Urban Soundscapes

Graphic by Kathryn Rile

The sound starts up around midnight, rising from the park. It slices through the late summer chorus of crickets and tree frogs like a deranged soprano. Is it a monster? Is something being killed? Up and down Shawnee Street, windows light up. Dogs are going crazy. Our terrier growls and postures, ready to defend his family. “Do you hear it?” texts the woman across the street. “It’s back.”

The first night, we thought someone was being attacked in the woods. Our 911 call brought sirens and circling choppers overhead, followed by sweet relief. We figured whatever crime it was had stopped. Until it started up the next night. And the next.

The sound was discussed by daylight. Someone pointed out that if citizens were being flayed alive regularly in Pastorius Park, we would have probably read about it in the Inquirer by now. Someone else remembered seeing an owl flying near the bird sanctuary. So, perhaps we were hearing the agony of small rodents in their death throes. Nature, red in tooth and claw. We briefly suspected our Siamese cat, who has been known to leave furry, decapitated offerings on the doormat. But the next night, there was the sound again. And here was the cat, crouching innocently beside us in the moonlit hallway, his whiskers twitching. Listening.

Enough of this. We grabbed flashlights and flung open the back door. Moist, dark air enveloped us, flooding the cracks of our imaginations. Crickets screamed at us from the shrubbery. A giant moth slammed kamikaze against the window. And then there was awful sound. Like some hybrid human-animal, or possibly a winged dragon. As we reconsidered our burst of courage, the terrier darted between our legs, yipping heroically into the night, his white tail flashing at the edge of the woods. Come back, come back, we whistled, quite relieved when the dog made an uncharacteristically obedient retreat to the safety of our waiting arms.

By coincidence, that same moment, in her own kitchen in an apartment on the other side of the city, my oldest daughter sends me a midnight email. She writes that she’d thought her neighbors were watching a horror movie until she heard, “baby, baby, baby” in those insistent, recognizable tones, and realized that the screams of terror are actually James Brown. Sounds are not always what they seem. Are the rumbling motorcycles and sirens coming from the street below, or from a very loud TV? In this “boundary-less urban aural life,” she writes, other people’s dense and inscrutable lives float unbidden in and out of her head, and mine.

We can’t control the soundscape. Sound is more democratic than sight, which panders to the wealthy with their lush plantings and heightened views. But, rich and poor, we all experience the velvety swoosh of traffic in the rain, the drone of leaf blowers, the rattle of that loose manhole cover near the intersection, the groan of garbage trucks, the jaw-clenching cacophony of someone else’s kid’s garage band. In my neighborhood, we wake, too early, to chirping from the bird sanctuary in the park. We all hear the R8 train whistle, the playground shrieks, the firecrackers, car alarms, and those crazy, maddening, beating police helicopters that circle our backyards on weekend nights. When a klezmer band performs in the park, we hear that too. Some of us dance to the music; some of us cringe until it’s over. Like it or not, we live inside a complex aural neighborhood, and if you listen hard enough, you can feel your neighbors listening back.

When my younger daughter was seven, her violin teacher said, drolly, “If you practice these etudes long enough, your neighbors will all put their houses on the market.” (Sure enough, within a few years, the houses on both sides of us were sold.) Ten years later, as she she struggled to record her Paganini caprice for a college audition, the police choppers kept swooping in overhead on one of their mysterious dragnets, spoiling the sound in the final seconds of each take. Finally, she sent the conservatory a recording “with helicopter.” She got in.

Now that she’s away at college, my unconscious ear longs for the sound of her practicing. I hear her Mozart in the familiar crescendo of cicadas and in the hum a neighbor’s backyard saw.  Like everyone else, my mind is always searching for what for what I’ve lost, and what I love, and what I fear.

By cosmic irony, when we wake the next morning, we find our car window smashed, the driveway sparkling with broken glass, and a laptop gone. The police tell us that thieves come silently through the woods; they muffle the sound of breaking windows with blankets, grab, and run. While we were imagining a terrible creature in Pastorius Park, the real threat was close and quiet. And the monstrous cry at night? Weeks later we pieced it together: a red fox in heat. Someone sighted her crossing the road at twilight; someone else spotted her trotting through the park at dusk; then we matched her cry on YouTube. Native to our region, yet unknown here during recent generations, our collective ear had forgotten the fox’s mournful voice and replaced her memory with a nightmare. Sounds aren’t always what they seem.
This essay appeared in a slightly shorter form in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 9, 2012