Charles Johnson’s new neighbors had hardly settled in when all hell broke loose — or so it seemed.
A new Rasmussen Reports survey finds that 69 percent of Americans think their fellow countrymen are becoming more rude and less civilized. Men are much more likely than women to have confronted someone over their rude behavior, though more women than men think sales and service personnel are more rude than they were a decade ago. Adults over age fifty are more likely than their younger counterparts to think it is rude for someone sitting next to them in public to talk on their cellphone.
“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange I am ungrateful to those teachers.” —Kahlil Gibran
The trouble started on a late afternoon in September. It was around 6 p.m., and I was sitting under one of the trees in my backyard, watching a brace of pigeons splash wildly around in our stone bird bath, beneath which a stone head of the Buddha rose up from the grass. My dog Nova, a West Highland white terrier, rested peacefully nearby. I’ve always loved this hour of the day, when the spill of late afternoon light, so ethereal, filtered through old-growth trees in Wedgwood, a neighborhood of gentle hills and slopes at the edge of strip malls, burger joints, auto dealers, and Rick’s topless nightclub in Lake City. But here you never felt you were in a big city—with all those big city problems—because before the Second World War this area used to be an orchard filled with more apple, pear, and plum trees than people, and all that lush plumage absorbed the whoosh of traffic on Lake City Way. Here, traffic moved along at thirty miles an hour. Years ago, it was outside the city limits, and so mailboxes were not attached to our houses but instead were out on the street, which had no sidewalks. It’s been called a “Prunes and Raisins” neighborhood, but don’t ask me why. All I know is that the spirit of place in Wedgwood (named after the English china), where I’ve lived for half my life, was that of a quiet, hidden oasis within Seattle, inhabited mainly by older, retired people like myself who all owned dogs, and quite a few college professors since it was only two miles from the University of Washington. A wonderful place, if you enjoyed walking. But here and there things had begun to change. Younger people were moving in, and some years ago the police raided a home that someone had turned into a meth lab. Yet and still, violence in Wedgwood was rare.
So that afternoon, I sat in a lazy lotus posture under an evergreen tree, the forefingers on each hand tipped against my thumbs, thinking about images from a new poem, “The Ear Is an Organ Made for Love,” I’d received via email from my friend Ethelbert Miller. Behind me, floating on an almost hymnal silence, a few soothing notes sounded from the wood chimes hanging from my house, accompanied by bird flutter and the rustle of leaves at about ten decibels. Up above, the light seemed captured in cloud pluffs, which looked luminous, as if they held candles within. The soughing of the wind in the trees was like rushing water. I began to slowly drift into meditation, hoping today would bring at least a tidbit of spiritual discovery, but no sooner than I’d closed my eyes and felt the outside world fall away, the air was shattered by a hair-raising explosion of music booming from stereo speakers somewhere nearby, like a clap of thunder or a volcano exploding. Now, I love music, especially soft jazz, but only at certain, special hours of the day. This was heavy metal techno-pounding at 120 decibels, alternating with acid rock, and sprinkled with gangster rap that sounded to my ear like rhymed shouting. And it did rock—and shock—the neighborhood with a tsunami of inquietude. Its energy was five billion times greater than that from the wood chimes. It compressed the air around me and clogged my consciousness. I looked at Nova, and behind his quiet, blackberry eyes he seemed to be thinking, “What is that, boss?”
“Our new neighbors,” I said. “We haven’t introduced ourselves to them yet, but I guess they’re having a party.”
You have to understand, I talk to my dog all the time, which is better than talking to myself and being embarrassed if someone caught me doing that, and he never says a word back, which is no doubt one of the reasons why people love dogs.
One or two hours went by, and we listened helplessly as the exhausting, emotionally draining sound yeasted to 130 decibels, moving in concentric spheres from my neighbor’s place, covering blocks in every direction like smog or pollution or an oil spill, and just as toxic and rude, as enveloping and inescapable as the Old Testament voice of God when He was having a bad day. And now, suddenly, I was having a bad day. This was exactly the opposite of the tranquillity I wanted, but there was no escaping the bass beat that reverberated in my bones, the energy of the shrill profanity and angry lyrics as they assaulted the penetralia of my eardrums, traveling down to the tiny, delicate hairs of the cochlea, and from there to the sensitive, sympathetic nervous system that directed the tremors straight into my brain. Unlike an unpleasant vision, from which I could turn away or close my eyes, wave upon wave of oscillations passed right through my hands when I held them against the sides of my head. The music, if I may call it that, was intrusive, infectious, wild, sensual, pagan, orgasmic, jangling, indecent, and filled me with foreign emotions not of my own making, completely overwhelming and washing away my thoughts and the silent, inner speech we all experience when our soul talks to itself.
