I first discovered earplugs as a college senior during a particularly trying exam period. They have become an indispensable part of my nightly ritual, and have generally improved my quality of life. I strongly recommend them to any hypersensitive, neurotic, sleep-disordered, concentration-requiring freak, caught in the midst of the overcrowded, paper-thin-walled wonders of urban living.

1992.

The night before my advanced bio-organic chemistry final. I've studied more than is reasonably possible, yet I am still contemplating the possibility of failing. Currently, the class average is 23%. I try desperately to get some sleep. I am awakened by the muffled sounds of coy giggling, rambunctious teasing, dormitory-issue bedsprings squeaking ever so slightly, increasing in rhythmic frequency: Liz and her boyfriend having ineffectual sex, yet again. This was becoming a nightly problem in my solitary, equation-filled existence. I get up and summon my roommate, who had the good fortune of choosing the bedroom on the opposite side of the living room from the lovebirds. All she had to endure was 'The Little Mermaid' soundtrack on endless repeat and lots of Prince.

"You've got to hear this," I say, "I just can't put up with it for much longer."

My roommate, expert on matters sexual, listens intently for a few moments, furrows her brow and states: "Yeah, well, she's not enjoying it."

This gives me small comfort in my quest for sleep; if it's going to keep me awake, it had better be good sex.

After that, I went out and bought my first pair of earplugs.

Since then, I have used my earplugs on a regular basis. My sleep is deeper, the phone no longer wakes me, my dreams are more vivid, and my hearing remains intact (I once asked an audiologist if chronic earplug use had any long-term effects. She looked at me, quizzically, and said: "Well, as long as you're not using them during the day, it shouldn't be a problem.").

Situations where earplugs are handy: transatlantic flights, youth hostels filled with snorers and early morning plastic bag rustlers, noisy libraries, inconsiderate neighbours...

The Best Earplugs: I hate the wax ones. The little yellow cylindrical ones are OK, if pressed, but they don't tend to fit the ear canal. The ones to buy are the bright orange, soft, foamy ones, shaped like small, round cones and available at most drugstores for around $2.99.

Enjoy the silence.

In my experience, the pliable silicone earplugs work better than the foamy, cone-shaped earplugs. I never get the foamy ones to fit in my ears very well, and they don't deaden the sound that much. The silicone ones fit the shape of my ear better and keep out virtually all sound. I survived a year of dorm living and many snoring roommates with them and I swear by them. They are great for dance clubs, too, since you can put them in and virtually no one can tell you have them.

I bought some ear plugs. They are made of “skin tonedfoam that doesn't match my skin at all. I had been thinking about getting a pair for some time, but I was very concerned that I’d look strange with them on. But, then, the other day, I realised that I could put my headphones (for my CD player) over the plugs and look quite socially acceptable (as much as I can manage in any case.) I was shocked to see the wide array of ear plugs that were available at the pharmacy. There were at least two dozen different brands. I like pharmacies. I roam around in them regardless of what city I’m in. I like to see all of the different remedies that are available. I’m not ill, but it’s good to know what’s out there. Well, the point is that New York pharmacies have a lot of ear plugs. I guess they’re popular here.

So, with my new “33 decibel sound reducing ear plugs” firmly in place, and my head phones snugly over them I wandered in to the subway. As in a dream, the sounds of peoples feet, the sounds of the turnstile clicking and the escalator rumbling, the wonderful and terrible thunder of trains, the babble of children and angry lovers, the noise of the buskers, the rustle of cloth and bags and packages were all muffled or extinguished. All I could hear was my own breathing. So, I had to keep my eyes very wide to keep track of what was going on. It’s a good thing I have sharp eyes.

I started looking at other people’s ears. Having seen the garish variety of sound stoppers at the Duane Read I wondered if others had gone deaf by choice as I had. In fact, the truth is, a shocking number of New Yorkers can’t hear anything because their ears are purposely stopped up.

As I rode up to harlem enjoying the silence and the rumble of the train I watched a woman get on at 59th street. She had on ear plugs, fancy ones. Then, when she sat down she took out a sleeping mask made of soft black felt and put it her eyes. And there she sat. Still. Blind. Deaf. (and dumb)

I was not certain if the violent emotion I felt was pushing me towards getting a mask like that myself ... or tearing out my ear plugs and hers as well then forcing her to see and talk.

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