This Is Our Noise: A Constant Truth
By Joe Dungan
Apr 23, 2007
It rained a few days ago, which I bring up only because it’s news. This is shaping up to be the driest rain season since we began measuring such things, so nowadays when it rains, it’s especially welcome. We don’t just need the water, but I believe we need the sound. I know of no one who doesn’t like the sound of rain, and I suspect that it helps a city full of stress cases calm down a little. It’s also a nice sound because it drowns out all the other noise in the city.
The noise in Los Angeles is constant. There is usually traffic, on every street, most of the time. Sometimes, a car comes by blasting music that always seems to be the most unappealing music ever recorded. (Just once I’d like to hear someone driving by blasting a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.) Sometimes, it thoughtfully peels out nearby. Even cars that aren’t in use are noisy here; we are the international capital of paranoiacs who get car alarms that go off when no one is breaking into the car. This happens either because the car owner hasn’t figured out the sequence of turning off the alarm before entering the car, or because a flea flaps its wings next to it. But I have never heard a car alarm go off because a thief broke into the vehicle. No one has. Ever. It’s too crazy an idea even to be an urban legend.
We have plenty of helicopters here, many of which like to fly as close to the ground as the FAA will allow. On occasion, they’ll fly in circles over one’s neighborhood -- at night, if you’re lucky -- to catch some asshole who was rude enough to commit a crime, then dumb enough to flee just as the cops arrive. The helicopters are in a noise contest with the muffler-free motorcyclists, who outnumber them and are closer to the ground. We have more construction workers than in other cities because every building here needs to be rebuilt because they’re not expensive enough already. People honk horns because no one’s invented a car that yells, “Speed up, asshole,” “Watch where you’re going, asshole,” or “Put down the cell phone, asshole.” Dogs bark more here because, in this town, everyone wants attention.
There is also no shortage of sirens, because we have no shortage of crimes or seriously injured people -- including heart attack victims due to the shock of all the sudden and loud noises.
The past decade has seen the rise of a fantastic form of noise pollution: cell phones. Other people’s cell phone conversations have the uncanny quality of blending into the din of any room at the same time they are clashing with it. They would be amusing if they weren’t so homicidally maddening. It begins when someone’s crotch starts playing “Dontcha” or “Mambo Number Five” or “Darth Vader’s Theme” because people aren’t thoughtful enough to keep their cell phones on vibrate. Then they proceed to have a conversation that is, without exception, long, loud, and outwardly pointless. (The only people polite enough to take their conversations outside, I’ve noticed, are people who actually have interesting conversations on their cell phones. The boring chats are shared in front of everyone.) It even happens in movie theaters, where you would think people would be too polite to do such things. Nope. Lights down, quiet, everyone involved in the movie, then, sure as shit, some asshole’s cell phone goes off. There is no law against it, and the few stewards of public places who have bothered to enact policies against cell phone use are slow or reluctant to enforce them. God forbid any customer go an entire evening without easy access to mundane conversation.
Even in the dead of night, when everyone’s asleep because there are only about eight places in town that are open after two in the morning, the city makes noise. I can best describe it as a long sigh.
While some of this may resemble the hustle and bustle of a big city, for some reason in L.A., it adds up not to a collective noise, but just the sum of noise parts. New York City has the noise of a metropolis, but it is the kind of noise that energizes a person, the buzz of an empire in constant action. L.A. sounds like an overworked machine, its efficiency needle in the red. The only hustle we have is done by people in showbiz. There is no bustle. There is lurching, staggering, screeching, stomping, grinding, shouting, stalling, and underneath it all, a wail in the form of man’s search for meaning. And searching for meaning in Los Angeles is like looking for diamonds in a landfill.
Believe it or not, there are times when we don’t want to hear all that noise. Sidestepping the impracticality of going hundreds of miles away every time, we opt for something simpler: drowning out others’ noise with our own noise. Therefore, a person such as myself might be living his life in his quiet valley flat, trying to ignore the surround sound system of my upstairs neighbor, while both of us are trying to tune out the perpetual quilting bee on the balcony across the driveway. This is on the same balcony where someone has one of those cell phones that doubles as a walkie-talkie, so on occasion we get to hear an extra conversation as well as an electronic chirp every time the other person talks. (As I write this, outside the same building, some twit is yelling up at a balcony to someone. I keep hearing “Judit” over and over. Finally she explains to someone else sticking their head out of their balcony that she got locked out and didn’t have a key. The explanation was so loud that I didn’t have to open my window to hear it.) And none of us are any match for the periodic plane taking off from Bob Hope Airport, one of the busiest commercial airports in the country. The good news is that with all that noise going on, I don’t have to hear my neighbor’s parrot.
As for legal recourse, it does happen. Police do pull over loud cars and show up at noisy parties, but rigid enforcement is pretty futile in a city with a perpetual shortage of police officers. Besides, many of the definitions of noise violations appear to involve judgment calls. But the city noise ordinance has a section about leaf blowers that’s amazingly clear-cut. I did a double-take when I read it: “No gas-powered blower shall be used within 500 feet of a residence at anytime.”
Okay, judgment calls I can understand. But why don’t police enforce such a clearly written law in the gardener capital of the world? I called the North Hollywood Police Station. First, I wanted to make sure that noise law enforcement wasn’t just a theory, since I’ve never actually seen anyone get a ticket for being loud. A very nice officer informed me that patrol officers do, in fact, cite noise polluters when they can.
“What about the ordinance against gas-powered leaf blowers?” I asked.
“I don’t think there is an ordinance against gas-powered leaf blowers.”
“Yes, there is. It’s on the noise enforcement team’s Web site.”
“Oh, in that case, it’s probably because of the drought. The city doesn’t want to encourage people to use hoses to clean off driveways. As I understand it, they’re going to repeal the leaf blower law.”
“Which is why the police don’t bother to enforce it.”
In other words, we’re noisier than we need to be because it doesn’t rain enough.
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