My cell phone was apparently assembled at gunpoint by drunk Yugoslavians in the year 1984. The only way for it to receive any sort of discernible transmission within my house is for me to hold it about six inches above my left ear while I stand one foot on the toilet and one foot on the rim of the tub. Triumphantly perched as though I’d conquered all the porcelain in my house, I can talk to another party if I shout, and I can hear them if I strain my neck and focus my ear.
It’s a pretty poor system of communication, made only worse by the traffic, Weed Eaters, ice cream bells, and norteño music of my working-class neighborhood of Cherokee Point — a border section between North Park and City Heights, on University Avenue between the 805 and 15. If I’m in a fun and forgiving mood, I’ll describe my street as “lively” and “blue collar,” or “a rich tapestry of many cultures.” If I’m working, trying to watch a movie, or talking on my phone, and what keeps invading my home is the sound of someone lying across a work-truck horn, or a family ringing in a young lady’s 15th birthday with a band, chickens, and fireworks, then I call the place “the damn ghetto!” or simply “shithole!” My street is incredibly loud.
I get crabby at all the racket and sometimes come firing from my front door to confront the offending noisemaker. I’ve been dangerously close to being socked in the beak because I’ve demanded that someone shut off a car alarm or quiet (shoot if you have to!) a pack of baying dogs. Which seems like common sense to me, but the people of my neighborhood don’t perceive sound the way I do. I’ve run out of my apartment to request from parents that their children stop pitching pennies, glass bottles, and small rocks onto my tile roof, and we’ve all — me, the parents, the children — stood there dumbfounded by the others’ actions, our heads cocked to the side like puppies presented with math.
And I’ve lived in nearly every neighborhood in central and coastal San Diego. Same thing. Although, in my Pacific Beach youth, I was more likely the offender than the offended. Looking back, I clearly thought that stumbling home drunk by way of Garnet Avenue at 2:00 a.m. on a Wednesday and playing frenetic and brassy jazz records was a way of liberating the stuffy tenants of my apartment complex from the moorings of their conformity. Coltrane might agree with me, but find my old neighbors, and I’m sure they would hold a different opinion.
Which got me thinking I should go and look for the loudest and quietest areas of the city, to see if there is a neighborhood that respects silence. If I ever want to get any work done, I might have to move there.
First thing to do is buy a decibel meter. Not usually one for purchasing gadgets (see cell phone description above), for this experiment I want an objective electronic authority. So I drive to the sprawling big-box store called Fry’s. Normally, when confronted with vast aisles of wiring, cameras, circuitry, laptops, and televisions, I wander as though lost through a great plastic forest, until a sales executive finds me huddled over a trash fire, naked, bearded, and drinking the remnants of a discarded backwashed Pepsi for sustenance — so I am a shade hesitant to go inside this megalopolis of computing hardware. But this time, with incredible luck, I walk directly to the pertinent section of the store, find the decibel meter, pay at the front register, and walk out. Standing in the parking lot, I look at the sundial on my phone and calculate that I’ve been inside only seven minutes. Astonishing.
Armed with my new toy, I begin to take readings around my place, holding the meter an inch from anything making noise. My air conditioner: 44.3 dB. Running water in my sink: 64 dB. Having a piss: 75.1 dB.
I call my friend and sometime-assistant Casey at her dungeon, where I force her to slave over hot search engines and reference manuals, to tell her my findings.
“You’ve got some loud pee,” she says.
“If I had a nickel for every time I heard that…But that’s not why I’m calling. Do you know of any place in town that might be pretty loud?”
“Gay Pride Parade is this weekend.”
Sweet Molasses, the Mother Lode. (Bonus! Compact, half-naked, energetic Puerto Ricans.) But I have a couple days to kill before the festivities start, so maybe I’ll visit some neighborhoods around town to see how they measure up on bothersome sounds. I wonder how the City of San Diego classifies and attempts to abate noise pollution?
