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Do I hear an urban symphony?

One woman’s quest for peace and quiet

6 minute read
Once on a fine spring day when I lived on narrow little Brandywine Street in downtown Philadelphia and there was somehow a momentary pause in the continuous screech of the city, I heard a mockingbird sing. Loud and clear he trilled, chirped, buzzed and warbled through a fabulous repertoire of other birds' calls, without stopping for a breath. A pure and wild sound, rare enough anywhere, and a first for me. My heart stopped to listen.

I had always loved how Burl Ives sang "Listen to the Mockingbird," an old folk song Wikipedia says was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln and was first published in Philadelphia. Alas, there was there no "peace and goodwill/ when you wake up in the morning to the mockingbird's trill" on Brandywine Street, because the competing sounds of car doors and burglar alarms drove the bird away. I listened hard but I knew I would never hear him again.

Indeed, he never returned because there was never silence on Brandywine Street. Every morning my neighbors seemed to get in and out of their cars several times before they finally drove off to work. In the winter I could pull the pillow over my ears, but in warm weather, with the windows open, I could hear every sound.

Under my bedroom

Slam! They were in. Then engine started up and exhaust fumes rose into my third-story bedroom. Slam! The driver, impossible to tell who from my high viewpoint, exited the vehicle— yes, here I want to sound like a cop— and returned to her house, slamming the house door. Forgot something? Yes, coffee mug. Slam slam! Rev motor, back up, ease forward, then return to space, exit again for briefcase. Slamslamslam.

To be fair, this was only weekdays, and not every single car on the entire block went through this routine every single morning. But the ones that did always seemed to park under me. As writer who worked at home, I was trapped in a special boom box.

The slams might coalesce into the percussion section, not unlike a high school band practicing a new work by one of those modern composers like John Cage or worse. By 9 a.m. my block was quiet enough that I could hear the constant background thrum of traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway, punctuated by oboe honks of geese wheeling around the tall apartment buildings and the occasional screams of ambulances rushing broken bodies to hospital.

Those weekend car alarms


Weekends on the block, the wind section took their places. On Fridays, drivers found spots on Brandywine Street, set their car alarms and vanished for the weekend. Burglars might not penetrate their cars, but like devilish orchestra conductors they started up the bells and whistles and sirens that echoed off the brick walls of our attached roughhouses. All weekend, random throbs and howls, the sounds of pain and death and danger, bounced from one wall to the other, a cacophonous chorus no closed windows could block out.

I begged the police to release the hoods and disconnect the wires from the batteries. But they refused, because cars are protected private property. My ears, apparently, were not.

Did the cars' batteries ever run down? Even after 36 hours, the alarms still howled.

To add insult to injury, when the owners returned, they seemed pleased to hear their alarms keeping their property safe. They switched off the noise and drove away. Yes, drove away. They didn't even live in our neighborhood.

Moving 2,000 miles away

So there were never any more mockingbirds on that block of Brandywine Street, but plenty of gnashed teeth. Did it help to move 2,000 miles away to a private acre in a canyon in New Mexico? No. Like a giant eardrum, the canyon walls reverberated with the sounds my neighbors generated. One loved her operas, speakers full blast on her veranda. I don't love opera any more.

I heard a distant rooster, but too distant to mind. Sometimes a horse whinnied like a bagpipes' squeeze, but no more than once. When a family of soprano coyotes called faintly from a mountainside, another neighbor's dogs began their vigorous response, igniting dogs up and down the canyon. Enthusiastic as gospel singers, they could sustain long stanzas of high-energy barking, then pause to listen for the coyotes. I'd think: At last she took the damn dogs in. Surely they have got sore throats by now. Soon they will, they must die of exhaustion.

I was certainly dying of exhaustion. But no, long-lasting as a car battery, the dogs would start up again, now seeking instead of threatening their raison d'être, those sopranos. The neighbor told me their owner liked the dogs' noise because it kept the burglars away. I lay awake plotting how I to murder them with bowls of deadly antifreeze or tasty Decon morsels tossed over her fence.

My California neighbors

Now I live in a town as far west of Brandywine Street as you can get and keep your toes out of the Pacific Ocean. On this block the houses are too small for families with dreaded teenager music and the few teeny dogs who ever bark are whisked inside. My neighbors are mostly quiet and considerate. Mostly.

Even here, one grown lad still lives at home, and on a summer afternoon when all my windows are open he practices crashing sounds on his drum set loud enough to put my teeth on edge. His family must love him dearly.

Another neighbor warms up his truck every morning, although the temperature is already 60 degrees and no engine built after 1980 needs warming up. I want to holler at him, it's not even good for the engine. But I don't say anything because I am fond of him, so I just pick up the morning paper while his exhaust emits undigested hydrocarbons, helping to melt the icecap. At least he doesn't slam the door.

While she lay dying

Could be a lot worse. Steve, for instance, a former neighbor who lived right next door to him and considered himself a very paragon of good manners, refused to turn down the radio in his back yard while the truck driver's wife was dying of cancer at home just 20 feet away— and did die shortly after. Yes, this lovely Steve also bragged to me that he had shot 11 mockingbirds one spring because their singing kept him awake. He hung their bodies on his orange tree, he said.

Eleven birds.

But he couldn't kill them all. Every spring when another mockingbird arrives with his mate to sing the livelong day, I feel quite certain they've flown all the way from Brandywine Street to sing for me. Or was that first song on Brandywine Street an invitation to follow him? It's all music to my ears.


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