From the window by my desk I can see a sign advertising an auto dealership. I can also see it from the bedroom window, the kitchen window, and the rear balcony. Actually, to merely say that I can use it understates the matter; dominates my view would be more accurate. It soars well over one hundred feet into the air, illuminated by thousands of yellow and turquoise bulbs. About half of them blink. If its offensiveness weren't so imposing, it might be amusing in a perverse sort of way. Unfortunately, whatever value it may have as a first-rate specimen of garish design is utterly lost on me. I am forced to live with the thing. Day and night it permeates, standing guard over its four-wheeled kingdom.
Neighborhoods are often identified in a general fashion by landmarks, something you can point to and use in giving directions — a park, a canyon, a church. If there is such a symbol in our section of North Park, it is this sign. I find this a little disconcerting; a towering, luminescent blemish on my horizon. Of course I could move to another neighborhood. Eve a few short blocks away I wouldn't be forced to gaze at this monument to poor taste. But chances are I'd still hear the loudspeakers.
When we moved into our apartment above a garage, we found we could deal with The Sign by simply pulling the shades. Somehow, though, we hadn't prepared ourselves for is aural counterpart. At it is, we've been subjected to several thousand hours of Ray Coniff, Herb Alpert, and 101 Strings playing the Beatles. With the Christmas season approaching, we can confidential expect a new set of tapes stuffed with every holiday tune known, all of them grafted to the same infectious, foot-tapping beat.
As if the nonstop music weren't enough (from time to time the last one out forgets to shut the thing off, the stillness of night transforming it from an annoying drone to a roar), the speakers' microphone is also fair game for wisecracking salesman. I heard this official announcement our second day in residence: "Okay you guys, this isn't a crap game. Let's spread it out!" Like every other message, this one was delivered with a shrill intensity suggesting delirium.
For nearly a week, I mused on the possible impact all of this had in my neighborhood; surely others found it as grating as I If I couldn't make it go away, I thought, maybe I could put it to some use. The Noise Menace became my calling card, and I began to meet our neighbors.
I introduced myself to Sally, the divorced mother of five who lives in front of our garage, and asked what she thought of it. Her answer came with a sigh.
After a while you just tune it out," she said.
Living as she did in a two bedroom house with five children, such an ability had its obvious advantages. Gamely, i tried her method, but could get it to work. Now and then the music would begin to melt away, but the instant it stopped parting its curtain of sound. I had to listen; it meant someone was about to abuse the microphone and I couldn't help myself. I had to listen. And still do.
Since that initial conversation with Sally, she has become our primary source of local news and scandal. Sometimes her dispatches arrive in tantalizing bits and pieces, like prized hors d'ouevres. But more often they just stream forth unedited. As with the loudspeakers, we've found it helpful at times to attempt tuning out. Still, she has served to introduce us, indirectly, to nearly everyone on the block. How she manages to compile such detailed information about our neighbors' activities puzzles and sometimes frightens us, but we usually listen.
Thanks to her mysterious sources, for example, we learned something about the owners of the loud dog two doors away. This dog has a peculiar way of barking and moaning at the same time which is both fascinating and immensely irritating. Sally told us that they kept four rifles above the fireplace mantle. She wasn't sure whether or not they were loaded, and thought I should know.
What interested me more than the guns was their apparent capacity to withstand the piercing groans of that tormented creature in addition to the blare from the speakers.
My knocks at their door were scarcely audible above the television, and as we chatted about the car lot as neighborhood bully, it remained at full volume. As discretely as possible I observed that what with their dog and the loudspeakers, they must know something about the art of tuning out.
On the contrary, offered Mr. D'Arcy, quail hunter and potbellied father of two. What you had to do was fight noise with noise. He opened another beer and pointed to the television.
"If you don't want to hear anything," he said, "turn on your tube. And keep it on."
For the next week we kept the stereo on louder and longer than usual. It had seemed a good idea at first, joining them in a battle of decibels, but our ears began to hum and we reluctantly admitted defeat.
Although living atop a garage has left us especially vulnerable to assault from The Sign and those villainous speakers and has probably exaggerated their effect, the altitude has had its advantages. For example, our view is relatively unobstructed. Besides allowing us a seasonal glimpse of fireworks from San Diego Stadium, our height reveals quite a few backyards, which is how we got to know the folks next door: the Admiral, his wife, and their rear tenant, Mr. Gimble.
I'm sure he isn't an admiral, but his habits speak of long years spent in the defense of his country: uncompromising posture, a steady gait, and an absolutely immaculate yard.
Together, the Admiral and his wife devote a large portion of their waking hours to the maintenance of their property. They scrub and sweep and pamper every square inch of ti with an enthusiasm which approaches vengeance. Monday they mow the front lawn. Tuesday they work over the hedges. Wednesday they arrange the garage, and so on. The front lawn, by the way, is the only one on the block surrounded by a fence, and the gate is always shut.
I didn't get a chance to speak with the Admiral about The Sign or the noise issue before things had gone sour between us. Perhaps I shouldn't have waited as long as I did, looking for the proper moment. Instead, I parked in front of his house for what he claimed was the fourth Thursday night in a row and the bloody street sweeper couldn't clean his asphalt.
