Friday, April 25, 2008

Postcards from the Edge (of Easthampton)

When I left my old apartment in Northampton, it was largely because of the noise that came from living below another tenant. I could even hear when he peed.

Being a light sleeper, working from home, and being prone to migraines, etc. a quiet environment is an essential quality-of-life ingredient for me, and was "top-of-mind" when I searched for a new place. Sadly, the first place I took was such a noise-riddled disaster that I spent most days in tears, clutching my head and rocking. Ultimately, after five long months, my landlords who lived above me, let me out of my lease and hired someone to soundproof the ceiling so that the next tenant wouldn't have to listen to every footstep, every word of every conversation, every microwave beep, and every radio show or guitar lesson that happened above her.

I was so relieved when I left that place and found this strange, but large, apartment in what seemed like a dead quiet neighborhood on the edge of Easthampton. For starters, there would be no one above me, which had been the largest issue at the last two places. And my landlords lived next door in our side-by-side duplex instead of right above me. I was a little nervous about being side-by-side. I thought perhaps I'd wind up succumbing to all of the same sorts of noise that had traveled down at the other places--doesn't noise also travel sideways? But I had such a good feeling about the place, I took it on faith and negotiated a month-to-month lease so that if the noise was awful, I could break free and look all over again. (Ugh.)

I've been here a year now, and I'm happy to report that my landlords are quiet neighbors. Every now and again I hear the husband practicing his drums, a sound that dominates every inch of the house when it happens, but which thankfully rarely happens, or a dog running up and down the stairs, or guests talking too loudly in the kitchen, or the vaccuum cleaner running. Once I heard the eery sounds of what sounded like a recorder floating down from the attic. But, these are the normal sounds of life, they come and go, and on the whole, it's been lovely to have that side of the house be a quiet sanctuary.

Unfortunately, the other three sides are subjected to an almost non-stop onslaught of noise.

Which brings me to this blog. Because the noise is so constant, so unbelievable, I decided it might help me to cope if I cataloged some of it here.

I can't possibly sum up the entire last year of noises in one blog post, but just to give you a sampling, I'll tell you that I woke up on my first Saturday morning here at 9am to the sounds of a chainsaw that ran for the next six hours straight. There were several more days like it as the neighbor to my right worked to cut down and then dismember a very large and healthy tree in his front yard. He then rented some heavy equipment to dig up and then pave over his front yard. My neighbors behind me and next door also enjoy playing music. It ranges from afro-pop to "gangsta" rap to hip hop to--I swear to God--adult contemporary. (Who blasts this?) I have also endured four straight hours of rototilling, many hours of yappy dog barking, snow throwers, especially in the pre-dawn hours, a wide assortment of power tools, the excavation and construction of a house that burned down and was rebuilt one street over, and an ongoing basketball tournament virtually in my backyard. The irregular thwap of a basketball has now landed itself on my list of Most Reviled Noises of All Time.

My neighbors to the right also have children and a large extended family. In summer, there is not a day that passes when a child is not slamming a soccer ball against the house and/or screaming. The neighbors just past them also have a remote control car that they whiz up and down the street. This noise could best be described as a high-pitched Weed Whacker that increases and decreases the intensity of its whine as it approaches and then passes my apartment. Over. And over. And over. It sounds very much like a dentist's drill and is one of the most unbearable sounds ever created. (I have extended fantasies about running down this remote controlled vehicle and crushing it under the wheels of my car--and then backing up over it just to make sure it's entirely crushed. My next door neighbors on the far left have the very same fantasy. Perhaps one day our dream will come true...)

The children next door will, occasionally, stop slamming their ball against the house and go inside, open all the windows, and blast cartoons louder than one would think possible.

The saddest part of all of this for me is that I live for spring and summer. During all the long, cold, dark months of being shut up here in New England, the thing that keeps me going is the anticipation of the moment when I can throw open my windows and bask in the warm breezes that kiss my skin and satisfy my nostrils. I love the feeling of warm, fresh air through windows. I love hearing the birds and feeling the sunshine. I love looking out over my tulips.

But here, I have to choose: fresh air or quiet. I've invested almost $200 in white noise machines and ear plugs. I've tried running fans and air conditioners, but these burn through electricity and with the A/C on, I can't also open the window.

This morning, for instance, I sat down at my desk for work at 8:45 a.m. and already the next door neighbors were making noise. It really is comical the diverse potpourri of noises they create. This morning, for instance, it was an industrial-sounding vacuum. It's a gorgeous spring day. Sunny and fresh. But even through the windows, the whizzing whine of the vacuum made it seem as though I'd pulled up to a car wash rather than sat down in my sunny little office. When I opened the windows, the noise was just too much to take. So, as I usually do, I chose the quiet over the fresh air and closed the windows. The vacuuming went on for what seemed like forever.

We also seem to be in the flight path of what I think is an air force base in Westover or Westfield? After the vacuuming stopped, I opened my window and a massive aircraft, the kind that looks like it could open its cargo hold and swallow half a dozen tractor trailers whole, rumbled by overhead. When these planes fly over, the noise is so powerful it fills up your whole chest as they slowly pass over. I always feel a little bit afraid when I hear them, as though I weren't on the edge of Easthampton, but instead, on the edge of Gaza or Tikrit where such noises often herald doom.

After the vacuum and the airplane noises were done, the children came out to play. They are on April vacation. And so the bouncing and slamming began. And the shouting. The littlest one has a shriek that could shatter glass. Oh, yes. And the Big Wheel. I am deeply nostalgic for my own Big Wheel, but this one, last summer, was the bane of my existence.

