By Elizabeth C. Creely
When I leave the city of San Francisco, the sounds and the noise do not come with me. Sometimes this feels like a minor miracle. On a BART train, bound for West Oakland the other day, I looked back at the city backlit by fog and considered the rectangular buildings and the silly triangle of TransAmerica building and thought of all the tumult in it. It’s hard to believe I live in anything that has so many people talking and so many dogs barking and MUNI trains rumbling and babies crying all at the same time.
My neighborhood in the Mission is a noisy place: By day, it’s a teeming habitat of police sirens, car tires squealing, people talking on cell phones all day and all night.
A woman walked by my apartment the other day, talking into her cell phone. A whole string of dialogue had unspooled before I heard a word, but the pitch of her voice preceded her. I finally heard her say, “I’m still struggling.” The word “still” hung behind her, fixed in the aether as a high singing note of stress and uncertainty as she walked on down the street, still talking.
At night, the monologues and dialogues of my 3 am dream will sometimes get overtaken by my neighbor’s love of electronic dance music. From across the street, the music pulses and I come to consciousness, snatched out of sleep, my dreaming mind taken from me. A great stationary force settles down in the street between her apartment and mine as I lay pinned to my bed by the driving beat of the bass, almost felt more than heard.
The difference between sound and noise is movement, I sometimes think. A siren wailing down 22nd street in the middle of the night moves one place to another in great haste. The sound of the siren, a sound that filled me with tense dread when I was a kid–That wailing sound! Unearthly!–goes away.
Noise entraps, takes prisoners: My mother, who has an almost autistic sensitivity to loud discordant noise, was once almost driven to tears by a VW Bug that pulled alongside us at a red light on Jamboree Road in Newport Beach. A group of teenagers were inside the car. They were blasting Led Zepplin at top volume from their car stereo.
My mother’s whole face changed; she winced and her lips pulled away from her teeth. She quickly rolled up the window. She was in some sort of pain, and so was I: The noise was sudden, and its impact was profound. It was like being assaulted. The blankness on the faces of the beautiful blond teenagers in the next car frightened me too. They appeared to feel nothing, letting the music speak (or shriek) for them. The noise created defensive space, the way that an angry dog does. But what were they defending? Or were they on the hunt?
My mother’s reaction frightened me; it confirmed what I thought was happening was happening. We had both been speaking and listening, at the same time, to the same assemblage of sounds: screeching seagulls, confirming the approach to the sea and our own voices conspiratorial and hushed speaking about our errands, what we were out in the world to do that day, and why. And then the music of the birds and our voices were blanked out with a terrifying force: Noise stormed in and overtook the diversity of the aural environment. Robert Plant’s screams filled the air, and I couldn’t hear anything else, couldn’t remember the sound of the birds or the words of the conversation I’d been having with my mother moments before.
(Seven year later I was on a school bus when I heard that the drummer for Led Zepplin had died.
“John Bonham died,” called out a boy in the back of the bus.
“Good,” I snapped. “I hate Led Zepplin.”)
Sound often involves other sound: It exists because of and with other sounds. Acorn woodpeckers, known for their high level of social and communal interaction, call to other acorn woodpeckers throughout their busy day. They sound like this: Waka waka waka. Bang, bang, bang. This is how they sound greeting each other and storing their nuts. When they need to alert each other to important happenings–a squirrel advancing on their store of nuts–the call goes out. Waka! Waka! Waka! The calls and the tapping of woodpeckers in a richly diverse aural landscape can be heard for miles. But bring in one thing–a chainsaw, an iPod, anything mechanized that disturbs and redistributes the sound molecules in the medium of air–and suddenly everything changes. Nothing can compete with mechanized noise. Not the woodpeckers, certainly. They cannot hear each other, cannot communicate.
Noise is a monoculture. It colonizes, overtakes, dominates, and invades. Sound is communicative and thus, if not reciprocal, then at least mutual. Noise is resolutely neither of those things.
In the city, I have often seen several red tail hawks circling in the sky. These are probably adults teaching their young to fly. They are calling to each other, I know, and if I were anywhere but 22nd Street I would hear them. I usually don’t.
On the train that day I left the city, I thought about how the week had been. My neighborhood had mostly been quieter than usual. Most sounds had been transient, and had passed easily through my consciousness. But this will change. Sound and noise: aural phenomena that create a sort of intangible commons where people and their preferences bump and jostle against each other. Our own sound-scapes–the noises and sounds we make and prefer to hear–are being challenged as the city continues to take more people in.
I watched the sweep of the South Bay open up and then vanish in the distance while the sound of BART–metal wheels that scream and gnash against the rails–silenced everyone on the train. It didn’t bother me. I’d knew I’d leave the train and the noise would stop. And when I returned to the city of San Francisco, the sound and the noise would greet me, enveloping me in its large body, and usher me home.
Elizabeth C. Creely is a staff contributor for Paper Tape. She received an MFA from San Francisco State University in 2005 and has been published in The New Hibernia Review, the Dogwood Journal, and The Mississippi Review. Her essays have also appeared in three anthologies: Manifest West: Eccentricities of Geography, New California Writing 2013, and Extended Family: Essays on Being Irish American from the New Hibernia Review. She blogs at Dinnshenchas and lives in San Francisco with her husband.