Other People's Noise

Christine Watt

© Copyright 2002 by Christine Watt


Drawing of a person with hands over the ears.

I don’t know if it was lights strobing across the ceiling of my darkened bedroom or almighty trundling like the last trump fit to make the walls come a-tumbling down, but I was jolted out of sleep at 3 o’clock one weekday morning. I’m not a morning person, so it took a while before I realized we weren’t being swallowed up by an earthquake, some potentate with religion and a big black mustache wasn’t bombing us, or the local nuclear power station hadn’t blown a gasket. I reeled toward the window, feeling nauseated and fuzzy in the head, to blink out at a convoy of 18-wheelers barreling down the narrow road between me and the wildlife reserve. Was I having a particularly vivid night terror? Unfortunately not. I growled, which woke my husband, who growled back.

This torture continued unabated for six weeks, during which I, who have never had a headache in her life, developed a vomiting migraine. (I have since learned that certain noises can cause involuntary stomach spasm, medical fact.) Of course, we made countless increasingly exasperated phone calls to the developers, a.k.a. ‘depredators’, hell-bent on destroying the wetlands in favor of Southern California pink stucco, but to no avail. Only after we contacted the Los Angeles Times, which ran a front-page article about sleepless in The Southland, did a city ordinance miraculously materialize forbidding construction hauling routes along residential roads, and the trucks were forever rerouted.

What was so difficult about sending the damn-blasted things that way in the first place? Do those responsible for the so-called planning of routes actually believe we enjoy all this racket the world is constantly bombarded with nowadays, so they want to share the joy with us?

Some weirdoes do, you know. These are the aliens, believe you me. When a super showed us an apartment in L.A. facing the 10 . . . or the 110 or the 405 or the 5 . . . and I voiced concern that it might prove a tad too noisy, she gawked at me as if I were the alien and declared she didn’t mind noise; in point of fact she actively welcomed noise; she indeed moved her chair from one side of the building to the other, depending on rush hour ebbs and flows, just so she could get more of it. Because when she was dead, she said, life would be quiet enough. See? They’re already among us.

Although we may have won the battle of the 18-wheelers, we were not winning the war against other people’s noise however. I still had gas-powered leaf blowers to contend with, may the inventor rot. These foul things blow my leaves onto your lawn--that’s it. The huz nearly drowned while lolling about pool-side in that delicious cat-nap state of neither here nor there, when suddenly right beside his head the maintenance guy fired up one of these fiendish instruments from hell, which has to be a noisy hole, catapulting him into the deep-end with shock. He refers to this incident, lip curled, as his encounter with “one of those buzzy things.”

The buzzy things have caused one heck of a ruckus throughout California. An L.A. city ordinance forbids them from ever darkening the streets. Ironic, isn’t it, from a city that never sleeps and gives us ear-splitting movies? Other towns all across the state are joining suit. News like this pleases me greatly, because it’s nice to know I’m not a mad person--others do exist who abhor other people’s noise as much as I do, and wish we’d been born when the loudest sound outside the window was the clip-clop of a horse’s hoofs. In fact, life must have been a whole heck of a lot sweeter when horse power was it.

Had the ancient tribes of the northern hemisphere to contend with today’s noise pollution, we’d go right from Wednesday to Friday without stopping for Thursday, Thor’s day. In vain would the warrior god Thor have hurled his magic hammer across the skies, splitting them asunder with scary thunderbolts to terrify the liver out of mortals below; because early Germanic ears would have been polluted by the grinding whirr of air conditioners and their interminable clacking on and off; the constant roar of traffic; fatuous gabble on television; airplane boom; the persistent drone of refrigerators, which gets right into a certain spot at the base of my skull; and so on and so forth ad infinitum ad nauseam. Do today’s dogs howl at distant thunder? Can they even hear it?

