Some time ago I wrote about smiles as a metric for comparing places. There are other ways, as I noted then, of evaluating cities, a skill I have been practicing. While smiles and population numbers, frequency of restaurants and friendliness to cyclists are counted by their occurrence, many things are noticeable most in absence. Sounds are one such, something I evaluate early on in any relationship, wandering with no iPod or phone, no companion or destination. The true sounds of a place, though, sneak up on the inhabitant until they are integral to the location, and can only be pointed out by their absurdity, by an unaccustomed observer, or by their sudden lack.
In Saitama I would wake to the sounds of campaign trucks carting advertisements and megaphones through voting neighborhoods. They cut through the dawn, blaring promises, slogans, and, most importantly, the candidates name. Like most, I found them harsh, and not likely to induce support. In Shanghai I woke to the call of the repair man pedaling past on his three-wheeled cart, ready to fix or recycle. TV, air conditioner, microwave, washing machine, he would cry, often via recording as well. His laundry list of products fixable was more gentle than the bullish Japanese projection. In terms of bullhorn use, of recordings made predictable by repetition, residential Japan wore worse on the ears, and on the hours of morning sleep.
Shanghai had more to battle with, noises unique and unexpected, incessant and startlingly odd. Many days I woke to sounds of neighbor’s squabbles, leaning out my balcony as they swelled into neighborhood entertainment, with ten to twenty people crowded around yelling their opinion until the police arrived, or did not. Shanghai countered also with construction, on the gigantic scale of skyscraper erection and the personal scale of toilet decimation. These intruded late at night, early in the morning, and all hours in between. With drilling, banging, pounding, yelling, and the occasional rooster placed outside my door, Shanghai took Saitama easily in the noise contest. Yet despite these chaotic interactions I had not yet learned how loud an intrusion neighbors could make, how constant the interruption. Houston taught me that, in a house set far from the street, and made me miss both Shanghai’s cycling recycler and Yono’s pre-paid campaign driver. For the first time I could tell the story of the rooster morning with a face that said, well, it wasn’t so bad.
Now, again alone in a house ten thousand feet up the mountains of Colorado, I wake to other sounds. Wind and birds dominate, the only other constant the fridge’s welcome hum, far louder than I would have guessed from my memories of houses with similar machines. In cities fridges are quiet things, not banging or barking, whizzing by with sirens or yelling at each other. In the wilderness, far removed from other humans, the fridge becomes a loud acknowledgment of electricity’s presence, of machinery and civilization’s reach. Here, the only things louder are the occasional bird crashing into the window, the even rarer ring of the telephone, and the bellows of the cows that graze the hill. The only noise to conquer the house from without comes in the storms that sweep over the mountains and across North Park, lighting everything with haphazard flashes. Their coming is both beautiful and easily anticipated, and they startle not my sleep. It is not a city, and the people nearby are few. Of all things that I notice, the absence of their sounds contrasts the most.