The problem with the noise was that it silenced the silence. Now, in the spaces between sirens and garbage trucks and screams and shouts and machinery heavy and light, in those places where there should have been silence, there was only more noise.
It wasn’t a loud noise, but it was a constant noise. It was the kind of noise you might notice only if it stopped abruptly, but since it never stopped, I noticed the acute lack of silence rather than the obtuse noise.
It was determined that the noise was coming from a broken fan blade in a basement air conditioning unit that cooled computers that controlled cell phone antennae on the roof of a nearby building. The super of the building said to call the landlord. The landlord said call AT&T. AT&T said lady, we don’t have a location within three miles of your address, so it must be Verizon. Verizon said they’re our towers but AT&T rents them. AT&T said call AT&T Wireless, separate company. AT&T Wireless said press 1 for a new cell phone press 2 for a new rate plan press 3 to learn more press 4 to repeat the menu and offered no menu options regarding the slow march toward the brink of insanity. My landlord said why don’t we just gain access to the basement and turn it off? Their landlord said only the super had the key to the basement. The super’s grandson said the super wasn’t home.
So for a whole month, I’m calling all the time, I’m calling the city, I’m calling the phone companies, I’m calling the super and the super’s grandson, and I’m asking and suggesting and begging and pleading and mainly being told to fuck off. It is also gently but firmly suggested that I might be going insane.
I begin fantasizing about climbing over the fence into the neighbors’ yard, and then climbing over their fence and the fences beyond, following the sound of the noise. I will bring a sledgehammer. I give a lot of thought to how I will carry the sledgehammer as I climb all these fences. It won’t fit in a backpack. I will have to make a sling for it so I can carry it tightly on my back.
I will bring goggles. I will bring gloves. I will need protective gear as the destruction I am about to wreak will produce many splinters and shards. I imagine the super and the super’s grandson and the technicians of Verizon scratching their heads when they find their machinery in smithereens.
But first I make one last attempt to address the problem through the proper channels. I know that it is doomed to fail, because capitalism is doomed to fail, and institutional government in the form of the state is domed to fail, and because of this inevitable failure I will be justified in taking matters into my own hands.
I call the city’s noise complaint hotline. The city sends two guys with a meter. The two guys say this noise isn’t as loud as most of the noises they get. Most of the noises they get are really loud, like barking dogs or booming subwoofers.
But can’t they hear the noise?
“Oh, yes,” say the two men. “We can hear the noise.”
Would that noise bother them if they lived and worked and slept in this one room of this apartment all day long?
Not like a barking dog or a booming subwoofer, maybe, but yes.
One guy stands by the window half-assedly extending a probe in the direction of the noise while the other guy tries to gain access to the basement of the other building, so they can turn the sound off and then measure the difference between the silence-like sound and actual silence. If it’s not that different than it’s not a legitimate complaint.
The super’s not in, says the super’s grandson. The two guys tell me to make sure that the next time I call the super is in, because you only get two complaints. I go out that day and I come home that night and when I open the window and hear the grinding of the noise, I hear eternity in it and I cry about it on the phone to my father and he offers to come pick me up.
My friends and I have discussed the phenomenon of one’s well-meaning, still-overprotective parents offering to come pick one up when one expresses distress, even if one is well into one’s twenties. We have discussed how this offer usually shakes us back to the reality of our adulthood.
“Mom,” we sigh, or “Dad. You can’t come pick me up from my life.”
I think of air raids, bombings, awful noises, the Pynchonion screaming that comes across the sky, ungodly howls and cries, the feral cats that used to mate and fight in the alleyway behind my first apartment, other noises, far worse noises. I think of Guantanamo Bay and PsyOps, but it is no use. Other suffering, however more horrible, is abstract.
The noise can be somewhat drowned out by one of those noise machines favored by troubled sleepers and psychotherapists, but I don’t want to drown out noise with noise. Constant noises–even ones that are supposed to imitate the constant absence of noise–frighten me. I need to hear babies crying and trash can lids banging and engines starting and the faint but unmistakable sounds of sex in a nearby apartment. At three in the morning I need to hear someone locking up his bike, and at five I need to hear the garbage truck’s brakes. These things are real and the silence of a noise machine is fake. It will pull a veil across the sonic world and deafen me to it, and I will no longer live in whatever is left of our flimsy reality in whatever is left of my short time on earth.