Well, as always, the city website is a jumble of legal information and horrid, boring garbage that I’ll attempt to summate. (Bear with me, this promises to get a little dry.) Our fair hamlet allows for construction, generator, animal, and machinery noise, and a whole list of other audible irritations, between 7:00 in the morning and 7:00 at night every day except Sunday and holidays. From sandiego.gov, I foxed out this oddly worded rule:
“It shall be unlawful for any person, between the hours of 7:00 p.m. of any day and 7:00 a.m. of the following day, or on legal holidays…with exception of Columbus Day and Washington’s Birthday, or on Sundays, to erect, construct, demolish, excavate…any building or structure in such a manner as to create disturbing, excessive or offensive noise unless a permit has been applied for and granted.…”
I’m sure that the intent of that statute isn’t to allow absolute anarchy — destroying any building you see fit, whether it belongs to you or not, with any means available, be it dynamite, chainsaw, or pack of horses — on Columbus Day and Washington’s Day, but that’s how I read it. What a way to perk up holidays normally associated with mattress and linen sales. Anyway, carrying on.…
Poring over more info on the site, I find that the city defines offenses of noise by a host of variables, according to zoning and time of day. Without delving into the fetishism of the city for under-thinking and over-printing, I’ll tell you that for most of us who don’t live on farms or in industrial zones, and for those who do not drive garbage trucks or fly helicopters, the loudest we citizens can get around our houses during the week is 60 dB during the day and 45 dB at night — from 10:00 p.m. till 7:00 in the morning. This is something that I soon find almost wholly ignored in my neighborhood.
To see if anyone in San Diego complies with these guidelines, I leave my apartment with my incredibly dorky-looking gadget and stroll around my neighborhood. What I learn first is that if you want to look like a huge goddamn doofus, carry a dB meter around with you. Mine is tan and boxy, sort of like a 1980s’ cell phone, but with a puffy microphone out the top of it that would only look stupider if it were clown-nose red.
Right away, I bumble upon a yard decorated eclectically with a pool table, broken plastic stackable furniture, and dog turds. From the house blares something that someone might consider music, I’m sure, although I can’t for the life of me understand why, because it features a crowing rooster, honking car horns, and a squeaky-voiced man who’s fond of the word “corazón.” Really, that’s pretty much every element of the song. It goes: “B-Gock! Honk! Honk! Something something corazón. B-Gock! Honk! Honk! Something something corazón!” and so forth.
I check my display to see that the flapping and fluttering speaker on the porch is punching out 79.5 dB. I’m about 15 feet away. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem overly loud, especially for this neighborhood and at this time of day: about noon. A man comes to the porch and over the din shouts, “Hey, what the hell are you doing?!” (84.4 dB)
“Nothing,” I say, and haul ass away from the tumbledown shack. A couple blocks away, I find myself comfortably out of earshot of that last racket and encompassed by the soothing tones of a leaf-blower and an irate dog barking and snapping at it about 60 yards away, which, from where I stand, register at 56.6 dB. That’s around the upper limit of allowable noise, and I’m a good block away. The leafman’s immediate neighbors are taking in a hell of a lot more, but again, it doesn’t seem too loud. The necessity of the yard work, and the idea that it will be all finished up in less than an hour or so, make it at least tolerable.
I figure I’m going to drive myself stupid by measuring how loud everything in my neighborhood is, so I find my trusty carriage, Lucille the Wondertruck, fire her up, and aim her toward a place with a quiet reputation. Ah, the suburbs.
On my drive to Poway, a suburb I picked randomly off Google maps, the concept of noise irritation really drives itself home; 91X and 94.9 play a constant marathon of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sublime, and Pearl Jam. As if in the decades since any of those bands were relevant there weren’t hundreds of thousands of musical acts performing millions of songs. Nope. All Red Hot Sublime Jam, all the damn time. I flip over to Rock 105.3 to catch the start of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica, then check to see that NPR is playing recorded phone messages of retired Berkeley professors giving their shrillest birdcalls.
“Oh for the love of GOD!” I scream (76.5 dB) and hammer my fist into the steering wheel.
In a simple, average, unremarkable strip mall on Poway Road, I stop to purchase an iced tea from a corporate coffee shop. While standing in line, a teenage girl snaps her bubble gum and yaps on the phone, while the nice barista repeats her request a few times.
“How can I help you?”
“Mike is so-o-o stupid. He’s such an ass, I can’t.…”
“Hello, how can I help you?”
“I’ll take an iced tea,” I say over the girl’s head. She glares at me from the corner of her eye and says, “Excuse me, I was in line, rude much?”
Why, you dirty little bugger! This exchange isn’t loud, but it is irritating, and I want to stuff my dB meter down the yak hole of the awful young woman. Of course, I don’t. I don’t say anything to her, because I’m kind of a big sissy and don’t like confrontation, especially with girls. I just arch my brows and lean my head away, as if I were contemplating clouds, until she turns around to bark at the girl behind the counter.
