Friday, June 1, 2012

Listening to the Night

A few nights ago, I gave in and turned on the central air. You know what that means, don't you? That all too brief time of hearing the sounds of the night outside my bedroom window is over. I love that time. The time when it's warm enough to open the windows, but not hot enough to turn on the air conditioning and close them up again. In Michigan, that time lasts about two nights. Sometimes fewer.

It's hard to explain what I love about those night sounds. But, you know me, I'm going to try.

The first night that the window is open, and I can hear dogs barking, neighbors talking, motorcycles and car horns in the distance, I am six years old again and back in my grandparents' house. They lived on Detroit's west side. I can assure you, they never had central air. The windows were open all summer long. 

Their Coyle Street house was just half a block from West Chicago Road, a few streets from Greenfield. There were plenty of noises to entertain and intrigue me. Sirens, car engines, honking horns, radios. As I lay awake listening, I remember wondering why the world hadn't gone to bed. After all, I had.

When I was very small, I was under the impression that I was the only living being with thoughts and feelings. The world had been created just for me (inexplicably, though, not to my specifications...I wasn't even consulted) and that all the other people walking around were there for my benefit. I know of a couple people who would say I still see the world that way. Take my word for it, I don't. Mostly.

So, I was confused. Since it was time for me to go to sleep, why were other people still going places, doing things? The day is over folks. Time to give up the intricate charade.

Eventually, I became aware that I was not, in fact, the center of and reason for creation. Still not happy about it, but I'm learning to adjust. Despite that, the sounds of the comings and goings of humanity on a summer night still fascinate me. I drift off to sleep wondering where that person with the bad muffler is going tonight. Is he working the late shift? Meeting friends at a bar? Looking for an all night muffler shop? Just knowing that the world goes on, and each person out there has their own stuff to deal with, is a strangely comforting feeling.

The city is the best place to experience this sensation. In the country, night noises consist mostly of tree frogs and crickets. They're nice in their own way, but don't provide the entertainment and imaginative musings of urban night life. No place I've been beats New York City. If you've never spent a night in Manhattan, I'm not sure that I have the ability to describe the stupendous symphony of sound that rises from the streets to greet you. 

Of course, the noise is there during the day, too, but it's not until you've put your head on the pillow and your own life has quieted down that you can really appreciate the wonder. 

In my suburban bedroom, I hear a car coming, and then going. Maybe three minutes later, another one. Once a night, I might hear a train whistle. In an 8th floor Midtown Manhattan hotel room, the traffic noise is a living, breathing entity that never, ever stops. Never pauses. It's beautiful.

I've listened to it, waiting for a moment-a fraction of a second- when a car horn is not sounding. It never comes. I have a theory that either the same guy is hitting his horn for the entire night or, more likely, everyone in the surrounding area is taking turns honking their horns, a bucket brigade of honkers. But car horns are only the background singers. Sirens have the lead part. I'm sure they are somehow coordinated. Just as one siren fades, another takes over. You'd think they were calling to each other. A rescue vehicle antiphony.

New Yorkers must be accustomed to the noise, they'd probably miss it if it weren't there. Other visitors to the city might have difficulty sleeping. Then there's me. My mind is occupied with the vision of all those humans..and there are so many of them...going about their lives. Making their way through the night. In my sleepy state, I see well-dressed couples leaving the opera, taxi drivers picking up one more fare, delivery trucks making their rounds, and -judging by the vast amount of sirens- people going to the hospital, getting arrested, and retrieving their belongings from burning buildings. Proof positive that the world truly doesn't stop just because I'm going to sleep.

It's easy for me to be so focused on my life, my worries, my priorities, that I forget that every other person out there has their own collection of sorrows and delights. They, too, are trying to get through another day and make the best of it. I'll admit, there is still a tiny bit of me that is inclined to feel that my needs are the only ones that count. That others' struggles aren't as difficult as mine. 

Someone whose opinion I give more weight than my own (which makes him part of a very select group) told me that we all believe that our pain is the worst pain. He was right, of course, and I knew it. Still, I fought the urge to reply that in my case it's true. My pain is the worst pain. Instead, I took his words to heart and have repeated them to myself each day since. One day, they'll sink in.

It's easier to remember when I keep the windows open and listen to the sounds of the night.

When I was about 19 years old, I was at a family friend's cottage in the Irish Hills. It was part of a row of cottages that were uncomfortably close to each other. I'd tried to sleep while a party was going on at the one next door. At one point, just as I was drifting off, I heard shouting. There was a lot said, but all that I really remember is one guy shouting, "Get out of here, Tom, or I'm going to kill you!" to which Tom replied, "I'm sorry, man! I didn't know she was your wife!" It must have been some party. Finally, after the cops came and left, I was able to get some sleep.

It's rare that the sounds outside at night are that intriguing. But I enjoy listening anyway. A lot of you prefer the tranquility of crickets, or even complete silence. There are times when I wish for that- I certainly would have liked it the night of that Irish Hills cottage party. But there are times when I find more serenity in the noise of humanity...and know I'm not alone in world.

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