After the vacuum ended, I opened my windows again. But what quickly came through them, carried in on the sweet spring breeze, was an argument between children, close in age, fighting over toys and territory. The little one will win because she is cuter and holds greater sway with the adults, which her older brother knows all too well. And because she can scream louder and for longer. And because she is a little girl and therefore is, to a certain extent, untouchable.

"No, I get it! Don't go here! Stay here!" she screams. Her voice getting higher and sharper.

Frustrated beyond words, "Waahahahhhhhhrrghh!" is his response.

An adult intervenes in some melodic West African language, and now the Big Wheel rumbles forth. I don't think it's possible to describe exactly how loud, how miserable a noise that Big Wheel makes. The wheels squeak and I resume another of my fantasies: dousing the thing in WD-40 while the children sleep. But the worst is the rumble. The plastic wheels grind into the pavement in such a way as to create a noise so profound it cannot be stopped by walls or windows or ear plugs or white noise machines. It is relentless. And the children never tire of it.

So, this is how my days go. Bella and Buddy will scream, screech, wail. Bang things, throw things, and ride that cursed Big Wheel back and forth all day. The tractor trailers will rumble by every few minutes. The helicopters and warcrafts will pass over head just often enough to be noticeable. Adults will talk loudly in a lovely language I can't understand. And, at some point, someone, somewhere, will blast their music, most likely with a sub woofer-enhanced bass line so strong it feels as though it is trying to impede the beating of my heart inside my chest. There will also be the extended grinding buzz of motorcycles speeding by on the main road at the end of my street and, inevitably, some sort of machinery or power tool buzzing and whizzing nearby. A few times a week, the pair of little dogs two houses down will add their yappy voices to the mix.

You may ask why I have stayed...I started looking for a new place to live almost immediately after moving in, but then my truck died. And Calvin died. And then my knee got ripped to shreds. And then, eight months later, just as I could walk again and imagine carrying boxes up and down stairs, I had an accident in yoga class and got a pretty bad case of whiplash. (I know, it's funny, right?) That was three weeks ago. In three more weeks, I'll be medically cleared for something like a move. So, we'll see how things go then.

Silver lining
If there can be a bright side to all of this, it's that I've somehow come to a place of greater peace and acceptance with my powerlessness against the noise. Sometimes I even laugh when a new, obscure noise invades what little silence I may have achieved. The sheer volume--both in level of noise and variety--is something one really has to have at least a grudging appreciation for.

Just the other day someone on the street behind ours was running some sort of machinery and Peter and I both looked at each other with quizzical expressions and said, What is that?

And then, in the way that some connoisseurs might try to determine which particular type of pear or mushroom has been baked into a dish, we cocked our heads and ran the sound across the palates of our ears, scanning our internal database for similar sounds.

I thought it was someone trying to saw through a sapling with an electric carving knife. Peter thought it might be some kind of saw. Whatever it is, it's being overworked, I said.

Every weekend, sometimes on both Saturday and on Sunday, the Ghanaian family next door has a bash, a multi-generational gathering, which lasts all day and involves a lot of talking both in English and in a melodic African language I cannot understand. There is laughter, shouting, and music--and this year, burning meat with lots of lighter fluid. (Something smells wrong about that barbeque, said Peter as we fled the house in search of quiet places last weekend.)

Perhaps it is that I am getting older. Perhaps it is my yoga. Perhaps it is because I have Peter, or because I am no longer injured, broke, and stuck in one place. Whatever has caused it, now, when the noises come, I do not get angry. I examine my choices and I pick one. Instead of hating that I have to close the windows to block out the noise enough to sleep/work/watch a movie/think, I take a very deep, cleansing breath, let it out, and make my choice.

This weekend, for instance, the weather was incredibly beautiful for the first time (on a weekend) since the fall. The noise started as soon as we got up. But, instead of closing the doors and windows and gritting my teeth, putting on the fans or putting in the ear plugs, or calling the police, Peter and I just left. We packed a picnic and went to the lake. We saw a movie. We went out to dinner. And by the time we got home, things had quieted down almost to the point that we could hear our own television when we turned it on to watch a DVD of LOST.

Having Peter here means that I am not alone with the noise, except when I'm working, and this helps. Having a stable job means I can afford to escape by doing things like seeing movies or eating out. Being able-bodied means I can walk or drive away; for the first eight months, this wasn't true. And my yoga practice has helped me to achieve a greater sense of perspective, a more fluid sense of myself within the great flow of the universe. Somehow, it allows me to laugh the way the Dalai Lama laughs. I can't stop the noise, but I have some freedom and some agency and these things help to relieve my resentment. I have perspective, and this helps me to laugh, even in the face of chainsaws.

While I still long for a place of my own that is quiet and lovely, I have come to a place inside myself where the noise I experience here doesn't make me feel desperate and crazy. Right now, for instance, the yappy dogs are barking again and a woman is yelling very angrily at them, to no avail. (Quite honestly listening to her is almost worse than listening to the sharp yelps of the dogs, which has been going on for about an hour.) She has been joined by a child, who is also now yelling at the dogs. Who are still barking. And, all of this happens above the constant soundtrack of a conversation between men, in the African language, which has been going on outside my window for some time now. And, for percussion, a tractor trailer grumbles loudly, followed by another, and another. The engines rev as they accelerate, or the brakes squeak and the engines grind as they down shift and prepare to dock.

But, I am okay. I wish very much that it was quiet here, but, it isn't and this is where I am. I take a deep, cleansing breath, fill my lungs with nourishing fresh air, exhale...and then close the windows. I can still hear the dogs, but, as my friend Dan says, "Noise happens."

And, continuing to look on the bright side: at least I don't have to listen to anyone pee.

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