Finally, iced tea in hand, I walk from the coffee shop out to the parking lot, accompanied by the soft thudding of car doors, rumble of plumbing-truck engines, and blathering of kids, and I embark Lucille the Pickup Truck of Wonder and Delight and ask her to get us both lost in a nimble manner. I let her take a few wrong turns, we do a lap around a community center, then Lucille bolts for a small hill and dives across its weedy face, on a road I’m not familiar with, until we find the perfect place to take some measurements.
Poway Royal Estates! What a fine name for a trailer park. My apartment building is unofficially known as the Legion Hall of Bright Red Glorious Underpants, Justice, Whiskey, and Ninjas, so why shouldn’t this mobile home park be called Poway Royal Estates? I like it.
Lucille the Truck of Good Times and Grace drops us down into the park, and we wiggle along streets until she finds a spot to stop. I hop out to gather some readings. Except for the thrum of a washing machine, the po-to-weet of a little bird, and a man ratcheting a socket wrench under the hood of a minivan, this street doesn’t even register on the low end of my decibel meter’s scale. Across the street from the man working on his car, a window shuts and latches, presumably because his wrench makes too much noise.
Then I get pissed off. Holy cow! In my neighborhood, that bird (42.2 dB) and that ratchet (41 dB) wouldn’t even present themselves in the panorama of sound. Far-off jets, cars, saws, dogs, machinery, the pickup and delivery of packages to and from the working-poor hovels in my part of town keep everything humming along at about 47 dB as the bare minimum, the base of background sound. Get closer to the day care on the corner and watch the scale jump to mid-70s at the shrieks of awful little beasts too young yet to pawn off on the school system. And here this place, Poway Royal Estates, barely makes a peep. Far as noise goes, the lucky SOBs in the suburbs have it made.
Still enraged at the silence, I shut off my meter, and I mount Lucille and turn her away from this place. On my way down from the Frozen Northern Tundra of Poway, I get a brilliant idea and I pull Lucille into the Mission Valley mall. I step out and walk, and I’m almost to the ticket window when my shoddy Balkan telephone rings. I step out of line to answer it.
“What’re you doing?” my friend Jen asks.
“Going to a movie.”
“It’s Tuesday afternoon.”
“It’s part of my job.”
“Oh bull. You’re goofing off,” she says.
“I swear to God. I’ve got a decibel meter and everything.”
“Never mind. I’ll explain it later. I have to buy my ticket, the show’s about to start.”
Anyway. Onward! With my Nerd Meter concealed in a particularly large pocket of my shorts, I enter the theater and take my seat. The house lights are still bright enough during the previews that I can read the digital display, and at one segment of film and sound the numbers jump up to 87.5 dB, and that’s not even during a loud preview for an action movie; it happens during the trailer for a quiet girls’ movie, Sisterhood of the Traveling Garbage Part Seven (or whatever the hell it’s really called). Almost 90 dB, and that was a chick movie preview. I have bigger calamari to broil: I want the readout for the ultra-loud Dark Knight trailer.
An usher (a boy that thin ought not be able to get the drop on someone so quick) pounces. “Excuse me, sir, you’re going to have to take that outside.”
“It’s not recording anything, it just measures…”
“It’s not backlit, it’s not making light or noise.”
“Whatever. Whatever,” he says, flipping his bangs and fingering his eyebrow piercing.
“I’m waiting for the Batman preview, I want to get a good…”
“You can’t have it in here, I’m sorry.”
Well, since he said he was sorry, and because he really was sort of polite, in a way, I take the meter outside and lock it in Lucille the Pickup of Sweetness and Caring. Then, after the 90-minute joke Hollywood plays on me, called Hellboy 2, I return to the truck. I check my cell phone’s chisel-and-stone-tablet setup to see if anyone has left me any text messages. I have three.
“I’m here,” reads the first.
“Getting checked baggage,” reads the second.
“Ready, where are you?” queries the third.
“Oh crap,” I say, remembering that I was supposed to pick a friend up from the airport half an hour ago, and I panic a little. Then the idea of the airport appeals to me as an opportunity to collect noise readings from what has to be one of the loudest places in the city. Excelsior!
I set Lucille the Time Machine Pickup Truck’s Flux Capacitor to 30 minutes previous and zap myself to a Wait for Your Friend to Get Off the Plane Lot on Pacific Highway. From the glove box I retrieve the dB meter and stand around, hoping for a plane to come in so I can catch and measure its noise. Passing motorists nod to their friends in that way that says, “Check out this dummy.” Brandishing my Nerd Toy like the World’s Saddest Lightsaber, I wait for an outbound passenger jet to roar overhead, but none comes close enough to register.
