One of the first things I had to get used to after moving to Madrid, Spain, was all the noise. Most Spaniards sing, talk, and laugh with abandon, and they rarely shush their children. Walk through the urban barrio where I live, and you’ll hear car horns, jackhammers, kids shrieking in play, emphatic conversations, cellphone ringtones, and the occasional gypsy guitar music drifting from a window.
Growing up in suburban Minneapolis, I rarely heard the domestic life of another household unless I was an invited guest. Now, as I lie in bed in my apartment, I can hear my upstairs neighbors’ footsteps on my ceiling and the hum of after-dinner chatter. The students downstairs are playing hip-hop beats on their electronic keyboard. Through my bedroom wall I can hear the elderly man next door arguing with his caretaker. Once in a while a dog barks in the courtyard outside my window, or my Pakistani neighbor starts singing. I suppose they can hear the goings-on in my apartment, too.
I may no longer have the peace and solitude of my childhood, but at least I’m part of a vibrant, tightly knit community.
My husband put off getting hearing aids for a long time. He insisted he was learning to read lips and that most of what people said wasn’t important anyway. If he just looked interested, smiled, and nodded, he said, they went away happy. But I was tired of turning down the too-loud television, explaining the plots of movies to him, and translating phone messages.
He finally got his hearing tested, and the audiologist fitted him with new digital hearing aids. The next morning we had breakfast with our doors open to the backyard. “What is that horrible squeaky noise coming from outside?” my husband asked. “Is it always like that?”
I listened for a moment, then told him, “Those are birds singing.”
Kathleen Kase Burk
After my partner, Andrea, was diagnosed with pneumonia and stage IV lung cancer at a city hospital, she was given a room in a hospice-care facility. The doctor said she had about seventy-two hours before she would go into a coma and die. Andrea told me she wasn’t ready. She wanted to live to her fiftieth birthday, which was nearly three months away.
Andrea’s condition slowly improved, and after three weeks she was strong enough to go home. I set up a hospital bed in our living room, which had large windows and an abundance of natural light, and I slept on the sofa beside her. Each morning we woke to bird song and the hissing of Andrea’s oxygen machine. She ate less and slept more than usual, but she made it to her fiftieth birthday.
A few days later her condition worsened significantly. A hospice nurse explained to me that as Andrea got closer to death, fluid would build up in her airway, causing the wet respirations known as the death rattle. As distressing as the sound can be, the nurse said, it’s a normal part of dying.
At the end Andrea breathed that way for thirty-six hours. However natural it may be, the sound was torture. It will always haunt me.
Angela M. English
Kingston, New York
It was the early 1990s, and I was on an overnight flight to Santiago, Chile, that got diverted to Argentina. As we deplaned in Buenos Aires, we were told that it would be twelve hours before our flight would resume. To leave the airport would have required an expensive visa fee, so my work colleague and I decided to stick it out in the terminal.
We were surrounded by the sounds of boarding announcements, the whine of careening passenger shuttles, the ebb and flow of human conversation, and the roar of planes taking off outside. Each international gate also had a television tuned to MTV. The lyrics of a hit song by Joan Osborne seemed to fit our predicament: “What if God was one of us / . . . just a stranger on the bus / trying to make his way home?”
When I heard the song twice more within an hour, it dawned on me that the videos were on a twenty-minute loop. By the second hour I no longer felt like a stranger on the bus but rather like the sleep-deprived victim of a vicious ear worm. What if God was one of us, trapped in an airport and forced to listen to the same Joan Osborne song three times an hour for twelve hours straight?
Mercifully the time passed, and we boarded our plane. When we arrived in busy Santiago, the honking cars and rumble of city buses were music to my weary ears.
Our school band director, Mrs. Winthrop, favored the clarinets. The pretty girls who played the flute sat in the front row and also got plenty of her attention. I had wanted to take up the saxophone, because you could sort of dance while you played it, but instead I was the only girl in the trombone section — Mrs. Winthrop’s least favorite. We sat above and behind the saxophones and oboes and our instructor’s beloved clarinets. Our caterwauling often drowned out the woodwinds and made Mrs. Winthrop scowl.
