thinking about the photo, and the number of assumptions that I made—and that I suppose many people who saw the photo made too—in order for it to resonate the way that it did. A photo is a single moment in time, divorced from any context, which isn’t all that different from our experience anytime we see anyone, anywhere. We know nothing except whatever momentary information we get. And we judge based on that.

So, OK, consider this. One of the reasons that the photo is so striking is that Danny and Matt are dressed totally differently. Danny looks like an artist, and Matt’s all business-like in a suit. That suit is the reason Danny originally didn’t think Matt wanted to go smoke a joint, and frankly, it’s one of the big reasons the photo is as striking as it is. Because they look so different. But wait, why was Matt wearing a suit that day?

MATT 8: [LAUGHING] Okay. So I was trying to figure that out too. I didn’t really wear suits too often, so it was either I had an interview or a death in the family.

So it wasn’t just that I looked up and saw these guys across the subway. It’s that I looked up and saw these guys on the one random day that Matt either had a job interview or a funeral to go to. Without the suit, it’s still great to see two guys of different races share earbuds, but they’d look a lot less different. I made a judgment based on a fluke.

So I have to admit that, as I talked to these guys, I started questioning what I had done in the first place, and what I’d revealed about my own biases and assumptions. I live in New York now, but I didn’t grow up there. I grew up in suburban South Florida in the 80s and 90s, when most everyone I interacted with was white and Jewish, like me. My graduating high school class had… I don’t know, it couldn’t have been more than five black kids in it. So decades later, as an adult, when I’m sitting on the subway and I look up to see a white guy and an Afro-Latino guy sharing earbuds, my instinct is to think: Wow, how unusual! But maybe, if I grew up like Danny or Matt did, I’d just think: Oh, there are two guys sharing earbuds.

Which made wonder.

Do you think that if you were, in my seat on that subway, and you looked up and you saw, you know, the two of you. Danny and… somebody else, somebody that got me, you know, whatever. I wonder if you would have even seen that moment as a unique and worth photographing?

MATT 9: Um, I don’t know if I would have photographed it. I definitely would have had a laugh, you know, cause it’s just the concept that people… you know even have to question, like are they, should they be hanging out together? Like, do they fit together? It’s pretty mind boggling. Cause it, again, it makes perfect sense when you, you know, it’s not something you would see every day.  We’re both from New York city, but completely, you know, he’s from Harlem, I’m from Midtown. You know, I was wearing a suit. He’s got the crazy, I, I completely get it. I think the same question that you asked is what were they listening to?  That probably would have dawned on me. I might’ve even had to ask. I try not to think too much of it because at the end of the day, I’d like to think that that’s the direction we’re going anyway, but I think it’s important to also, capture those moments like you did because not everybody understands our reality, 

I asked Danny a similar question—I said, look, I saw you guys, and you guys looked different, and so I assumed you were different. And, was that a bad assumption to make? But he said.

DANNY 16: No, no, no, no, no. I don’t think, I don’t think that’s a bad assumption to make it all. It’s so evident. I have a steep tech and infrared air max’s on. With the giant Afro. And then you gotta dude with a suit next to me, and then we’re sharing headphones, like what’s going on there. So, no, it’s, I don’t think it’s wrong to, to, uh, to assume that at all, because that’s the beauty of hip hop. Or that’s just the beauty of togetherness. That’s love, you know. Just having one little interest and then just running with it, having fun with that.

The problem isn’t acknowledging differences, he’s saying. Of course we have differences. The problem is seeing our differences as everything.

DANNY 17: I feel like in New York city, what people, the instant question everywhere you go, everyone’s always like, so what do you do? And it’s instantly like, what’s your paycheck, you know? And then from there people can kind of just judge you. And instantly just like: Oh, well you make this money, I can respect you this way. Or you, you do these things, so we can talk about these things. Instead of doing that, whenever someone asks me, what do you do? I instantly tell them I dance. And they’re like, so this is your paycheck. And I’m like, no, I, I work at a watch store. Like we can have a conversation about that, but that’s, that has nothing to do with anything else. Like where, what I do is like who I am. That’s that’s hip hop, that’s dance. So let’s talk about that. And then I’ll try to separate myself from it and be like, your turn. Like, what do you do, please inform me so that we can continue the conversation. I can bring it back to hip hop all the time. Cause I feel like anytime I come into a conversation, hip hop is like a puppy to me. It’s like, hey, let me show you my puppy. You know, like- and everyone’s always like ohhhh puppies. But, I try to do the same for people too. Like what do you do? And then instantly people would be like, well, this is what I do for a living. And like, no. All right. That’s cool. I appreciate that. But what do you do? And if that is what you like, that’s not only your, your job, but it’s like your passion, your love, bangs with it. If it’s not, that’s cool too,

Do you think, can we like pick any two random people, put them together?