I no longer recognized Wedgwood as my neighborhood. All its virtues—the magnificent views of Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountain Range, its old world charm—had vanished, and I felt as if I’d been suddenly teleported to Belltown at 11 on a Saturday night. I wondered if the Generation X new arrivals knew how fragile our ears are, and how many scientific studies indicated that noise pollution interfered with learning, lowered math and reading scores, and was responsible for high blood pressure, dry mouth, blindness, muscular contractions, neurosis, heart disease, peptic ulcers, constipation, premature ejaculation, reduced libido, insomnia, congenital birth defects, and even death.
Now darkness had fallen, but still the pulsions continued across the street, surrounding my house like a hand squeezing a wineglass on the verge of shattering. My ears felt like they wanted to bleed. And only heaven knows how Nova was feeling, since his hearing was four times more sensitive than mine. I shook my head at the thought of what a dangerously noisy species we humans are with our clanking, humming, churning machinery and motorcars, our loud music and household appliances with their anapestic beat, and fire sirens wailing. Walking into the house, I saw my wife coming down the stairs, wearing her round reading glasses and looking dazed. At sixty-two, she was slightly hard of hearing in one ear, but the stramash had shaken her and made her feel exiled from the familiar, too. She started shutting all our windows. But that didn’t help. The sound curdled the air inside our house, and her sore ears were burning as badly as mine. From the porch we could see cars lining the street, beer cans thrown into the bushes, and from our neighbor’s property there wafted pungent clouds of Purple Haze and Hawaii Skunk marijuana.
“I was reading the Book of Psalms in bed,” my wife said, “but I couldn’t concentrate with all that noise. What do you think we should do?”
“Oh, no!” she said. Unlike Nova, she did talk back to me. “They’re just kids. We were kids once, remember?” Then suddenly her lips pouted and she looked hurt. “Why are you shouting at me?”
“Was I shouting?”
“Yes,” she said. “You were yelling at me.”
I didn’t realize how much I’d raised my voice in order to be heard over the mind-blinding music blaring outside—she was, after all, only two feet away from me. Or that the noise, despite all my decades of spiritual practice, could so quickly make me feel spent and flammable and reveal an irascible side of me to my wife neither of us had seen in forty years of marriage. I was no longer myself, though I suspected this was a teachable moment, as politicians say, and there was a lesson to be learned here but, so help me, I just wasn’t getting it. I apologized to my wife.
I knew she was right, as usual. We shouldn’t call the police. This was a difficult situation that had to be handled with delicacy, but I was confident that I could be as magnanimous and civilized as any post-Enlightenment, Western man who had control over himself after thirty years of meditation on his mushroom-shaped cushion. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t try to escape for awhile. I decided this was a good time to go shopping. I stepped outside, where the rough, pounding sound almost knocked me to my knees. The traumatizing waves were so thick I felt I was moving through a haze of heat, or underwater. I wondered, who are these rude people? These invaders? I strapped Nova into my Jeep Wrangler and, with my wife’s list of groceries in the hip pocket of my jeans—milk, canned vegetables, paper towels, a chocolate cake to celebrate the birthday of one of her friends at Mount Zion Baptist Church, and dog treats— we fled into the night, or more precisely, to the QFC on 35th Avenue.
As the Doppler effect kicked in, as I put half a mile between myself and ground zero, as the pitch declined, I felt less agitated, though there was a slight ringing and seashell sound in my ears, lingering like a low-grade fever. For all the discomfort I was feeling, I also felt something else: namely, how sound and silence, so universal in our lives as to normally be ignored, were profound mysteries I’d never properly understood or respected until now when the absence of one and the presence of the other was so badly disrupting my life.
Compared to my street, the supermarket, surrounded by eateries and ale houses, was mercifully quiet. I went down the aisles, collecting items we needed, remembering that just one month ago a QFC employee charged with domestic violence for choking his mother unconscious was killed in this supermarket when he fought the police who came to arrest him. I kept thinking, as I picked items off the shelves, Are those vibes still in this store? (You can probably tell I came of age in the sixties.) I dismissed that thought, and then stood patiently in the checkout line behind five other customers, one being a plump, elderly woman with frosted hair who, of course, had to pay by writing a check, which seemed to take forever. I swear, I think she was balancing her checking account or calculating her quarterly taxes, there at the front of the line. I could imagine her drinking a hot cup of Ovaltine before going to bed and having ninety-seven cats in her midcentury Wedgwood home. I kept wondering why someone didn’t call for another cashier—or even better, two—to handle this line of people backed up into the aisles. Finally, after ten minutes it was my turn. The cashier was a genial young man whose eyes behind his wire-framed glasses looked glazed from ringing up so many customers, but he was trying to be cheerful. He took my QFC Advantage card, and said, “So how is your day going?”