Every time we came to a part in the music that showcased the brass instruments, she would shout, “Too loud, trombones! I can’t hear the clarinets. Do it again, softer this time.”
Finally one day all of us in the section secretly agreed just to move the slides of our instruments but make no sound. When we reached the part that featured the big brass, we mimed our part in perfect rhythm without playing a note. At the end of the song Mrs. Winthrop beamed.
“Trombones, that was perfect!” she said. “You did it exactly right.”
In 1978 I was fifteen and living in upstate New York. My boyfriend, Tommy, and I took long drives at night on back roads, smoking cigarettes or pot, listening to music, and pulling over in secluded places to make out. Sometimes, during hunting season, he’d park the car facing the woods with his high beams on and look for deer. Tommy kept a rifle in the hatchback of his Pinto, but I’d never seen him use it.
One night, after we’d pulled over, Tommy and I started arguing, and I broke up with him. I got out, slammed the door, and began walking back to town on the shoulder of the dark road.
Suddenly I heard a gunshot, so loud I could feel it in my chest. I turned around and saw the car idling with its driver’s-side door and hatch wide open.
Imagining Tommy’s bloodied head lying in pieces all over the road, I panicked and ran away as fast and as far as I could. When I heard a vehicle approach me from behind, I flagged it down, frantically waving my arms. It wasn’t until I looked in through the window that I realized the car was a Pinto and the driver, smiling smugly at me, was Tommy.
Syracuse, New York
My cellmate was transferred on a Friday, and it was unlikely I’d be assigned a new one before Monday. I was looking forward to a weekend with the cell to myself.
An hour and a half later my cell door rattled open, and a disheveled forty-something inmate shuffled in, out of breath and wheezing. He introduced himself as Wally and began to make himself at home, shoving and squeezing his belongings under his bunk. He carelessly dropped some of his things and kicked them around, leaving a mess.
When he tried talking to me, I gave short, noncommittal answers to his questions, but that didn’t stop him from telling me his life story. Finally I announced that I was ready for bed.
“Sure, get some sleep,” he said. “We have all day tomorrow to talk.”
I closed my eyes, thankful for the respite. A few minutes later the snoring started.
Jon Albert Kaspar
My stepfather is a challenging man, stubborn and quick to lose patience. He and I argued more than we got along while I was growing up.
One cold Saturday in 1987, when I was thirteen, I sat alone in his den, surrounded by his books and papers, staring out the window at the frozen St. Croix River. Bored, I phoned my dad to see if he would take me ice-skating. When he answered, he could barely speak. Had I heard the news, he asked. I hadn’t: My stepfather’s two daughters had been in a car accident on their way to compete in a ski race. Lisa, twenty-two, had been killed on impact, and eighteen-year-old Tracy was alive but brain-dead. (She would die the next day.)
I felt as if I were floating from my seat. I had gone through a great deal with my stepsisters. I loved them.
I gave the phone to my mother, who couldn’t believe what my father was telling her. She kept denying it was true.
Then my stepfather came home. I don’t remember why he’d been out on a Saturday. I know only that he walked in smiling, briefcase in hand, and without warning I told him about the accident. Not wanting to see his reaction, I ran downstairs to my room and sat on the edge of my bed, holding my head and rocking. I felt like I was going to throw up.
From upstairs I heard a sound that would forever change how I perceived my stepfather. It started as a slow moan and rose to a howl. Even with my hands covering my ears, I could hear it: the keening of a proud, stubborn man broken by grief. I removed my hands to listen closer. His cries revealed a tender, vulnerable side of him that I had never known existed.