DANNY 18: Totally, totally. But see the thing is they have to be open with themselves to find that in the other person, it’s so easy for me to do it because I love myself that much, that I can just detach from myself to be like, well, what’s this person about. You know, even if it wasn’t hip hop, it could be two complete other random people talking about their loves. One could be like archaeology and the other person’s a librarian or something, you know what I mean? You know this is this dope book about archaeology. So, there’s something that everyone can meet and look with that same way, you know. That someone’s gonna be like: nah I don’t think you really know, but then they do know. And this- it was a beautiful experience in sharing ‘cause you find out that the person that you didn’t think was about it really is. We don’t have something in common with all of the physical things or all of our actual interests, the way that you feel, so fervently for your thing. I feel for my thing. And here’s my thing- that’s another, boop, now we connect, you know. There’s always a way to do it, but you have to be able to separate and listen and like just love, you know? 

Danny mentions archeology, so… here’s a little something about archeology. Around the year 500 B.C., give or take a few decades, an inscription nearly 50 feet tall was made on a rock relief on a cliff in what’s now known as the Kermanshah Province of Iran. It was written in cuneiform, one of the oldest systems of writing, known for its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets. And as time moved on, and the language disappeared, people who visited the area could see the scripts on the cliff, but they had no idea what it said. For thousands of years, various explorers and scholars would claim the writing was dedicated to this or that royalty, or this or that religion. By the 1600s, some Europeans saw it and said it was about Christianity. People saw, basically, what they already knew. Because that’s often as far as people can see.

But in 1835, an officer of the British East India Company named Sir Henry Rawlinson was stationed near the inscription, and started studying it in earnest. This was not easy. He had to scale the cliff to get close enough to clearly see and carefully transcribe it. And it turns out the inscription was something of a Rosetta Stone. It wasn’t one single piece of writing; it was actually one piece of writing, written in three different languages. By this point in history, scholars had made good headway in deciphering one of the languages, known as Old Persian, which in turn helped understand the other two. This would crack open our ability to access some of the oldest words ever written. Our ancient ancestors, so different from us, could suddenly speak.

And what did they say? Well, the inscription on the cliff was about the Persian king Darius the Great, but that’s not really the interesting part. The interesting part, to me at least, is that clay tablets with cuneiform writing are scattered throughout the region—they are, in fact, so common and widespread that new ones are still found today—and scholars began deciphering them all. These tablets weren’t generally produced by some king; they were simply the things people wrote down. Some turned out to be religious stories, or laws, or records of trade. But others were just… life. Regular life. Letters from one person to another. They were expressions of love and jealousy and fear and hope and ambition. Someone named Warad-Gula wrote to their father, “I cannot sleep at night on account of worrying about you.” A woman named Away-Aja wrote to her brother, saying that when he visited her for 10 days recently, “I was so pleased about it that I did not then report to you on my situation.” The situation was that she’s starving and worries about dying of hunger, but was uncomfortable saying so, and she hopes he’ll send her some barley. Meanwhile, a boy named Adad-abum also wanted a delivery—though for a different reason. He sent a clay tablet to his dad that said, “I have never before written to you for something precious I wanted. If you want to be like a father to me, get me a fine string of beads to be worn around the head.” Another, from a servant named Yakim-Addu, is about a lion that got stuck in his lord’s house and began to starve. He wrote, “I was worrying: Heaven forbid that this lion pine away.” So, scared as he was, he got the lion in a cage.

I find these letters transfixing. I’ve read through them many times over the few years, because they’re so recognizable—as if we’ve looked back thousands of years, into a hazy world full of unknowable people, just to discover versions of ourselves. Which feels… surprising, but also, why would it be surprising? We’re all the same humans, after all. When we imagine other people—people not like us, whether separated by time or religion or region or race—it’s so easy to forget this. We work off of a limited understanding, something as flat as a hastily taken photo on a subway. But what we miss is that, sure, the details of another person’s life isn’t our own, but that’s not everything. It’s like Danny says: He may be passionate about one thing, and you may be passionate about something else, but you’re both passionate. The thing in common is at your very core. Dig deep enough, and the thing that makes you you also makes you us.