Usually, I enjoy chatting with people behind the cash register, finding out a little about their lives, letting them know they’re people in my community I care about and not just faceless objects to me. I try to be patient, reciting my mantra if I have a long wait in a public place. But right then I said, in spite of myself, “What the hell do you care?”
That reply shocked him as much as it did me. I tried to recover. I said, “Sorry! I didn’t mean that. I think I’m vibrating too fast.”
He cut his eyes my way. “Excuse me?”
“Long story. Never mind.”
“You want paper or plastic?”
My voice slipped a scale. “Paper… please.”
That would prove to be a mistake.
I hurried out of QFC, pushing my little gray cart with four bags of groceries as quickly as I could, and stopped at Rite-Aid across the street to buy earplugs for my wife and myself. It was now 9:30 p.m. Driving home, I was praying the neighbor’s party was over, but to my surprise, yet somehow not to my surprise, I felt—even though my ears were plugged—the density in the air before I heard the humping arcs still flooding the neighborhood like a broken water main. Even worse, when I downshifted into my driveway, I had to hit the brakes because another car was parked in my space. My neighbor’s guests had filled the street with their vehicles. The one in my driveway, a Chevrolet Blazer, had a skull-and-bones decal in the back window, and under that a bumper sticker that said, “You Can Kiss The Crack Below My Back.” My first impulse was to let the air out of its tires, but then realized that would only keep it in my driveway longer.
So I parked two blocks away. I looped Nova’s nylon leash around my left wrist, loaded up my arms as high as my chin with four heavy bags of food, and started tramping slowly uphill back to my house. That’s when fat raindrops began to fall. By the time I was thirty feet from my front door, the paper bags were soaking wet and falling apart. Ten feet from the door, Nova realized we were almost home. He sprang for the steps—Westies hate to get wet—and that snapped my left arm straight out, which sent cans of sliced pineapples, soup, and tomatoes, bottles of maple syrup and milk, and bags of raisins, potatoes, and rice cascading back down the declivity, littering the street like confetti or a landfill. For the longest time, I stood there, head tipped and sopping wet, watching my neighbor’s guests flee inside to escape the rain, lost in the whorl of violent, invisible vibrations, and I was disabused forever of the vanity that three decades of practicing meditation had made me too civilized, too cultivated, too mellow to be vulnerable to or victimized by fugitive thoughts—anger, desire, self-pity, pettiness—triggered in me from things outside. These would always arise, I saw, even without noise pollution.
Then, all at once, the loud music stopped.
Dragging my dog behind me, I slogged across the street, so tired I couldn’t see straight. I climbed my new neighbor’s stairs, and banged my fist on the front door. After a moment it opened, and standing there with a can of Budweiser in his right hand was possibly the most physically fit young man I’d ever seen. I placed his age at thirty. Maybe thirty-five. In other words, he was young enough to be my son. His short hair was a military buzz cut, his T-shirt olive-colored, his ears large enough for him to wiggle if he wanted to, like President Obama’s, and on his arm I saw a tattoo for the Fourth Brigade of the Second Infantry Division he’d served with at Fort Lewis-McChord. He looked me up and down as I stood dripping on his doorstep, and politely said:
“Yes, sir? Can I help you?”
“We need to talk,” I said.
He squinted his eyes as if trying to read my lips. Then he put one hand behind his ear like an old, old man who’d lost his hearing aid, or someone who’d been a blacksmith all his life. “What did you say, sir?”
I was less than a foot away from him. I felt like I was coming to from a dream. A profound sadness swept over me, dousing my anger, for I understood the unnecessary tragedy of tinnitus in someone so young. His was maybe the result of a recent tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, perhaps from an IED. I felt humbled. I did not judge him or myself now, because he had taught me how to listen better. I gestured with one finger held up for him to wait a moment, and went back into the downpour. On the street, I found what I was looking for, grateful that its plastic lid had kept it from being ruined by the rain. I climbed the steps again.
“Thank you,” I said, giving him the chocolate cake. “And welcome to Wedgwood.”