I’ve surfed the web to find out just how many of us sensitive souls are left--Whoa!--check it out, type in “noise pollution.” Did you know there’s an International Noise Awareness Day (21 April)? Because so many Americans are losing it physically and mentally on account of noise, we have the Noise Control Act empowering the Environmental Protection Agency to set noise limits. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, three million children under 18 years have some kind of hearing difficulty, which can cause behavioral and learning problems. That’s almost the population of New Zealand.

When I am world dictator, nobody will speak, everybody will sign. Then, with subsequent lowering of everyone’s threshold, machinery will have to be manufactured quieter. Until then, human society seems doomed to become noisier, especially young male society--sorry, it usually is young men that are the cause of a lot of problems.

Take for instance ‘boom cars’. Yes, take them please. We’ve all experienced them, haven’t we? You’re having a cozy heart-to-heart with a friend as you wait at a light, something baroque crooning out of the C.D. player, when suddenly you’re knocked upside-the-head as another vehicle sidles alongside and makes your own car sway. Surely all that racket can’t be coming from inside there. How can the driver breathe? In disbelief, you gaze through tinted glass at a very low head. (It seems to be a prerogative that if you’re an idiot, you sit low behind tinted glass.) Apparently one can buy C.D.s that play just bass, nary an attempt at a tune in the treble, just bass “noise.” Why?

According to The Noise Center, boom cars produce noise levels at 140 decibels and beyond, which no-question-about-it damages hearing--85 dBA deafens non-morons. But what’s the good of these numbskulls waking up deaf one morning? They’ll only turn the bass up louder. I’d settle for sterility, so at least the fools can’t produce more of themselves.

Another time I bolted out of bed was one snoozy weekend morning as we drifted in and out of sleep on waves from National Public Radio and an item was broadcast about boom car contests. With a disgusted snort, which awoke himself again, I checked the calendar that it wasn’t April Fool’s Day, because what I was hearing was utterly absurd. Get this--you won’t believe it. Apparently young men gather, I know not where but I pray for their mothers’ sakes nowhere near me, to blast each other out of existence with their car stereos. What happened to good, old-fashioned duels to the death? I wouldn’t mind that. Some of these potential voters and fathers spend thousands upon thousands of dollars to equip their autos with sub-woofers and other colossal whatnots. Websites exist solely to advise devotees of the most powerful accouterments with which to enhance their cars’ muscle-power. Now get this. The vehicles have to be mounted in cement or they’d disintegrate with the vibration; and if a person were to sit inside, his heart would stop on account of the sound waves. I’m not making this up. He would die. Again, I’d settle for testicle-drop-off syndrome, but who am I kidding? Teenagers have been told they’ll need Viagra if they keep smoking, yet still they puff away.

Am I becoming an old fart? The L.A. Times article quoted my age--49--why? Would my ranting have been any more or less valid were I older or younger? Or was it a subtle way of pointing out that women of a certain age get a teensy weenie bit feisty if you make a stinking din in their faces? Well yes, I guess we’re just funny that way.

I have noticed many female friends my middle age are sensitive to noise. While men in general suffer hearing loss as they age, women turn into bats. Notorious in her salad days for her Stones collection, at 58 a friend now plugs her ears during aerobics (transpose the ‘a’ and the ‘e’ and you get an ear workout). In an attempt to find peace, another 50-something friend has holed up on top of a remote mountain, but peace eludes her even here. The boom car brigade has discovered her mountain! Now the bonebrains can combine subwoofing with revving as they hurtle up her mountainside. In sheer exasperation she downs tools, rushes to her balcony, and yells her head off at them, no matter how far away they are, and no matter she realizes full well that nobody responsible for such a din could either hear her or begin to comprehend her objection. I understand this my-noise-is-bigger-than-your-noise full-throated tantrum, because I indulged at the 18-wheelies, which at least released my tension but launched my husband into orbit. It’s like yelling fit to blow a lung out when the subway train hurtles past after a bad day at the office. Nobody can hear you, but you feel better.

