Saturday, September 27, 2008


The other afternoon I had the good fortune to have an hour to lie down and vegetate before having to go to my evening exercise class. At such times I like to turn on the radio, usually Chicago Public Radio (all talk at that hour), but I keep it at low volume, especially in open-window weather, to avoid disturbing my next door neighbor. My thoughts drifted away from ceaseless discussion of world financial meltdown, then back to something more interesting, or at least, more meaningful, that came on the radio. I realized I could hardly hear the interviewee, whose voice was soft and accented. Then I tuned in to the problem more sharply. The amount of ambient noise, that I had to this point been oblivious to, was overwhelming. I added up these virtually simultaneous sources and came up with a list to explain why I couldn’t hear the radio without turning up the volume. I should explain that I live several stories up on the back side of a tall building, thus my apartment is a good half a block away from a busy intersection. Nonetheless, the number one sound-drowner was one CTA bus after the next with some hideous, but miraculously nonfatal disease, that causes them to screech over a low rumble at incredible volume each time the gears engaged, which happens each time they pass northbound or southbound: the stops are right across the street. Note that we have the number 6, the 28, the X28, and the 171 routes to choose from, and this was rush hour. The sick bus noises were, of course, superimposed on the usual grind-and-boom of the big diesel engines and heavy-duty transmissions accelerating from a stop, the squeaky brakes, and the blaring recorded announcements of the stops. Then there is the noise of ordinary auto traffic, plus motorcycles whose riders favor the least effective mufflers they can get away with. In the distance at occasional intervals were the sounds of sirens and klaxons; we’re not far from a tertiary care hospital, a fire house, and two police departments that cover our neighborhood (both of which ignore the illegally-loud motorcycles). On top of that, we are under Midway Airport’s flyway, and though Midway itself is only 8 miles distant, for some reason sometimes noise abatement doesn’t always seem to be in effect, and at just the right altitude and just the right atmospheric conditions, the jet engines can easily blot out a punch line on the radio. Then a low-altitude helicopter pulsed by. Oh, and I live a block and a half from the train tracks, where Metra commuters and heavy freight trains ply all day. When all these decibel-busters happened to coincide it wasn’t possible to even tell that the radio was on. At a brief moment when they didn’t happen to overlap, the recycling truck came by in the alley on the other side of the building and dumped a few loads of glass bottles into its hatch. For a moment then, I could hear above the incessant rush of air through the ventilation system in the bathrooms next to my bedroom the sounds of water moving in the plumbing that I share with everyone who lives above and below me: someone happened to be showering overhead. Then a broken number 6 bus came by…

What’s miraculous about all of this is that it goes on all day and into the night, and all summer long when my windows are open I rarely notice the din. I hear instead its loud absence. The first night or two when I bed down in my cabin in Yellowstone, it’s dark and late, and almost everyone has turned off their lights, and there’s no ambient noise like there is in the city, when I become aware of a strong, steady, high pitched sound in my ears, tinnitus that is totally undetectable in my normal habitat.

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