Once, in a movie about making movies, I saw the fictional film crew do this thing that real film crews must do. They recorded the sound of silence in a room with people in it. They did this so that if as they were editing the movie they needed more silence in between the dialogue, they would have the sound of the silence in that room filled with those people. The sound of the quiet in the room with that particular group of people was called “room tone.” It is this priceless nothing that I am desperate to get back.
The breaking point comes when I finish a movie. Among the moments I cherish to the point of fetishization–the stepping out of the tunnel of a baseball stadium into the light, the electric thump and sizzle of a mic as the band takes the stage, the exact instants of liftoff and touchdown of the wheels of a plane–I hold very high the second or two of blackness between the end of a movie and the beginning of the credits. In this moment you have not yet woken from the dream that is the movie, but are still dreaming the dream, suddenly aware you are dreaming it.
One night I finish a movie, a very long, slow, painful movie with the recently deceased and very good actor in it. I’ve watched it because his death disturbs me as all death disturbs me, and his death particularly disturbs me as the deaths of all people exactly my age particularly disturb me, especially the ones who are said not to know when to stop.
This movie was about people who didn’t know when to stop. It was hard to watch, except the parts that were in slow motion and about love. As I watched the movie I forgot that the actor was dead, and then I forgot that the actor was an actor, and that it wasn’t all real, and that just because he moved and breathed and spoke on the screen it did not mean that he was still alive. In the movie the character lived, despite all the heroin he shot, but in real life the actor died, they say from combining too many pills.
When the movie ended and the screen went black there was one of those quiet moments before the credits came on, and it was then I noticed just how grave a loss was the loss of silence. It made me angry, because I wanted it to be silent for the dead actor. I wanted just this one thing for him, a true moment of silence to honor his very fine work in this movie about addiction and madness and suffering which may have precipitated his own decent into addiction and madness and suffering or simply drawn upon his previous experiences with addiction and madness and suffering, to honor the fact that he had been here and now he was gone and I was still here and knew that this was a temporary and somewhat random thing.
The movie ended when the very good dead young actor’s character sent away the love of his life because he feared that together they might destroy themselves with their shared addiction. She came back to him from a mental institution. They had had a stillborn baby. Tim Buckley, who also died at the exact same age as the actor, the same age I was, twenty-eight, sang hauntingly over this last moment and it became a kind of funeral for the actor. When the screen went black I realized that the noise had no respect for anything, not for him, not for me, not for art and not for death, and I would have to try even harder to get back the silence, not for my own peace of mind but out of respect for the dead.
First I did what I do when a movie really gets under my skin, and bought the book. It happened to be that rarity of a decent movie based upon a decent book. The description (in the book) and the depiction (in the movie) of heroin addiction was terrifying and fascinating. I’ve never seen fit to try heroin, mainly because of all the literary and cinematic descriptions and depictions of its inevitably ruinous properties, and thus have drawn my conclusions about it from art rather than experience.
The critic Walter Pater said, “All art aspires to the condition of music.” All drugs, then, must aspire to be heroin. It achieves what all other drugs aspire to achieve. If other drugs promise euphoria with the possibilities of anxiety, restlessness or paranoia, then heroin sounds somehow more pure. Not just bliss but bliss with no object or subject. Not the worldly delight of being stoned or tripping but delight with no beginning or end. Not the upsurge of ego of a stimulant and its momentary relief from uncertainty–YES! THIS IS GREAT! I AM GREAT! EVERYONE WANTS ME! ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE!–but the absence of ego entirely. Not even the pure joy and fascination of ecstasy but the ecstasy of neither finding nor needing neither joy nor fascination. A neither/nor drug, a nothing drug, a nothing better than anything, better than everything. A being-and-nothingness drug, a drug that understood the essential non-essence of being, which, as Sartre said (though he preferred mescaline), is nothingness.