Forced to the defensive, I took the opportunity to point out that it wasn't his asphalt to begin with, and that surely he could work the gutter into his Friday morning sidewalk sweeps.
"You want to keep that car?" he said ominously.
"It's not for sale, if that's what you mean," I answered.
"That's not what I mean, buster, and you'd better move it." And car left 48 hours can be towed, and that's exactly what'll happen if you don't find someplace to keep it. I pay taxes here, not like you renters."
After that the Admiral and his wife never spoke to us although I think she would if he weren't always around. We've seen her take sympathetic interest in Mr. Gimble, who is old and doesn't have many friends. She seems to do it on the day, however, cautious of her husband's whereabouts. I've honestly never seen the Admiral say anything very harsh to Mr. Gimble, but he's certainly not friendly.
Mr. Gimble confirmed this for me and spoke pointedly about noise pollution when we met in the alley. I was washing my car and he had spied me awkwardly jumping back and forth over our gateless rear fence. he appeared from his cottage with a bag of trash for the garbage and lingered in a way that invited conversation.
His name was Jack, a lifelong bachelor, and he had been a fairly good gymnast while in college. He mentioned this while glancing at the fence.
"And you know what they used to call me? I mean a nickname. Jack-Be-Nimble-Gimble!"
He grinned and laughed at himself and I knew we'd be friends.
Yes, it was true that the Admiral seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, but he wasn't all that bad. He hadn't raised the rent in two years and, well, the yard was always very clean.
"Besides," he said, "I've got better things to do than shoot the breeze with your Admiral."
In 20 minutes Jack had given me the rundown on his interests and passions. For instance, he was interested in keeping himself fit, which explained the brisk walks we had seem him take every day. His passion, though, was writing letters.
"At least a couple a day," he said. "At least. But when I'm really putting on the steam, I can get off nine or ten. And it's a full day's work, don't let anybody kid you."
Raising his left hand, he exhibited as evidence an ink-stained palm.
"Being left-handed and a letter writer like myself isn't so good," he said, moving his smudged hand in writing motion. "I can't even wash it off now, but I don't try anymore."
He wrote letters to all kinds of people, most of them famous in one way or another. When he began, about four years ago, it was mainly to local politicians, city council members. State senators, and the like. The responses he got encouraged them to shoot for the big leagues, and soon he was penning notes to various governors and foreign heads of state.
"There's something about politicians, though. They don't care whether you're complaining or not. Every letter they send you says, thanks for your interest and please stay in touch. They're a boring group, those guys are."
Jack now restricts his letters to celebrities, and told me with pride how Frank Sinatra had gone to the trouble of sending along an autographed picture with his thanks for the birthday card.
I wondered if the loudspeakers ever distracted him while he was concentrating on an important letter.
"Those damn things," he said, making a fist and taking aim, "sometimes drive me crazy. You know what I do? I wear ear plugs."
About a month ago, I met the somewhat reclusive Vietnamese family down the street and as a result, the entire neighborhood now basks in relative peace and quiet. My intention had been to tell them how much we enjoyed the fragrance from their fireplace. Only in the hottest weeks of summer did they fail to keep a fire going. The pleasant aroma wafting from their chimney had softened many evenings and soothed an occasional melancholy spirit.
When the subject of the car lot came up, Mr. Hua told me, with a charming inversion of grammar, that I should take matters into my own hands and speak with the owner.
“For complaints like this,” he said, “you belong to the boss. Suggest you are keeping away from sleep.”
The simplicity of it humbled me. The following day I made a phone call and arranged an appointment. When we met, the elderly owner, resplendent in three-piece suit and watch fob, expressed his concern and surprise. He had never imagined that the volume of his music and the wit of his salesmen was anything but subtle. At my request we left his insulated office and headed for the back lots. He tried breaking the ice with a little small talk.
“What line of work are you in, young man?” he asked.
I told him I was in the unemployment line and he actually slapped me on the back as he guffawed and reached for a handkerchief.
“I like a sense of humor,” he said, wiping his eyes.
I smiled and thought he might offer me a job, but he just stood silently as we listened to the speakers crackle.
The swarming rush of cars on El Cajon Boulevard nearly ruined my demonstration; we could barely hear the music above the roar. I could see his growing impatience and desperately tried to convince him that the absence of heavy traffic made things worse, not better. Just as this fragile logic seemed about to unravel, the music stopped, and like one of Dr. Pavlov’s dogs, so did I.
“Mr. Bennett!” screamed the voice. “If it wouldn’t bother you too much, I’d like to see you cut the gab and sell a car this month. Spread it out!”
As he hurried off, the pinstriped owner turned to me and threw up his hands.
“This is all I need. A comedian for a sales manager.”
The Sign, which I failed to mention to the boss, still looms in all its vulgar splendor; a monstrous, gaudy beacon. The noise, however, has virtually disappeared. And I’m not sure I like it so much. Not one of my formerly besieged neighbors noticed the change, though all of them were grateful that something had finally been done. The dog owners concurred and expressed their thanks as the television thundered on.
But I’ve certainly noticed the difference. You might even say I’ve become obsessed with the difference, fearful now of missing that alluring musical pause.