The thumps come at 4:30 each morning. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. I count the bumps, 12 of them, one for each step as my neighbor Shirley wheels her oversized handcart from her second floor apartment to the courtyard below. From there, she rolls the cart to the rear alley garage prepping for another day as a paralegal. The heavy rusted gate slams shut with a thunderous clank and once again I’m fully awake, ready for a new day.
As the sun rises, the finches appear, twittering in the large courtyard oak. Before long, wild parakeets arrive to scare away the finches with brash squawks. The crows are next, cackling as they dive bomb the parakeets from above.
The ambulance sirens start early, headed toward the nearby hospital on San Vicente Boulevard. On Wednesdays, the recycling trucks arrive by 5:30 am shattering glass in their gaping maws. Thursday brings the trash trucks, their pneumatic roars echoing off the thick alley walls.
I’ve always been a sonic soul, hypersensitive to sound. I detect the hum of overhead power lines and the faint buzzing of bees as they circle the jasmine bush outside my bedroom window. I catch snippets of conversation from across the room and I can hear car radios blaring or couples fighting from blocks away.
I’ve gotten to know my neighbors by their acoustic habits. Bridget sings lullabies at night to her corgi puppy. Anna repeats French phrases from a foreign language learning CD. Douglas tries to cover up his Tourette’s vocal tics by playing James Brown at loud volume. (Inevitably, his yelps sync up with Brown’s shrieks.)
I take solace in city noises. I love the local kids yelling as the ice cream man’s jingle approaches. I’m overjoyed when our postman Chester whistles off key during his mail route. I cherish the Hindu chanting of my neighbors during their Tuesday night meditation group.
Sometimes the auditory tableau becomes menacing. On Fridays, the gardeners’ leaf blowers create a grim opera of Wagnerian dissonance. I dread the dull thud of hammers and shrill buzz saws from construction sites. I’m awoken at night by screeching tires and high-volume car alarms. I’ve learned to distinguish the crack of a gunshot from the lower pitched bang of a backfiring car.
The worst night of the year for me is July 4th. The ubiquitous fireworks and roman candles mimic a war zone. I stuff my ears with cotton, but the explosions bleed through. I spend the evening fighting off an acoustic headache. On rare occasions, my auditory skills are used for public good. Once, my neighbor Cedric asked me to help him find his lost dog Zima. I closed my eyes and listened for a distinctive high-pitched yelp. I zeroed in on a familiar sound and located the French bulldog under the apartment, stuck in a tight crawl space. To this day Cedric and his wife call me “junkyard dog” in tribute to my canine-like hearing.
I carry a journal with me on my frequent bike outings. This allows me to transcribe bits of dialogue I encounter as I pedal through the streets. My favorite moment involved an African-American woman at a bus stop with her hyperactive young son. She implored her boy to calm down yelling, “Spatula. I got two words for you. Behave!” Another time I witnessed a transvestite dancing on the sidewalk. A driver in a passing car yelled, “Are you a man or a woman?” The transvestite answered, “Don’t get caught up with labels, baby.”
My favorite city sounds include chirping birds, children playing, wind chimes, church bells, the distant freeway hum (sounds like a flowing river), my neighbor playing classical piano, the courtyard water fountain, wind rustling through trees, my cat meowing, couples laughing, the soft patter of rain, the grinding of morning coffee beans, echoing thunder, people singing in the shower and distant train horns. My least favorite sounds are car alarms, car horns, gunshots, sirens, people fighting, screeching brakes, hammering, barking dogs, band saws, rap music, rumbling trucks, motorcycles, lawn mowers, coughing and low-flying helicopters.
Unlike most people, I’m rattled by the presence of complete silence. White noise relaxes me. This could be the soft hum of an air purifier or the whirring of an overhead fan. I find my neighbor’s snoring to be soothing while crickets and cicadas are the ultimate sleep aid.
In recent years, my hearing has diminished. I’ve noticed I no longer hear distant conversations with the same clarity. Whereas I once heard mosquitoes before they came into view, they now catch me by surprise. The soft bass notes of an acoustic jazz song are now drowned out by piano.
While some people are terrified of becoming blind, my great fear is losing my hearing. Sound is my salvation. Like an animal sniffing the surroundings to detect danger, I rely on sound to interpret the world. A world without sound is a nightmare I never want to experience.