In the words of a comedic band I didn’t want to admit were aging as I beheld their greying, mutton chop-less visages at the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival, “The city is alive, the city is expanding, living in the city can be demanding.” I’m sure having travelled from the sheep-shearing, Hobbit-roving bliss of New Zealand to all the major cities of the United States, Flight of the Conchords delivers this message with the same heartfelt sincerity that every city dweller employs when they stick their head out a bedroom window and yell, “SHUT UP!” It’s such a commonplace notion that it’s hardly worth stating, but cities are loud and generally don’t come equipped with James Stewart’s euphonic pianist and soprano neighbors in Rear Window. On top of this corroboratory fact, city noise always amalgamates into the same nerve-wracking din no matter how disparate the individual components nor how varied the population size.
At 8 o’clock this morning, I was jostled from a sickbed completely surrounded by flu remedies (including DayQuil, NyQuil, Ricola, Emergen-C, and Sex and the City season 6) by a mariachi album set to full blast, a barbershop quartet of dogs who might have been hyperventilating through their barks, and a car alarm that could easily alert its owner from the middle of the sea. This early symphony–coupled with a daily opus of ever-celebratory fireworks, 2am basketball games, and rival ice cream trucks distinguishable only by their repeated children’s song of choice as they circle the block at least eight times a day–may be specific to my new neighborhood, but downtown Los Angeles is not alone in its incessant emanation of sound. Nor are LA’s outer boroughs, such as Culver City where my boyfriend’s next-door neighbors are constantly regaling the whole neighborhood with drunken arguments at the nightly parties they seem to throw and the entire family downstairs might be diagnosed with Tourette’s.
In a much smaller city on the opposite side of the country, the noise may come in a different flavor but barrages your eardrums with the same torrential force. During my last year in Savannah, Georgia, I moved from a quiet, woodside dormitory where the introverted inhabitants avoided eye contact at all costs, let alone uttered a peep, into an apartment that might as well have doubled as a palace compared to the cubby hole I occupy today. The only downside to Heaven on Montgomery was that it was on Montgomery–one of the busiest streets in town, especially when your block resided in “downtown.” Rather than illegal fireworks and ever-festive mariachi bands, this corner of Montgomery and Alice hosted a cast of noise makers that verify the zaniness John Berendt immortalized in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
First, there was the “Ey” Man, an older gentleman consistently dressed in what the 1960s would have deemed “the nines” who walked down Montgomery looking pleasantly dapper and intermittently calling, “Ey… Ey… Ey…” Then there was the late night serenader: a young man prone to slowly pacing up and down the street after dark, singing the latest R&B hits at the top of his lungs as if wooing the city itself or simply shouting to hear his voice over headphones. Along with these and several other vocal individuals like an infamously impolite mother, there was a weekly congregation of people who spent hours cackling at the tops of their lungs like a coven of witches while ironically mingling in a church parking lot. And we can’t forget the honk-happy populace eager to lay their entire body weight on the horn at the slightest hint of inconvenience, a far cry from the Oregonians who take extreme offense if you timidly tap the horn by accident.
Immersion in this incessant cacophony from the east to the west can make a girl miss her childhood home in the mountains, where yards that contemporary suburban developers couldn’t fathom separated everyone from even the slightest noises their neighbors might make and any hillbillies keen on disrupting the peace with a blaring horn were hindered by the shoddiness of their rusting trucks. After leaving this quiet respite at the age of nine, you’d think spending the majority of my life amidst the endless hubbub of sirens, babbling passerby, screeching tires, and Savannah’s garrulous night birds, I’d have grown fond or at least accustomed to the soundtrack of city life. But lately if there’s no Enya playlist to drown out the racket, all I can do refrain from leering out my window at the ice cream man is wistfully dream about pattering rain showers, ocean tides, or a future ranch in Montana complete with a team of middle aged corgis to keep me quiet company.
Los Angeles is an ugly city. Sure, Beverly Hills is prime, swank real-estate, the lush, green neighborhoods around UCLA are undeniably gorgeous, and the permanent postmodern exhibit that comprises every beachfront’s residential promenade could double as a high brow architectural installation at MoMA. Unfortunately, the LA you see splayed in every movie that doesn’t take place in New York, is a small, glistening segment of a larger picture, and driving down the 110 from Cesar Chavez Blvd to Culver–parallel to the cityscape and a slew of rundown buildings no abandoned building junky would ever photograph–is one of the ugliest routes you might ever take.
To make matters worse, LA’s legendary traffic utilizes this thoroughfare as one of multiple premiere runways, resulting in exasperatingly long exposure to the unattractive setting that defines downtown.
When stuck in this logjam and conversation begins to run short or iTunes Shuffle keeps producing songs you don’t know the lyrics to, the only alternative to gazing out at the unkempt urban landscape is to revive a childhood compulsion and start observing the passerby, all inching along beside you in the thick interstate pile up.
Yes, I’m that uncivilized girl.
What my slightly unsubtle observations have rendered is not only verification of LA’s status as one of the most teeming melting pots in the country (rife with endless people-watching opportunities), but also that despite this populace of diversity, we are becoming an increasingly sequestered culture.
Back in the 90s, an age that some in my generation deem “golden,” observing passing faces from the car always garnered a lot of attention in return, as people looked back with equal unrestraint. Back then, everyone seemed to agree that cars were akin to travelling exhibitions and all the physiognomies of the world were up for complimentary display in the Turnpike Gallery. Today, if anyone accidentally locks eyes with another human–mobile or otherwise–stomachs start tumbling like Russian gymnasts and eyes are quickly reverted back into the safety of our personal bubbles. While I’ve succumbed to this phenomenon of gaze-reversion for fear of offending and therefore can’t blame anyone for antisocialism, I can at least recognize that these walls we keep mortaring ourselves into with our incessant texting, social networking “friendships,” and self check-out lines at the grocery store are beginning to climb to ridiculous heights.
I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a hyper-compulsion to greet people I pass in the street, and in this day and age of physical and technological isolation, committing this act anywhere other than Savannah, Georgia, with anyone under 40 seems to startle people into horrified taciturnity. It’s so bizarre that the inhabitants of this planet are obviously hellbent on exponential reproduction but simultaneously insist on creating more tools to easily avoid all those 7.057 billion other people we currently reside with. Does this trend suggest that we as a species are inherently antisocial? Or is a history of welcoming strangers into the neighborhood with pies just waiting to repeat itself, the way fashion and music can’t resist looking backwards? I’m no anthropologist and can’t provide any data to back up these meanderings, but who knows, maybe one day soon every passenger on the I-110 will be hollering at one another just like the cast of American Graffiti.