As a graduate student in occupational health, I researched safer methods of abrasive blasting on construction sites. One hot summer day, wearing a protective suit, goggles, earplugs, a hard hat, and a respirator, I observed five workers as they removed peeling paint from the Tobin Bridge in Boston. They were using hoses that shot tiny steel pellets at high pressure — an alternative to sandblasting. The roar of steel against steel was as loud as a jet engine. I felt pummeled by the noise and couldn’t believe anyone could tolerate it for more than a few minutes. The workers, each suited up with a breathing apparatus, face mask, and ear protection, communicated using sign language.
Later, when I asked the five men what they liked and didn’t like about their jobs, their answers surprised me. They were proud of their work and liked that their respiratory protective gear allowed them to stay cool. They disliked when the foreman, in a hurry to get home, locked the trailers before they could take their legally mandated showers after work. On such occasions they would have to go home to their families with lead-contaminated dust on them. They didn’t like that the lead level in their blood increased due to their own exposure to the dust. Not one of them mentioned the noise.
I am an introvert and lover of any opportunity for silence: meditation, solitude, wilderness hikes, sleep. But my sons are extroverts. At the age of two my oldest would roll down the car window to greet passersby on the sidewalk. At seven he would walk right up to the librarian at the help desk and start chatting about Harry Potter and Batman. My youngest is much like his brother. Together they play, eat, and even bathe boisterously. I am bewildered and exhausted by their constant noise.
Before having children, I’d often go to a quiet coffeehouse on the weekend to write or to read a book, and I relished being snowed in at home. These days my kids get cabin fever quickly and release their pent-up energy by making a racket. I find peace when my children are taking a break from their antics, or late at night, when they’re asleep.
I know that someday I will be able to enjoy long periods of silence once again, but in the meantime, as my sons hurtle toward their teens, I’ve learned to laugh in wonder at a world in which someone like me gives birth to children like them.
Canton, North Carolina
At the baby shower for a co-worker, my officemates and I stood around the conference room, picking at a spread of meatballs, cheese cubes, and pasta salad. Suddenly one of the balloons popped, and I ducked. My officemates, who hadn’t even flinched, laughed. I joked that I was from the ’hood, where you have to take cover when you hear gunshots, and they laughed harder.
I immediately regretted having said it. As the only African American in the office, I often feel that my colleagues don’t know what my world is like outside the workplace.
On my drive home from work each day, the landscape changes from sleek skyscrapers to littered gas-station lots, hair-braiding shops, and check-cashing joints. I live in a one-story fixer-upper in an urban neighborhood where stray dogs roam and people cuss in the streets and disrupt traffic. The area has the highest homicide rate in the city.
I have seen photos of my co-workers’ homes: two-story houses with manicured lawns in suburban communities with walking trails and a swimming pool.
One night, while I was feeding my newborn, I heard several gunshots outside. With my baby in my arms I dropped to my knees and frantically crawled to the back of our house. Later I woke my husband and cried. I feared that a stray bullet would pierce the wall of our children’s room.
I dream of living in a place where a loud popping sound is more likely from an exploding balloon than from a gun.
I was thirty-six and finishing my degree in education when I was diagnosed with auditory-processing disorder, a learning disability that makes it difficult to understand speech. I’d often think I’d misheard a person and would try to determine what he or she had said by reading facial expressions or by considering what other words could have fit the rhythm of speech. Sometimes I’d get so distracted I’d miss what the person said next.
When I started teaching first grade, the sound of a child using the pencil sharpener on the wall exacerbated my difficulty. I removed it and sharpened all the pencils after school every day. I also asked the kids to look at me when they spoke, but they often forgot or turned away in midsentence.
In my second year I decided to tell my students about my disorder. I explained that sometimes I hear too much noise and can’t make sense of it. I said my learning disability meant that I had to work harder, but there was no limit to what I could do. I added that, when you have a disability, it’s important to let other people know what you need from them so that you can do your best. For example, I said, I needed to see their faces when they spoke.
A girl raised her hand and said she had dyslexia and couldn’t read yet. Looking around at the other students, she said, “I need you not to laugh at me, OK?”