It sounded so very much like enlightenment, the real deal, a timeless, eternal peace and bliss that came from nowhere and went nowhere, wanted nothing and knew nothing–a true and eternal sound of silence. I remained terrified of this bliss and the awful ruin it portended. Only if I was on the way to ruin myself could the acceleration of this ruin be acceptable.
My friends and I always joked that we’d retire to the Rockaways and become heroin addicts before we got disgustingly old. In our late seventies, maybe, or whenever things started to look really bad. We’d get our addiction underway before the deepest indignities of aging kicked in, before we forgot who we were, before it was pain all the time. And by the time we really started to fall apart we’d already be so far gone we wouldn’t know it, and then one day we’d OD on the porch looking out at the ocean and that would be it.
This is a fine idea to us, hilarious and tragic; it imparts to our deaths a patina of gravity and a kind of desperate agency to our inevitable deterioration. We won’t die of old age, we’ll die the way young people do, because of drugs and self-destruction, and then somehow it’ll be our choice and our tragedy, instead of what Kerouac called “the forlorn rags of growing old.” It’s a fantasy that we can live a long time and still flame out, not fade away. It’s a rock and roll death for people who want to live.
The week after the young actor died, I was walking by a gymnastics place and stopped outside to watch. It wasn’t the littlest girls but the older ones, maybe even the competitive team. They were small but not little, and their eyes and bodies were hard.
I used to do gymnastics, but I had forgotten–or never been able to see–its true weirdness. The unnatural sinew on the prepubescent girls, their equine musculature, their grim faces. It is a cruel sport painted with the brush of world politics, always projecting international conflicts onto tumbling female bodies; the Russians are boycotting, the Chinese are forging. In a world of nationless terrorism and oozing oil, gymnastics remains quaintly nationalistic, warm-up suits proclaiming countries’ names in foreign alphabets, coaches defecting, turning over the secrets of their launches and landings.
As I watched, I was struck by the gymnasts’ military precision and consequent lack of artistry. Gymnasts are foremost athletes and therefore terrible dancers. The flourishes of their hands and extensions of their legs are perfunctory, their motions far more dutiful than beautiful.
The very best ones express the least of all. They perform but they do not emote. They quite literally go though the motions, ticking them off an invisible mental checklist. The harder they set their jaws and the less they show they feel the higher their scores from the equally impassive judges. Like simple projectiles, they go from point A to point B. The awesome quality of their feats is conferred by the fact that a human body is not naturally a projectile and even more rarely a self-propelled one. Sometimes, when they land, if they stick it in a way that inspires their coach to exult in some guttural language, they show for a moment a flicker of joy indiscernible from relief.
I thought about how your parents would watch you in gymnastics class, when they waited behind the glass, arms crossed, to pick you up. And you would ask if they’d seen you as they bundled you into your snowboots, and they would say, “Yes, I saw, very good, it was very good.” I felt an almost parental heartbreak for these girls, for the sincerity of their efforts, for the premature hardening of their bodies and the truncation of their youth. I felt sad for the dead young actor’s little girl, sad that he would never take her to gymnastics, never wait behind the glass to pick her up.
I read later that he did actually take his daughter to toddler gymnastics, and I was saddened by that, too, because this and many other things were lost to the dead actor and his daughter, and they were lost to each other and he to us and so many fathers to so many daughters and so much, to everyone.
Maybe I am wrong and I certainly don’t know, but I don’t think he meant to do it. I don’t think he wanted to die. Maybe I have been conditioned by celebrity magazines to over-identify with famous people, but when I think of what happened to him, I think it could easily have happened to me or any number of my friends. The proverbial wrong combination at the wrong time.
Some speculated that the evil character he’d so recently and spectacularly portrayed had gotten inside his mind. He gave his last performance as the villain in a superhero movie, but his villain was so good, so nuanced, so real, so alive, that the villain somehow became the hero. The movie was so dark and violent that the hero it glorified wasn’t the one who fixed things, but the one who destroyed them.
