Up the Valley: Noises Off

May 16, 2013

When getting hammered with the neighbors is not a good thing…today’s column in the Star!

One of my neighbors is a candidate for sainthood; specifically, as the patron saint of unemployed contractors. I call her: Our Lady of Perpetual Construction.

No further need have I for the sound-soother alarm clock, which used to gently wrest me from slumber each morning to the artificially-engineered chirping of birds and chiming of church bells from some faraway land. For the better part of the past three years, I have been reliably snapped into consciousness at 7:59:59 a.m. (or a tad earlier if the coast is clear) by teams of roofers and electricians and carpenters and handypersons revving up the jackhammers and firing up the electric saws.

Occupying the lower decibel levels are the landscapers who scratch-scratch-scratch at the soil and heave heavy bags of mulch with loud grunts, all while conducting constant, energetic conversations in Spanish. This band of botherers tends the land just over my fence all day, most every day, as if it were a sprawling multi-acre estate instead of a modest ranch house with detached structures in a seemingly constant state of evolution.

There have been periods of respite, particularly in winter, and so each morning I awake in anticipation of the first noise and wonder — is today the day when silence will be the only sound? Has she run out of money or ideas or permits yet? And what’s her secret for getting these contractors to show up, when I still can’t get my gate fixed by the guy who built it three years ago?

Last summer, Our Lady’s industry apparently inspired the adjacent school to undertake companion construction, the two teams hammering out a symphonic summer duet of daily blasting, grinding and sawing. The projects became so aurally intertwined that it’s certain Our Lady unfairly took the blame for sounds emanating from projects not her own — but then martyrdom is all part of the being-a-saint package.

On frequent summer evenings, Our Lady celebrates her construction achievements with a lively well-attended pool party. They feature an amplified stereo system blaring techno music with a throbbing bass beat that makes my windows vibrate as my eardrums expand and contract — the kind of boom-boom-boom you hear for hours after the music actually ends.

Still, while I would ban the bass, I have come to enjoy these parties vicariously. Our Lady hangs lovely strings of light in the trees alongside whimsical windsocks that catch the breeze; possibly to summons the spirits of ghostly contractors past. It’s quite sweet to hear the sound of children swimming and splashing and shouting over the music (although I do wonder how their little eardrums hold up). The festivities usually end at a decent hour, and there is a palpable ebb and flow as the party winds down, the sound of child’s play replaced by the comforting murmur of slightly-groggy grown-up conversation and camaraderie.

I was sitting at my backyard table trying to entertain my own guests one evening, when a friend commented on the over-the-fence festivities. “This sounds just like your New York apartment,” she screamed, so that she might be heard over the din. And she was right; my Upper West Side garden apartment was always surrounded by a cacophony of sound: Salsa music, honking horns, heavily-accented voices shouting, punctuated by impromptu singing and sporadic laughter coming from busy Columbus Avenue and Broadway nearby. This was a major improvement over the sounds streaming from the air vents in my prior Hell’s Kitchen apartment: constant police sirens, and screaming fights between hookers and drug dealers, all set to the gentle clip-clop of exhausted carriage horses returning to their stables for the evening.

There is something comforting about hearing other people happily residing nearby; a reminder that you are alive on a populated planet, not alone out in the country where you might be devoured by mountain lions or by zombies with no one to hear your screams.

But after a few years of construction, the ear becomes over-sensitized and the nerves hair-triggered, such that even moderate noises disturb to a degree totally out of proportion to their decibel level. There is some reason for hope — although not that the construction will ever end — Our Lady’s neighbors have abandoned that dream. I find in general that the more I know and like the source of noise, the less I hear it. I am determined to get to know Our Lady better, and find that the more I do, the less I hear “noise” and the more I hear “neighbor.”

We all have our particular sound peeves: leaf blowers, barking dogs, fire alarm sirens, audible chewing, crying babies on airplanes and fancy restaurants, cell phone conversations in closed spaces, or even the tone of a particular Vice Presidential candidate’s voice. I used to loathe the loud, rhythmic rumbling of my older dog snoring, so reminiscent of a revving-up racecar. But now that it’s the only sound the little guy can make, I find it comforting to hear.

Which proves, I suppose, that annoying noise is entirely in the ear of the beholder.

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