Standing next to Pacific Highway, rumbling buses and zooming traffic peg the readout at around 69.6 dB, but landing or leaving jets don’t leave a blip. Loudest thing alongside Pacific Highway, right next to the airport, is a Harley-Davidson that roars past and zings the gizmo up to 73 dB.
The tocsin of my cell phone goes off, and I check the stone tablet: “Ready, where are you?” Aha! Right where we left off. Perfect use of time travel.
I swing Lucille out of the Wait Lot and into the collection area of Terminal One, where my friend waits by that big wiggly steel statue that sort of looks like a walking person.
“What the hell is that?” he says when he sees the meter.
“Decibel meter. I’m trying to get readings from around town. Here, turn it on and hold it out the window.”
A car behind us honks, a passenger shuttle revs past, and a security guard blows a whistle, all of which makes the digital readout of the meter wag around, but we can’t really get a fix on a plane. Ground-level noise in the busy hub of the airport masks the sound of the jumbo jets so much that they’re hardly noticeable. Here I thought the meter and I would be floored by the ferocity of streaking aircraft, as if I’d stood directly in front of the barrel of a banana-cream cannon, but it was more like slogging waist-deep through a kiddie pool of pudding; there was just too much gunk down here.
Beaten, I returned home to wait for the Gay Pride Parade. And in the meantime, I decided to research some of the science behind noise and its effects on our health. Since this is the odd, wonderful, complex world we live in, of course people have studied all kinds of sound and noise pollution, from traffic to air travel, industrial-worker hearing loss, and the effects on nearby inhabitants of something (so supremely cool it is) called a “magnetic levitation train.” There’s even a study that uses a scale of irritation known as “the Berlin snore score,” which I would like to present to my father and a certain ex-girlfriend.
One very interested party in the area of racket and its influence on our bodies and minds is the World Health Organization. From www.who.int/en/ I gleaned whole pages of recommendations for controlling sound and limiting its detrimental consequences. What I found were the host of health problems related to high sound levels:
"After prolonged exposure, susceptible individuals in the general population may develop permanent effects, such as hypertension and ischaemic heart disease [emphasis mine] associated with exposure to high sound levels.…
"Workers exposed to high levels of industrial noise for 5–30 years may show increased blood pressure and an increased risk for hypertension. Cardiovascular effects have also been demonstrated after long-term exposure to air- and road-traffic.…
"Exposure to high levels of occupational noise has been associated with development of neurosis.…
"Noise exposure may also produce after-effects that negatively affect performance. In schools around airports, children chronically exposed to aircraft noise under-perform in proof-reading, in persistence on challenging puzzles, in tests of reading acquisition, and in motivational capabilities.…
"Noise above 80 dB may also reduce helping behaviour and increase aggressive behaviour. There is particular concern that high-level continuous noise exposures may increase the susceptibility of schoolchildren to feelings of helplessness.…”
Which is the long version of “Noise pisses people off and makes them sick, especially school kids.” The World Heath Organization then lists guidelines for preventing exactly that. San Diego’s own structure of acceptable sounds (60 dB during the day and quieter from 7:00 p.m. till morning) falls pretty much in line with the WHO’s recommendations — which were pretty much ignored by everyone except out in the suburbs. San Diego is a loud city, and it might be making people sick.
Also what I found in my digging around the city’s and county’s sites (sandiego.gov and sdcounty.ca.gov) is that San Diego’s enforcement of the sound laws is almost always passive. You call them, they send a police cruiser out, and the police tell your neighbor to shut the hell up. San Diego rarely actively pursues noise abatement, except around the airports. In the past few years, the city and county have drawn up guidelines for the numerous local airfields, including helicopter pads and small prop-plane fields. But that stuff is awful and boring; it only deals with shutting down some runways after dark and instructing pilots to stay at certain altitudes and headings and blah blah blah. So we’ll skip that trash and get into something fun.
Gay Pride Parade! Ah, Gay Pride. You greasy throbbing throng of sunburnt skin and glitter, hand me a mojito and lotion up my shoulders!
Standing across from the Ralphs grocery store on University, I position myself to get a good blast of sound from every float, band, etc. — and I am particularly close to an announcement booth, where two emcees, with possibly the most grating voices in the cosmos, fight off any second of dead air as if it were an attacking enemy. Both personalities, straining the limits of the amplifiers and of good taste, must’ve gargled hot glass and cans of chewing tobacco before taking up their microphones. Even though they only clock in at 69.7 dB, the tone and pure stony texture of their voices make my neck and shoulders pinch up and my eyes squint.
