Listening to the sounds of a neighborhood, of lives being lived, of a community vibrating, I was enveloped by the joyous noise of life in the city.
I was sitting on my deck the other night enjoying the cooler weather, which I suspect may be the last respite before the blast of summer. I reside in the center of the city on Thirty-Eighth Street, a main thoroughfare for east-west traffic. We have our share of traffic, including ambulances, police cars and fire engines that whiz by, but I knew that when I moved here.
It’s easy to get annoyed with the traffic. My current pet peeve is road rage expressed by using a horn as attack device, as if a good blast will immobilize the alleged offender. I know it’s irritating when someone pulls out in front of you (bless their little accelerators) or can’t navigate a slight curve while staying in their lane. But some drivers slam the horn for blocks to make a point. I’m sure they’re not considering those who live only a few feet from their attack device.
Personally, I never use the horn as profanity. I secretly use my spike-loaded eyes to give them four flat tires. It’s not always instant. It may take blocks or perhaps the next lifetime but the bad drivers who cross my path are marked forever. I sometimes even crack their windshields with the force of profane thoughts. If I’m really pushed, I put a curse on their air conditioner. It’s much more satisfying than honking. I guess being raised in New Orleans has given me an appreciation for the sweet revenge that voodoo can extract, while avoiding someone’s retaliation that could end badly for me.
But this particular evening was one in which my thoughts dwelled on community, not on traffic. It was late, around midnight. And dark—which for those of us with night blindness is a relative term. There are several college students living next door. I don’t know them well. They will never know how much I enjoy their laughter late at night. Car doors slammed. The sound of footsteps. Then giggles erupting into laughter. Through trees and fence, separated by years and experience, I delighted in connecting with the sound of being human.
One night a few years ago I heard a slight drumming sound. Soft at first, it grew to an orchestra of drummers. For perhaps thirty minutes I drifted with the sound of local tribesmen. Knowing this wasn’t recorded but live, I sought its source. At two in the morning I found a yard with a dozen drummers producing an ancient rhythm. They weren’t just drummers but drum makers. I had noticed skins nailed and drying on their roof a few weeks before but had gone on my way. Sometimes curiosity in my neighborhood can expose more than you really want to know (although I hadn’t noticed any neighborhood dogs or small children disappearing). I never dreamed the art of making drums was practiced only a few doors down.
In another neighborhood, a few blocks from our current residence, I lived across a small ravine from a house full of students. They were usually a quite bunch but at the end of every semester they had a great party. It shook our windows and kept us up all night—or at least as long as they were up. But since it happened only three times a year, I absolutely enjoyed it. I could feel the relief of classes ended, another segment of life completed. The evening rose and fell with conversations, then laughter, escalating to howling and finally calming to quiet conversation again. The whole process took about six hours. We learned to go with the flow and participate vicariously from the other side of the ravine.
When I first moved in my current house I quickly installed a hammock among the many trees. My daughter was eleven or so and had a friend over one day to occupy a lazy summer afternoon. Our neighbors (whom I hadn’t met) had their upstairs windows open to the breeze. I was enjoying the sound of two young girls giggling in the hammock. They weren’t loud at all. Then I heard the neighbor shout something at them and went to discover that he had told them to be quiet. To stop all sound. To stop being children. I was sad for him and, yes, a little irritated too that he did not find pleasure in the sound of innocence. He slammed his window shut and we went for ice cream. His irritation over what was pleasurable for me seemed an interesting comment on attitudes about life.
Once or twice, when I’ve been awake at three in the morning, I’ve heard the whine of a motorcycle going way too fast down Thirty-Eighth Street. As the sound really opens up I am transported by the sensations of speed and wind in my face. For those few moments I am flying.
The giggles of little girls. The music of the night. The bustle of people living. The dog howling at the fire engines. The lawn mower trimming rows of green. The hey, hi, hello, howdy of acquainted souls. The car doors and house doors of entrances and exits. The beat of different drummers. A call to a pet. A baby being sung to sleep. These and more are the sounds of a community—the vibration of a neighborhood. They connect us all in a profound web of interactivity. But only if you are still enough to listen.
To all my neighbors, thank you. Thank you for providing this wonderful web of life.