Several students said, “OK. We won’t laugh.”
Then a boy spoke: “I ha-have a st-st-st-stutter.” He asked that everyone not try to finish his sentences for him but just listen and wait until he was done.
Many little heads nodded.
The disorder that had caused me so much frustration became my key to understanding my students.
I hike daily in the mountain preserves of Phoenix, Arizona, where a network of rugged trails provides a break from the city. One day the screech of a red-tailed hawk draws my attention. I spot it gliding just over a young female hiker. From twenty paces away I can hear its wings slicing the air as it comes to roost on an ancient saguaro. I wonder why the woman hasn’t noticed. Closer now, I’m assailed by the tinny music coming from her smartphone, and I don’t even bother to point out the nearby raptor.
On a hike at midday in the sweltering summer heat, I hear sirens in the distance. Then a chorus of howls and yips surrounds me. Dozens of coyotes have emerged from their dens to join the wailing. I’d like to share this experience with other hikers, but every one of them is wearing headphones.
After years of flying from California to Hawaii for vacation, my spouse and I began dreaming of living in the islands. Thanks to a twenty-year career in the tech industry and a little luck, we were able to purchase property on a peaceful bluff overlooking the ocean in northeast Maui. We started to build our home, envisioning an enchanted life there: the breeze rustling palm fronds, the surf breaking below, a tropical drink in hand. Midway through construction we heard a rooster and found out that a man had moved into a nearby shack with his family — and his dogs, pigs, and chickens.
Once we’d settled in our new home, we learned that roosters don’t crow just to greet the dawn. They crow from a half-hour before sunrise until a half-hour after sunset. We also discovered that when there’s more than one rooster, they compete to see who can crow the loudest. Our neighbor had six.
Friends in Maui said we would get used to it, but we never did.
We tried every solution we could think of: We approached our neighbor with peace offerings. We secretly paid his friend to try to convince him to get rid of the roosters. We complained to the local authorities. We offered to buy the roosters. Nothing worked. The noise became so intolerable that whenever we left the island, we dreaded coming home.
Finally we decided to sell the house in Maui. When we boarded our flight back to San Francisco after closing the sale, we were as giddy as the day we had moved to Hawaii.
John Unger Zussman
Portola Valley, California
As a child I was frightened by the sound of a train horn in the distance. Our trailer home was near the railroad tracks in Jackson, Mississippi, and the trains were a constant background noise: on morning walks around the neighborhood, during our Friday-night ritual of pizza and TV, while my mother sang me to sleep. The train horns sounded sad — like a forlorn cry from far away — and when I heard one, I would often jump into my father’s lap and wait for it to pass.
I now live in Birmingham, Alabama. My third-floor apartment overlooks historic furnaces where iron was produced and then shipped across the country via railroad. My mother and father still live in Jackson. I don’t make the five-hundred-mile round trip to visit them nearly enough. Sometimes, in the silence of a lonely, sleepless night, I’ll hear a train in the distance and feel comforted by its melancholy sound. That cry in the darkness carries me to the place where I grew up, to my parents, and back to sleep.
Fifteen hours into a deep amphetamine psychosis, I was placed in a single cell with a metal door on the psychiatric floor of the city jail. I was on lock-down for the first twenty-four hours and could see no one from the small window in my door. Lying under my unrippable suicide-prevention blanket, I hallucinated a nightmarish medley of voices and sounds: screeching and weeping and growling and cackling; nonsense phrases screamed over and over; doors being kicked and toilets being repeatedly flushed; a crashing like giant cookie sheets hitting the floor. I told myself to hang on; that I would come down, and the frightening cacophony would pass.
My psychosis did fade. The noises continued. It turned out that I hadn’t been hearing things. Several of the other seven cells on that floor were occupied by sad, tortured souls. I was overcome by despair and self-loathing. I decided that this place of never-ending pandemonium was exactly where I deserved to be.