While I fiddle with the Stupid Meter of Embarrassment, I am surprised and a little disappointed at the sound level of the Gay Pride Parade. Representatives of Gay Tijuana spike the readout to 97.5 dB (muy bien, mis amigos!). Our own Gay Community Center rides past boasting a respectable 79 dB, and the two-by-two lines of the vigilant Dykes on Bikes win the day with an eardrum-crushing 107.5 dB of winding engines and bleating little motorcycle horns. Congratulations, ladies!
This, however, is not enough. I call my friend and assistant Casey at the dungeon. “Got anything louder than Pride Parade?”
“You could go to the Worst Apartment in San Diego and get a reading there,” she says.
Ah yes, the Worst Apartment in San Diego.
“Excellent suggestion,” I say. “And get me a local audiologist on the blower. Ask him if there are any specific environmental issues that San Diegans should avoid. Mush! MUSH!”
“Aye aye, chief,” she says smartly, then dutifully rings up audiologist Gary Shasky, MA FAAA. All those letters after his name mean he’s real good with sound stuff. After a brief interview, Casey calls me back and reads Audiologist Extraordinaire Gary Shasky’s recommendations for avoiding hearing loss outside of the work environment in San Diego. One of his suggestions:
“Night clubs and bands can play way too loud. [Again — emphasis mine.] A very sobering fact is that the OSHA standard is for a 90-level dB noise for 8 hours. If the noise goes up 5 dB, the time is cut in half. Another five, the time is cut in half again. Most bands are at 105–110 dB, so the prescribed time [for listening to live music] according to OSHA would only be a half an hour.”
This plays in perfectly with my plan to visit the Worst Apartment in San Diego — as the Worst Apartment in San Diego sits directly below the incoming Lindbergh Field flight path and directly above the Casbah, dive bar and renowned live-music venue. If the poor souls who live there pay more than a nickel in rent, they’re being seriously boned.
At 10:45 p.m. on a Saturday night, Lucille the Pickup Truck of Wonder and Might flies me down to Kettner and Laurel and hunts a back street for a place to park. She runs me the wrong way up a one-way street, and before any of the challenging oncoming traffic, blaring their horns and shouting, slams me into potted meat, she dives into a parking spot. I get out in one piece, unscratched, and I glare at Lucille. Bad truck.
I take off on foot through the streets that make up the northern border of Little Italy, around India and Juniper Street. As I get closer to the Casbah, a plane angles in over Banker’s Hill for a landing. I flip on the gizmo, and while it warms up, the plane dips further and further into the night, and its engines roar. It jams, looking as though it has stopped forward progress and is threatening to flop onto the top floor of an art gallery and motorcycle shop, and the whine of it shoots the meter up to 88.7 dB. At almost 11:00 at night, in what would be a normally quiet neighborhood — if it weren’t for the flights above — this seems crushingly thunderous. I want to cover my ears. The plane drops into the airport, and the street I stand on returns to near silence, the only sound from a chatting couple walking hand-in-hand toward the bar, a couple blocks away.
Good ol’ Casbah! Home to several hundred waist-deep-in-hip scenesters, bartenders, band members, fans, flunkies, and boozers. Pushing in through the throng at the side gate, I am confronted by a wall of blather, white-belt hipsters with asymmetrical bobs chatting it up about their latest “project,” as well as the zip-snap of lighters, the sucking sound of cigarette drags, and the zesty “AAAAHHH!” of the cooler-than-you crowd after enjoying a snort of stiff, icy booze. All of this clocks in at a relatively tame 64.3 dB on the Dip Wad Meter, what has to be the most embarrassing thing with which I’ve ever walked into an establishment of such exuded style and attitude.
After ordering a bourbon and soda from the Atari Lounge bar and returning to the smoke deck, I find a seat on the edge of a low tree planter and watch the meter. As the band inside says its “hellos” and introductions, the readout zings from its mid-60s level of Modster Din to the high 60s, with spikes into the 70s. I wait for the big leap from the first downbeat and am not disappointed. As the band begins, the meter immediately leaps into the 90s and continues to climb, averaging out at 105 dB during the song, and hitting a peak with the band’s squelch-y, squealing, thumping final bars: 115.4 dB. I remember audiologist Shasky’s warning that the OSHA-allowed length of time for this level of noise would be half an hour. I check my phone’s water clock: 11:00 p.m. I know the lineup of bands will continue for another two and a half hours.
I sip my drink and look up to a light in the second-story window, above the smoke pit, and below a screeching jet, the bedroom of whoever inhabits the Worst Apartment in San Diego, and I’m thinking, “Thank God I don’t live there.”