The world is that small, if we’ll allow it.

In fact, as I talked to Danny and Matt, I discovered just how small our own worlds are. Danny, for example, had already seen the photo I took—years ago! I always thought that I’d hear from one of the guys, should either of them ever see the photo, but Danny just wasn’t that surprised that some stranger would have posted a picture of him on the internet. 

DANNY 19: so believe it or not, this is something similar things have happened like this, where I’ve just kind of popped up. 

People take pictures of him all the time, he says. I mean just scan your eyes around a subway, and he’s the guy who stands out. One time, he even showed up unexpectedly in a music video by the rapper Joey Badass. And Matt? Well, when I reached out to him, he told his wife about my photo, and

MATT 10: She looked and she was blown away. She’s like, I followed him on midnight Instagram

Midnight is… their dog. Their dog, who by total coincidence, was already following me on Instagram.

MATT 11: Midnight has an Instagram, yes. [LAUGHING] Wasn’t my choice. But you know, to each their own. 

Oh, and Danny and Matt? They hung out a lot in college, and then lost touch for a bit. But then one day

DANNY 20: coincidentally, I ended up going over to a friend’s house and he was just sitting there, years later. 

Because as it turns out, they had mutual friends.

So. Nine years ago, I sat across from two strangers to me, who I believed were strangers to each other, and who were sharing a brief, strange moment. In fact, I’d sat across from two new friends, who were just beginning to discover how much they had in common. And then, in the coming years, their lives would intersect with mine. And the thing I did in secret, taking a photo of them, would eventually bring us together to talk about togetherness.

The world is small. And listen, I acknowledge I’m just one white guy speaking as best I can from my own experience, but my hope is that we continue to make our world smaller. To squeeze ourselves together, metaphorically at least, like we’re on a New York City subway in a pre-pandemic world, until we’re close, and we’re talking, and we see how much we overlap, and we do it over and over again, until someone looks up at us from across that subway, and sees us, and then looks back down—because that person across the subway didn’t see anything unusual at all, and certainly nothing worth taking a photo of.

All they saw was people connecting.

And that’s our episode! To see the photo you just heard so much about, head on over to our website, pessimists.co. Again pessimists.co. And seeing as this episode was about two guys connecting over things they loved, I figured I would share a letter from thousands of years ago from Mesopotamia that I think is about that same thing? But first…

If you like this show, please subscribe, tell a friend, and give a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And stay in touch! You can follow us on Twitter or Instagram at @pessimistsarc, that’s @pessimists A-R-C, where we are constantly sharing the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history. You can also reach us by email at pessimistsarchive@gmail.com.

A huge, huge thanks to Danny and Matt for so generously sharing their story with me. You can find more about Danny’s work at breakfreshnyc.com. And… oh, just for the fun of it, you can find Matt’s dog on Instagram at @midnightofnewyork.

Also, those cuneiform letters I cited, and that I will read one more from, all came from a truly wonderful book called Letters From Mesopotamia, by A. Leo Oppenheim. Strong recommendation there. We’ll also have links to all of this at our website, which again is pessimists.co.

Pessimists Archive is me and Louis Anslow. Sound editing this episode by Alec Balas [BAY-LISS]. Our webmaster is James Steward. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com.

Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better, and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation, and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that’s you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. Again that’s C-K-I dot org. 

Alright. Finally, here is one more letter from a cuneiform clay tablet in Mesopotamia, featuring what I would like to think are two guys about to have a good time. All we have are the words written down, so it is up to you to interpret. And I apologize for any mispronunciations of the proper nouns here, but, here we go:

Tell Ahuni: Belanum sends the following message:

May the god ŠamaŠ keep you in good health.

Make ready for me the myrtle and the sweet-smelling reeds of which I spoke to you, as well as a boat for (transporting) wine to the city of Sippar. Buy and bring along with you ten silver sheckels’ worth of wine and join me here in Babylon sometime tomorrow.

That’s it. That’s all we have. The rest is lost to history, but, I hope those guys had a good time.

Alright, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening to Pessimists Archive. I am Jason Feifer, and we’ll see you in the near future.

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