I was held for seventeen months, with just one supervised hour outside my cell each day, to walk up and down the hall. As I passed the other cells, I would look through the windows in their doors and make eye contact with the inmates, seeking to acknowledge their humanity and convey empathy with my gaze. I don’t know if I ever got through to them, but I tried.
Robert Hitt, 840918
Monroe Correctional Center
As graduate students at West Virginia University my girlfriend and I had little money. We were thrilled when we finally managed to move out of our studio apartment — really just a room with a fold-out couch in someone’s cellar — and into a mobile-home park across from the college football stadium where the Mountaineers played. The “park” was actually a dirt-and-gravel lot with decrepit, drafty trailers spaced just far enough apart to get a car between. Several were boarded up or missing windows. Ours wasn’t great, but we set about trying to make it a home.
The morning of the first fall football game, we realized that we might have been better off in the cellar. Bright and early our landlord was standing outside in the lot, charging fans to park a few feet from our front door. People tailgated for hours. Then came the game itself — sixty thousand screaming students and alumni — followed by more drunken revelry. After that, I would escape our house in advance of games to find a quiet place to study.
We survived football season, but in the spring our landlord came up with the brilliant idea of operating a bar in the vacant trailer next to ours. Remodeling and construction began, with incessant hammering and power saws buzzing.
As summer approached, the completed bar opened for business, and music thumped until the wee hours just outside our bedroom window. Luckily our lease was almost up. We were moving out of state. On our last night there we lay in bed, unable to fall asleep as John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” blared: “Almost heaven / West Virginia . . .”
My patient is an impossibly small premature infant who weighs only 1.25 pounds and lies motionless in the incubator. I open the latched door and place my stethoscope on her tiny chest. Pat, pat, pat, goes her heart. She has downy black hair, and her eyelids are sealed shut, like a newborn kitten’s. No fat has developed, so her rib cage is visible beneath her flesh. Her diaper is no bigger than a tissue. One centimeter of her gelatinous umbilical cord remains on her belly, stuck with two IVs that are feeding her and flushing out fluids — intricate work her mother’s body performed reflexively for her until yesterday. The fleshy pad of my pinkie finger fits snugly in her almost-translucent hand. A machine delivers air to her pitifully inadequate lungs: whoosh-pfft, whoosh-pfft, whoosh-pfft. Her mouth struggles against the blue tube that runs down her throat. Her brow furrows, and her arms flail. She is unable to make a sound, but I can tell she is crying.
Renee D. Boss
In my youth I wanted to be a drummer and often banged on household objects. When I listened to music, I turned up the volume. I remember lying on the floor of my college dorm room with a stereo speaker a few feet from each ear, blasting Pink Floyd and feeling the vibrations through the hardwood floor. I went to concerts in stadiums, saw bands in smoky bars, and worked in nightclubs for years. Later I got a job in construction, and it was many years before I started wearing ear protection.
Now a schoolteacher in my fifties, I am stuck with tinnitus. I’ll wake up late at night or take a walk in the snowy woods, and instead of silence I’ll hear a low roar in my ears. I have to duck out of pep rallies at school, because they’ll cause ringing in my ears that will last for days. I remember watching my stepfather struggle with his hearing aids and eventually retire from group conversations. That’s my future.
When I see my students wearing ear-buds or headphones and can hear the tinny, pulsing music from across the room, I sometimes warn them about hearing damage and tell them how sorry I am to have ruined the only ears I will ever have.
Hardwick, New Jersey
I first began practicing Buddhism in prison, sitting with my fellow meditators in the yard, surrounded by hundreds of other inmates playing softball or basketball or talking loudly. I became good at meditating despite distractions.
At the Zen center I now attend every Sunday, I am in charge of ringing the bell to begin and end our meditation sessions, and I also lead the Buddhist chants. When I sit with the others, I am able to stay focused and maintain a state of mindfulness.
When I meditate at home, I light candles and incense and begin by striking a Tibetan singing bowl that makes a soothing sound. But I cannot sit peacefully there. Instead my mind is clouded with worry about bills and credit-card debt, my work schedule, my weight, and so on.
