Lucy D. Barker 6:13 p.m., May 23
Two weeks after I’d moved in, one of my new neighbors, Gris Glums, asked how I liked living here. “Noise bother you yet?”
I said it hadn’t, probably because I was pounding nails for pictures, dropping silverware on kitchen tiles, dragging furniture over hardwood floors. And tuning my piano had taken forever. I was making my own noise.
“It’ll get to you,” Gris assured me. He jerked his thumb toward a small park. “Comes from our good neighbors over there.” I had never heard neighbors pronounced with such disgust.
The neighbors who disgusted Gris were the residents of Casa de Amigos, an apartment building on the other side of the park. Home after work, they released dogs and considerations, grabbed beers and boom boxes, and convened in the park to break up dog fights and take advantage of cell phone reception. Living opposite the park, we heard it all.
“What did you think of the Mud Bowl the other night?” Gris asked. It had rained and a touch football game turned into a tackle football game in the mud. It might have been entertaining, had it not taken place at 2 a.m. When the police finally arrived the game was over and the players had retreated indoors to shower. By then, however, the entire neighborhood was wide awake.
“I don’t think they realize we live here,” Gris said, shaking his head. He worked his gold wedding ring over his knuckle. “And if they do, they sure as hell don’t care.” His frustration was obvious. Later I discovered that Gris had a serious loss awaiting him.
I was once a high-paid songwriter for television shows. But when the economy nosedived, original music was jettisoned and so was I.
I landed in a one-room apartment in Mission Valley and took a part-time gig as a piano player in a Fashion Valley department store. The tips were great. When I emptied my pockets at home wads of bills and handfuls of coins fell to the hardwood floor.
I started writing songs again. Fred Jenners, an old friend in Los Angeles, asked me to create a theme song for a movie sequel. Catch was, it had to be ready to record in three weeks.
“Find a quiet place like your old beach house,” Fred advised.
When I owned my beach house I sat by an open window and composed rhythms and riffs inspired by waves and seagulls. I used to tell people that the beach wrote the music, I just put it on paper.
But Mission Valley was no beach. Although you get used to the day-in day-out hubbub of traffic and trolleys, you never get used to power tools on Sunday mornings, televisions on full blast, car alarms stuck on repeat, and people having fun outdoors when you are trying to write music near an open window.
“Noise get to you yet?” Gris asked the next time I saw him. He nodded as I enumerated my annoyances. “And don’t forget that guy on the cell phone every morning.”
“Oh, you must mean Sanjay,” said longtime resident Ida Rose when I met her and brought up the morning noises. “He is telemarketing people in India. It is his job to yell.”
As an elderly woman she had met Sanjay when he once carried home her grocery bags, all the while chatting about the apartment he had shared with five friends until recently; about Ping, his beautiful Chinese girlfriend, who was expecting their baby soon; and about the bar exam next summer.
“I do not think he realizes how bothersome his phone calls are,” Ida said.
“Then, shouldn’t someone tell him?” I asked.
“Sanjay is just trying to make a living,” Ida said sounding motherly.
“So am I,” I answered.
Gris was right: the noise got to me. I couldn’t compose with my windows opened. My muse fled. And Fred Jenner’s deadline loomed. Things could not get worse. But they did.
Lay offs forced several residents to resort to self-employment and the park became their workplace. A dog trainer taught her students to bark on demand. A mechanic measured the decibels of muffler-less motorcycles. Eric the Red gave electric guitar lessons from the stump.
Last week a heat wave smothered Mission Valley and the doors and windows of Casa de Amigos were opened day and night. Talking, shouting, arguing, crying, laughing, teasing, even lovemaking, wafted from their open windows into ours.
A flyer circulated, announcing a park party this coming Wednesday. I took the flyer to Gris. He read it carefully. “Gladys shouldn’t have to endure this.” I had never or heard of Gladys. “Gladys is my wife,” Gris said.
On Sunday evening I broke away from stacking books on the floor and attended a meeting for everyone in our building. Many were fed up with the noise. The party announcement was the last straw. A letter was drafted.