Perhaps as our eyesight fails with age, nature compensates by refining our ears. Nature’s got it all wrong. I need better eyesight to see my computer screen, not better ears as society gets noisier. Just as, sadly, it’s getting brighter. I can’t sleep if there’s the faintest glimmer of light, any more than I can sleep with din. Yet how many children can see stars at night as we wastefully splay light into the cosmos? How many baby turtles have perished at night, heading toward land brighter than day instead of soft moonlight reflecting off sea the moment they hatch? But neon nights is another topic.

Is anybody quiet in libraries any more? Time was a fierce glance from the librarian would smite a whisper in its tracks. Now librarians themselves whoop it up, cackling and gossiping as if they’re at the mall. To say nothing of going to the cinema--or even the ballet or the opera, for pity’s sake. People start raucous conversations during the overture--they don’t finish them, they start them. Another friend sat next to a person babbling at his broker on his cell phone--all through the offertory at Mass.

When we wanted to flush Noriega out of Panama, we blasted rock music at him night and day. I rest my case. Now, I’m a child of the 1960s, but the mere threat of nonstop heavy metal--forget thumbscrews--and I’d give away state secrets in a heartbeat.

The ubiquity of blare in today’s culture is one reason I’m one hundred percent committed to email. For instance, and this must have happened to everybody who has ever toiled in an office: you’re nodding off at your desk around 2 o’clock after a boozy lunch with sales, when all of a sudden the phone thrashes. For a second, you truly believe you are going to die. Your heart implodes with shock, your pulse pounds hotly past every pressure point, sweat prickles out of your armpits, your mouth tastes of fillings. You lunge at the wretched thing on your desk just to shut it up. You bark some unintelligible, drooling grunt into the mouthpiece. You feel sick and faint for several minutes afterwards. Email, on the other hand, neither summons us nor makes a peep. For once, we are in control of the machine.

I’ve recently adopted a whole new philosophy: You can do anything you like--short of cruelty to animals, children, or other vulnerable members of society of course--just so long as you’re quiet about it. Orgies among consenting adults of any gender right out there in the high street, dope-fests, anything--I mean it--as long as I can still hear the clock tick on my mantelpiece and flames lick up the chimney in the next room.

During my near-death experience with the 18-wheelers, among merry hallucinations about slaughtering all depredators and obliterating their machines to dust--soundlessly--I experienced profound empathy for marine animals. Our apartment in California was next to a wildlife reserve, where migratory birds at certain times of year claim the skies. In one of my more polite phone encounters with Somebody With Power To Stop The Noise, I pointed out I wasn’t the only one degenerating into psychopath, which is what happens to humans deprived of REM, rapid eye movement, that dream state just before we rise and shine after an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

“Oh?” came the anxious response.

“The birds must be going nuts too,” was my punch-line guaranteed to win the day.

It was greeted with befuddled silence. I was simply another La-La Land loony-toon.

But then I got to thinking. It wasn’t nesting season, so the birds could at least fly away. What about whales? Those super-sensitive mammals can go nowhere if we bang around in their backyard, just as I couldn’t escape when 18-wheel monsters pounded past mine.

There’s a scary thing called acoustic thermometry of ocean climate (ATOC). I’m not a scientist, but here goes. To find out whether we are indeed in the throes of global warming, some pointy heads, probably related to the depredators, are bouncing sound waves through the oceans, because these travel faster in warm water than in cold; so, by measuring how rapidly they wiggle, we should be able to tell whether the sea’s getting hotter. Since air pollution seems to be the culprit causing very big icebergs to melt, so that The Maldives will have to be renamed Atlantis before too long, I’m all for finding out the truth. But what about the animals who call the sea home? Well, how would you like it?

And now you know why whales beach themselves. They can’t stand people noise. So for whales’ sake, please ssshhhh . . .

Chris lives in beautiful Oregon with a husband; a big shaggy dog who stops traffic he is so handsome; and a tiny gray cat who, because she was rescued with a mangled front leg and
has become quite stout since adopting us, when seated now resembles a silver teapot in
need of polishing.

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