It turns out that a silent meditating environment — empty of other people — only amplifies the noise inside my head.
St. Petersburg, Florida
As an American pediatrician who specializes in child development, I went to Romania in 1990 to advise the country’s minister of health. The first time I visited an orphanage there, an aide led me up a stairway that echoed with our footsteps. As we neared the children’s ward, I could hear faint clicking sounds, as if the room were filled with clocks. I peered through the window and saw nearly forty toddlers, most of them standing in their metal cribs, gripping the rails, and rocking. The cribs were so close together that they knocked into each other.
When the aide and I entered the room, the toddlers stood still and stared in the manner of neglected children who haven’t formed human attachments. None of them talked or seemed to understand me when I spoke to them. After we left the room, the rhythmic clicking sounds resumed.
This turned out to be the norm for Romanian orphanages.
Thus began more than a decade of my work to aid the country’s abandoned children. I was inspired by how resilient the kids were, responding to care and love even in the worst of circumstances. At one point I returned to the first orphanage I had visited, which had implemented programs I’d helped to develop. As soon as I walked through the door to the ward, I could hear children chattering. Such a lovely, lively noise. I threw a ball to three kids in a playpen. One started to laugh, and then the others joined in.
Barbara Brooke Bascom
Gig Harbor, Washington
In 1976, at the age of twenty-eight, I ended a relationship that I knew was bad for me and moved from San Francisco to San Diego, California, to get my master’s degree in social work. After a month of feeling lonely in my new city, I made up with my former boyfriend and, despite my mother’s objections, invited him to come live with me. A few weeks later he moved into my one-bedroom apartment.
The first time I met our next-door neighbor, he bragged about the guns he owned. He wore camouflage pants and a black T-shirt and had a hard expression whenever I saw him. Other than an occasional nod in passing, he and I didn’t have much contact. I’d sometimes glimpse him coming or going with his girlfriend.
One night I was startled awake by the sound of shattering glass next door. I heard heavy objects crashing to the floor, then a hand slapping flesh, and our neighbor yelling. My boyfriend seemed to be asleep. I wondered what I should do. After ten minutes the uproar quieted down, and I told myself the woman was probably all right and tried to go back to sleep.
About twenty minutes later the shouting and smashing started up again. This time I thought I heard the girlfriend sobbing. I considered calling the police, but I had a horrible feeling that the neighbor might open fire on the cop, then turn the gun on his girlfriend. I decided to wait.
The sounds of fury and destruction continued at regular intervals throughout the night. Other neighbors must have heard the commotion, too, and I wondered why no one intervened.
The noise finally stopped for good around 5 AM. When my boyfriend and I got up at seven, a dark thought crossed my mind: maybe our neighbor had killed his girlfriend. I was relieved later to see her walk past our window. She had no apparent wounds, but she moved stiffly, and he followed close behind.
I remember thinking, What kind of woman chooses to stay with such a violent man?
My boyfriend and I soon moved out of that apartment. A few years later, two months after we’d gotten married, he knocked me to the floor and put his hands around my throat with hatred in his eyes. When he let me go, I ran from our home, but I returned after he’d agreed to go into counseling.
My husband didn’t hit me again, but he did hurl pots and plates past my head in fits of anger. Still I stayed with him. I was unwilling to tell my father, who was dying of cancer, what was happening. I was too proud to admit to my mother that she’d been right about my husband all along. And I was too ashamed to tell anyone else.
What kind of woman chooses to stay with a violent man? A woman like me.
Half Moon Bay, California
One Saturday evening when I was a sophomore in high school, four of my closest friends and I decided to attend a party. My friend Michael was the only one with a driver’s license, so he drove. The party was dragging when we got there, but then someone arrived with a backpack full of liquor, and things picked up. We took shots, chatted with girls, danced, and smoked pot. At 1 AM the host finally shut the party down. Buzzed and stoned, my friends and I all piled into Michael’s car. We didn’t want the night to end, so Michael drove us around town. Since there was little traffic on the roads, we encouraged him to speed.