To the Residents of Casa de Amigos: We, your neighbors, insist that you respect our right to peace and quiet. Therefore, we demand that you immediately: 1) cease phone calls in the park; 2) modulate music volume outdoors; 3) no music or loud voices after dark; 4) only one dog in the park at a time; 5) no motorized vehicles in the park; 6) no parties on weeknights; 7) close doors and windows during lovemaking. This last demand brought snickers and chuckles, but was left in. The letter concluded: Continued disregard for our peace and quiet will force us to seek police intervention.
“I’ll deliver it,” I volunteered. “We have to stand up to inconsiderate neighbors.”
As I departed Gris took me aside: “Thanks for doing this. Gladys needs the quiet, and her bedroom overlooks the park. She’s dying of cancer.”
I left the letter under a rock on the stump and returned to continue stacking books on the floor. The doorbell rang.
A short man, his fists clenched, his equanimity expired, demanded, “Do you know who I am?”
“I’m Steve, the guy who lives below you.” He took a breath. “What’s all the goddamn noise up here? Are you playing basketball?”
“No, Steve, I didn’t know I was making noise.”
“And what was it last week when you threw silverware on the tiles? Or,” he glanced at the hardwood floor, “when you drop coins?”
Steve, venting, continued.
“And last week when the elephants marched through?”
“Oh, the furniture. I had to………”
“And what’s with that stupid piano”
“What stupid piano? I’m trying to …………..”
Steve had more to say. “That’s my home below you. My sanctuary. I work hard all day and when I come home I want peace and quiet. Can you keep that in mind?” He walked back to the stairs, leaving his final word: “Don’t be so damn inconsiderate!”
The next morning Gris, Ida Rose and I watched Sanjay read the letter. Halfway through he shook his fist and shouted, “This is crap!”
And when he finished, he addressed our building. “This is America! I can talk on the phone where and when I want.”
The next two mornings Sanjay didn’t show up and the self-employed took off a couple days. The silence was eerie, like a virus had annihilated civilization. It was almost too quiet to write music.
By Wednesday residents on both sides of the park were nervous. There was a sense that something was going to happen. And it did.
I had decided to go camping and work on the theme song in the desert. But late Wednesday afternoon, as I was loading my car, and as the party was cranking up with the world’s loudest version of Light My Fire, I saw Gris dash out of the building and slip through the iron rail fence. I hurried after him. He strode toward the boom box. Sanjay stepped in front of him.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m going to turn off that damn music!”
A shoving match ensued. Coalitions formed behind the two combatants. Name calling got vociferous. Somebody dialed the police, and four cop cars descended on the park with sirens, flashing lights and squawking radios.
One cop interviewed Sanjay and Gris together. The others disengaged the crowd with questions about motorcycles, the college world series this weekend, and dog whistles. Conversations broke out about police motorcycles, the Padres, and the K9 Corps. The cops had dived the melee into comfort zones.
All of a sudden Sanjay hopped onto the stump.
“Everyone, please. Be quiet.”
Half the crowd hushed.
“Everyone. Please stop the noise for a minute.”
The policemen turned off their radios.
“Listen,” Sanjay tells the crowd. “Please. Just listen.”
Crickets. Toads. An owl. Interstate 8 in the distance, like wind through pines.
Then we heard it. A newborn crying. Sanjay jumped off the stump and bound toward Casa de Amigos, grinning like an actor going to receive his Oscar.
Minutes later he reappeared, cradling a pink bundle as small as a loaf of bread.
We all began to applaud.
“This fighting is stupid,” Sanjay told us. “Simply stupid. This is the stupidest thing I have seen since coming to America. We are all neighbors. We should act like it.”
Then Sanjay held up his newborn child and declared: “I promise I will no longer make phone calls in the park.”
A month later Sanjay and Ping sent out wedding invitations to everyone, including the four cops. There was a Chinese/Indian smorgasbord, a Buddhist ceremony, and Eric the Red’s rock band. Gris talked with Ping about acupuncture for pain relief. Ida Rose held the baby like it was her own. And the policemen danced with their wives.
These days I again compose songs with my windows open. Morning sounds include coffee grinders and toasters. Evenings include pots and pans and microwave beeps. Residents talk about their workday. A neighborhood has its music.
One more thing. Fred Jenner called. He’d recorded my theme song. That was the best music I’d ever written, he said.