The reviews of the movie mentioned that its sound mix was unusually loud. I found them accurate. For this and several other reasons, I did not enjoy the film. It overwhelmed and depressed me. The ingenue was killed, everything was broken and smashed but none of it was fun, and the supposedly good hero was played by a cold, impassive actor who showed no emotion. It was supposed to be about some complicated questions of vigilante justice and the responsibilities of power but they didn’t seem very well developed and like so many American movies it was mostly about violence with only the faintest nod to ideas.
The cold, impassive actor had been very good in a different movie about a stockbroker serial killer who used a lot of high-end facial products, who wore, as it was, a lot of masks. In one scene he stood naked before the mirror in his marble bathroom and peeled one from his face. In this movie he also wore a mask, a black rubber one with bat ears, and his mouth underneath it was cold and mean and still. The very good, recently dead young actor wore smeared makeup and chewed his face just like you would on bad coke. He was horribly alive, like you would be on bad coke. It was bad coke had that made me want to take all the pills in hopes of getting out of life alive, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that for him it might have been the same thing.
I couldn’t bring back the dead, but I could get rid of the noise.
I called Jim, I called David, I called Val, I called Jerry and I called Steve. Steve was the hero, the one who made it stop. He called me right back, on a Saturday. He said he normally handled North Jersey and the Bronx but the Brooklyn/Queens/Long Island guy was off and he was filling in for him.
“I know this noise is not as loud as some noises,” I said, “like for example a barking dog or a very powerful subwoofer, but it is very much audible to me and more than that it is constant and I can’t sleep or think.”
“Oh, I know,” said Steve. “Those cooling units can make a real racket when the fan blades get loose. Believe me, I know!”
Steve sent someone over the next day and when I came home from working the genuine silence was all around like an armistice. Steve called that afternoon to make sure, and I told him how I wept with relief, the most underrated emotion. The awful noise has stopped. I have landed on two feet, and not fallen awkwardly from a height. I have landed from the night, safely in the morning.
Was that what heroin was, would be, I thought, relief? All those opiates, their intended use was for the relief of pain. I was banking on these drugs to relieve the pain of growing old, of dying, the very drugs that killed the very young, very fine actor. More than once I or a friend had come into some of them from the leftover prescription of someone who had died, not from overdose but from cancer. This to me seemed the most depraved, to use for recreation the medicines intended to relieve the horrible pain of dying. But they had a second use, which was to relieve the pain of living as well.
Maybe he could not get any relief, and he just wanted some relief. He just wanted to sleep, he said. He just couldn’t sleep. Sometimes it can be hard to sleep, whether you are coming down from bad coke or not. Sometimes it is hard to sleep because of the noises that seem like silence, but upon closer inspection are not. Maybe heroin and other drugs like it could stop some of the noises, the very loud noises and the not-very-loud noises, the ones that were constant, all the time, wouldn’t stop, so you could finally, would finally, sleep.
My landlord and super comes into his office on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. I saw him on a Tuesday.
“Hey,” said my landlord, “You did it! You made it stop.”
“I just made some phone calls,” I said. “Actually, it took me a while to get the job done.”
“You did a good thing,” he said, ‘”for the neighborhood. That sound was bothering the whole block.
I decided to seek recognition for my deed. I went down the street to get an espresso. The neighbors were taking out their garbage. I smiled. They smiled. I stopped.
“So,” I asked. “Were you affected in any way by the noise?”
“The noise?” they said pleasantly.
“Yeah, the noise. The awful noise, that never stopped, that just went on all the time, that you could always hear but was worst at night, when everything else was quiet…”
The neighbors raised their eyebrows, their smiles a little frozen on their faces.
“We never heard any noise.”
“Oh, well, that’s good,” I said weakly. “It must have been contained to the other side of the block, then.”
Thus ended my attempts to be recognized for what I had done for the neighborhood. I continued unnoticed to the pastry shop and drank my espresso in my black-rimmed glasses. Like Clark Kent, I told myself. Like Superman.
Photo by The Joy of The Mundane