I remember the moment our laughter was cut short by the sound of metal crumpling and glass shattering. I remember someone asking if everyone was OK. I remember my friends moaning in pain. I remember hearing everyone’s voice but Michael’s.
As a result of exposure to noncombat cannon fire while I was in the military, I have 80 percent hearing loss in both ears. My hearing aids reduce that by half, but I have to wear them from the time I wake up in the morning until I go to bed at night. Without them I cannot have a conversation, listen to the radio or the TV, or fully engage with my environment.
I don’t always want to hear this noisy world, however. I cherish the moments when I can remove my hearing aids and read a book or just sit in silence. As much as I love my wife, I look forward to when she leaves the house, so I can leave my devices out for hours. I’m not glad I lost my hearing, but I feel a guilty pleasure in knowing that while most people have to resort to using earplugs or “white noise” to be free of distractions, I need only take out my hearing aids.
At the age of twenty I moved from New York to Greenville, South Carolina, where I soon discovered that I had extremely noisy next-door neighbors. Night and day I could hear their loud music or lovemaking through the wall of my apartment.
After about a week I got a job, which gave me a welcome daytime break from the exaggerated grunts and groans coming from next door.
One day I stopped at the liquor store on my way home. Because I was underage, I paid a guy to buy me some whiskey. When I got back to my apartment, I decided that, rather than suffer the racket from next door, I’d just sit on the tailgate of my truck and drink.
Before too long a beautiful woman in her late forties came out of the apartment complex. She said she’d just broken up with her boyfriend of five years and asked if she could join me. I shared my whiskey with her, and she touched my leg flirtatiously and invited me back to her place.
It turned out that she lived in the apartment next to mine. She was the neighbor whose sexual exploits I’d been forced to listen to, the one who had driven me to drink in the parking lot. She put on some music — turned all the way up, of course — left the room, and returned naked. The noise coming from her apartment wasn’t a problem that night.
Clarence W. Jenkins
Columbia, South Carolina
It was October in Los Angeles, which means the dry heat of summer had given way to the hot Santa Ana winds that blew dust from the desert to the Pacific. The bedroom skylights of our Benedict Canyon bungalow revealed a cloudless blue sky. My boyfriend, Adam, was asleep after pulling an all-nighter at work. As I put on my workout clothes to head to the gym, I glanced at the clock on the nightstand: 7:42. Just enough time for a cup of coffee.
I was moving toward the kitchen when a strange rumbling caught my ear. Garbage trucks? No, trash pickup wasn’t today. Then the floor beneath my feet began to vibrate, and I realized what the sound was. “Earthquake!” I screamed to Adam as the house creaked and swayed. I tried to move, but the tremors kept me off balance. Adam leapt from the bed, wrapped his arms around me, and pulled me into the doorway between the bedroom and kitchen. The cabinets burst open, throwing china and glass everywhere. The walls heaved as if they were breathing, and the ceramic floor tiles cracked into a road map that stopped just short of our feet.
Finally the shaking stopped, leaving only the distant shriek of car alarms and the sound of our accelerated breathing. The quake had lasted twenty seconds. By the end of the day we would learn that eight people were dead and a hundred more injured.
Scores of aftershocks followed over the next few days: some small tremors, others sudden jolts. I panicked at anything resembling the noise I had heard the morning of the big quake. Sometimes I would awaken at night to the bed gently rocking, as if the earth were attempting to soothe my nerves.
My relationship with Adam deteriorated, in part because I was unable to move past the trauma of that day. We broke up six months later, and I left Los Angeles. Almost thirty years have passed since then, and I still cringe whenever I hear a low rumble.
