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.