August 7, 2005
"NOISE, n. A stench in the ear. Undomesticated music. The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization." –Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
I’m excited to be visiting Bellingham this weekend, if for no other reason than I finally got one and one-thirds’ decent night’s sleep. Between my collapsing IKEA bed with its 6-inch mattress, Stinkē’s frequent cries for attention, and my stress-induced insomnia, I’ve been sleeping about eight hours a week, rather than eight hours a night. Oh yeah—and did I mention the noise?
If you’ve ever seen the Baz Luhrmann production of Romeo and Juliet—the one with Leo di Caprio and Claire Danes set in Los Angeles—you’ve had a sound bite of my life in the city, except without the iambic pentameter. In Bellingham, the whiz of helicopter blades meant that someone was being rescued by the Coast Guard out on the bay or St. Joe’s was transporting a patient to Seattle via medivac—and in either case, there was a solid chance you either knew the victim or had heard the story from a friend on the BFD. In LA, helicopters are as ubiquitous as drunk people pushing shopping carts…
…And I still haven’t acclimated to the sound of their whirring blades overhead. I awake almost nightly to sirens screeching down Sunset Boulevard, followed by the echo of news copters. I got out of bed Tuesday at one a.m., roused by sirens and choppers, and turned on the news, expecting to find reports of a plane crash on Hollywood Blvd. But there was nothing but the “ordinary” programming—half-hour infomercials for Girls Gone Wild videos and re-runs of shit like Logan’s Run and 21 Jump Street.
The worse noise I’ve encountered has been the cacophony that erupts above my head nightly. At home, my neighbor was a sweet and thoughtful woman who rarely flushed her toilet after ten p.m. Oh, there were those weeks she clunked around on crutches, but she was recovering from foot surgery, for God’s sake, and it was conscientious clunking. I could sense she was making an effort to move as infrequently as possible. Here, the anonymity of living amongst 3.8 million people gives my neighbors license, apparently, to conduct themselves like complete assholes.
I could live with a loud stereo or the occasional reverberations of a drum set. But the sheer randomness of the noise upstairs reminds me of those psychological experiments where rats were driven bonkers by unpredictable stimuli. A person could habituate to, say, a half-hour riff on an electric guitar at 6 p.m. every night, or wall-pounding sex on Thursdays at ten. But my neighbors in apartment 501 are completely unknowable. Some days, I hear nothing. Other times—and I so wish I were making this up—they are vacuuming at three o’clock in the morning.
And then there’s the hammering, which has made me go all Veronica Mars on them. Who are these people that must hammer stuff at two a.m.? I’m scared to turn them in to the management—they know where I live, after all—and I’d rather sleuth around for awhile myself before tattling to the landlord. WWVD? I’d like to think she’d be sensible and call the cops the next time it sounded like bodies were being tossed around, but that wouldn’t get great ratings. Besides, a complaint about a noisy neighbor would never make it through LAPD triage. Unless there’s a hostage situation, or a scenario equally likely to get good news coverage, the LA cops aren’t coming to my house.
Veronica would definitely go for something with more visual appeal—more dramatic attention. Something that would appeal to the demographic. She would creep around and take photos with her state-of-the-art digital camera with the wide-angle lens, for example, and she’d probably use her connections with the sheriff’s department to identify the offenders and torment them with late-night phone calls or unsolicited Chinese food delivery. There’s a good chance she’d assume a fake accent or dress up in costume or some other crazy shit that people on TV are always doing. The only person I know who’s done either (actually, both) with any success is my friend Ryan. Need a friend to act as the concierge at the Icicle Inn in Leavenworth? He’s your man. Unfortunately, he’s not here to help me, so I can’t hire him to pose as an Austrian pizza boy and send upstairs to check out the floor-pounders.
I’m terrible with accents, and all my good dress-up clothes are stowed in a tightly sealed box in the back of my laundry closet in Fairhaven, so I’m out of luck as far as those options go. The best I can do is sneak around, hope to catch a glimpse of the noisemakers, leave falsified “letters from the management” taped to their door, and hope for the best. I did creep up to the fifth floor a couple of times hoping for a sighting, but saw nothing. I paused in front of their door long enough to realize that 1) they hadn’t installed a reverse-fisheye-peep hole à la Cosmo Kramer, and 2) now they know who I am, so further surveillance efforts are heretofore risky and stupid. I’m back to sleeping with my headphones on and returning to Bellingham for a solid night’s sleep when I can afford it.
Which I got, mostly, this weekend. I spent the weekend in my real house in Bellingham with two-thirds of my lifelong gang of gal pals—6 of the 9 women with whom I’ve had a sisterly relationship with for going on 28 years. And the sound effects were fabulous. I can’t imagine a life without Carol’s laugh or Michelle’s drama or Sheri’s calculator or the peace of Dana’s quiet, stoic voice, or the sound of Susan scrubbing something. Sorry to wax all corny on you, but I cherish this family, and I wouldn’t trade all the Hilary Swanks or Steve Guttenbergs in the world for the connection we have.
Despite the lack of sleep and the craziness of L.A. noise, there are sounds there I will welcome when I return tomorrow to my temporary Hollywood home. Waking up to Johnny Cash in my CD-alarm clock, singing “Ring of Fire,” the cha-ching of the cash register at the bookstore downstairs, Stinkee’s howls for attention, the dee-da-la-dee-da-la-dee of my cell phone, delivering a voice from Bellingham or Boise, Lake Samish or Lynnwood. Bright Eyes’ “Road to Joy,” –no matter who’s singing it--the sound of the fountain and the rustling bamboo in the courtyard outside my bedroom. And, perhaps most of all, the whirring of the engines and the clunk of retracting wheels as flight 411 lifts off the Burbank tarmac, into the sky, away from the strangers, and back here, to the only home I’ll ever really love.