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The Very Loud Nothing 

Wednesday, Sep 11 2002
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In the Physics building, a man with a gun led us into the chamber -- a dead room, acoustically anechoic from 8 hertz to 40 kilohertz. He opened the door for us, turned on the lights, and we walked in and onto not solid floor but a steel-cable trampoline, a mesh of strong, thick wire, suspended halfway between floor and ceiling. As far below us as above, and from all four walls, tremendous gray foam wedges covered all surfaces -- the same kind of soundproofing one finds jutting three or four inches into recording studios, only this stuff protruded three or four feet.

The man drew his revolver; we braced ourselves as he pointed the weapon skyward and fired a single shot: plip. Just that -- a faint plip, like a seltzer tablet dropped in a glass of water. The man turned off the lights and left, and we lay down on the mesh, bellies up.

There we spoke briefly, remarking on the foreign quality of our voices, muffled as if by invisible pillows. Then we were quiet.

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We lay there for the better part of an hour, only breathing, listening luxuriously to our blood and our air and our thoughts in the thick and powerful silence. Then the man returned and let us out.

Out and into a bright, deafening quake of a late Thursday afternoon, with torrid shafts of sunlight slicing patterns through a howling canopy of trees. Sounds that an hour before had been distant background had now become, undeniably, foreground. We asked one another, whispering, Can you hear that? And whispering back, Holy fuck! and Wait a minute . . . and Yeah! That is what that is, isn’t it!? Jesus! It seemed we could hear the whole city screeching and chugging like a train wreck in a slaughterhouse, each distant voice isolated, clean and crisp and all too decipherable. Our eyes got used to the light, but our ears remained raw, unable to filter out the cantankerous hum of the sprawl that on a normal afternoon would pass for silence.

When I was a child, I read a children‘s book wherein some crew-cut white kid, his father and uncle run a donut shop andor a barber shop in a benevolent (fictional) crossroads town in Middle (fictional) America. Theirs were torpid lives of benign, repetitive bliss, with occasional visits from neighbors. (”Good afternoon!“ ”Good afternoon!“) No strangers here, until one day a traveling salesman a-comes to town to hawk an invisible powder called ”Ever-so-much-more-so.“ According to the salesman, by sprinkling Ever-so-much-more-so on anything, the anything becomes ever-so-much-more-so the way it was. The townfolk don’t buy it until the crafty marketing executive sprinkles out some free samples: just a few granules in the coffee . . . better coffee! And on the donuts . . . better donuts! Of course, after one gets used to the betterness, the non-Ever-so-much-more-so‘ed coffee and donuts (and haircuts and shoes and fishing tackle) seemed just that much crappier.

(Marketing executive stuffs his pockets and heads back onto the highway.)

That’s what the field trip to the dead room had done to me. A pinch of Ever-so-much-more-so™ had been sprinkled in my quiet, and now plain old quiet was no longer quiet enough. Years passed. I fell into the habit of focusing on silence until it grew loud. In order to snap out of it, I‘d have to listen to something louder -- generally the Minutemen or Meat Puppets. But as soon as I’d recalibrate, I‘d catch myself doing it again. Drinking water in a quiet restaurant became drinking water amid the corrosive attack of passing cars and corporate conversations volleyed between adjacent tables. As it grew consistently more difficult to concentrate, I took refuge in the relative quiet of night and pursued a career that would allow me to sleep through the indigestible madness of daylight.

Sometimes my neighbor Amy would come over. Amy said she couldn’t decide whether she had insomnia or just didn‘t feel like going to sleep yet. In New York she’d have to get up for work -- catering -- at 5:15 a.m., but that didn‘t keep her from staying up past 3. ”Nightlife is necessary,“ she told me. ”And not just nightlife like clubs. I mean this. Just hanging out, talking with friends. Or reading, or doing nothing. Just not having all the shit in my face that I get during the day. My night, my night life.“

We’d talk for two or three hours, nursing pale ale or, if we were fortunate, a joint, two or three nights a week. A year of nights passed without one telemarketing invasion, and no more than 80 car-alarm events. (Quick. Call the cops.) Apart from a handful of teenage subwoofers driving past, we listened only to sounds we wanted to hear, commercial-free. No advertising broke the spell of our communion.

At dawn, Amy‘d go home to avoid the wrath of her girlfriend’s awakening alone. I‘d make coffee and take it on the balcony with my notebook to watch the sun rise. Feel the reboot, the billions of switches tripping, the circuitry of commerce loading with daylight-abiding citizens. With luck I might sleep through the whole thing.

REFERENCES:

More Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey, reviewed by fifth-grader Brandon G. (www.spaghettibookclub.orgreview.php3?review_id=1165)

MoveOn.org (www.moveon.org)

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