In the prison where I’m incarcerated, the incessant noise starts as soon as the guards open the cell doors at 5:15 AM and gradually increases throughout the course of the day. Occasionally there’s a fight with yelling and the sound of punches landing and some groans. After it’s over, there are a few seconds of silence. Then, almost immediately, the cacophony returns. When we are locked down, the noise recedes a bit, but often prisoners shout through their cell doors at other inmates or staff — or at the demons in their head. The air vents in our cells are so loud that some inmates cover them with tape or cardboard. If you’re unlucky, you have a cellie who rants or blasts his TV.
The din is not entirely inescapable, though. I work four hours a day in the education department, helping guys get their high-school diplomas, and the classroom is sometimes quiet. Also I’ve made earplugs that I wear when I sleep.
I know that enduring the noise is part of the price I’m paying for my crime. I’m grateful for the rare moments of silence that remind me of what’s waiting for me on the outside, when I become a free man again.
Las Animas, Colorado
The cracking, whistling noise from the sky was the loudest sound I had ever heard. It was a snowy December morning in 1960, just nine days before Christmas. My friend Jill was visiting from out of town, and she and I hid under the desk in my bedroom. It was the height of the Cold War. Had Khrushchev put his finger on the dreaded button and sent a missile to destroy us? Jill had just turned fourteen, and I was twelve.
It wasn’t the start of a war. Two commercial airplanes had collided in midair, one crashing on Staten Island and the other in Park Slope, around the corner from our Brooklyn apartment. Buildings had caught on fire. Bodies had fallen from the sky. A man walking his dog had been crushed by debris.
The police roped off the street, and my mother instructed Jill and me not to go near the wreckage, but we got as close as we could anyway. The remains of the plane stuck up like the tail of a giant whale. The sky was gray and still.
That night, as Jill and I lay side by side, I asked why she thought God had let all those people die. Her sigh seemed to fill the room. “I don’t know,” she replied.
All that week I replayed the sound of the plane crash in my head, preoccupied with thoughts of death. The papers said an eleven-year-old boy had survived the crash but died the next day. Sooner or later, death would find all of us.
Fresh snow fell in the days that followed. One afternoon Jill and I caught flakes on our tongues in the wind. We held hands and began to spin, savoring the moment.
New York, New York
In kindergarten I was diagnosed with partial hearing loss and fitted for a hearing aid by the man at the Beltone store, who made wax molds of my ears. When he pressed the wax in with his thumb to set, I felt as if it were going down my throat to choke me.
I got a single aid with an on-off switch and a volume control. I was excited at first to be able to hear better, but then I realized that I would have to wear it all day, every day. Forever.
Eyeglasses were commonplace and socially acceptable, but a hearing aid, to me, was different. The only other person I knew who wore one was almost deaf. That thing in my ear seemed to announce to the world that I was somehow less than fully functional, and I grew my hair long to conceal it. I also had to be careful not to lose it or damage it or get it wet. I was more than happy on occasion to leave my “ear” inside its blue-velvet Beltone box and forgo hearing some sounds.
When I went to college, I decided I was old enough to make my own decisions, and I stopped wearing my hearing aid. After graduation I got a job teaching elementary school, and sometimes I had trouble distinguishing my students’ voices amid the background din of the classroom. Rather than go back to using the Beltone, I would nod and smile or ask children to repeat themselves, explaining that I had “old ears.” I managed — poorly — like this for many years before I looked into getting a new device (my old one had stopped working), only to discover that my insurance wouldn’t even partially cover the cost, and I didn’t have seven thousand dollars to pay for it myself.
This past year, after much research, I found an audiologist who gave me a reasonable quote, and I purchased a set of digital hearing aids. For the first time in forty years I heard what I’d been missing. Everything sounded so crisp. I could hear each raindrop hitting the sidewalk. The kitchen faucet roared like a waterfall. I had bus duty at school the next day, and the kids were so loud that I made an appointment with the audiologist to turn down the volume.
But I love my new hearing aids. I can now be in my classroom and hear my students talking, arguing, making jokes, and just being kids. Before, all I heard was noise.
North Haven, Connecticut