My shoulders were sore from five paid hours of making specialty coffee drinks, and the additional burden of lugging a computer bag across downtown exacerbated the situation. I made my way to a green space near the Lifeway building. There’s a shady area I love to read in, behind a statue of Billy Graham. The statue is hilarious in its blatant egotism, Billy standing beside a cross, arms outstretched in a manner that could be called outreaching if it weren’t so clearly referential to the Crucifixion. The implied equivalency between Billy Graham and Jesus doesn’t bother me, though, and even if I cared I can’t see Billy once I sit in the dip of grass I favor.
It was a nice hour and a half. I used my computer bag as a pillow and chuckled along to David Sedaris. I was killing time until the library opened, drinking iced tea and listening to the wind billowing around me. Occasionally trucks with bad mufflers would break the quiet. Drunken tourists over on Broadway would hoot in embarrassing approximations of the rebel yell. Amps would squeak as bar bands tuned their instruments. This wasn’t so bad, just the usual noise of the city.
At two I made my way to the library, walking along Union, grimacing as the occasional delivery truck made its diesel-y way past. This was unpleasant, but understandable. Until the monopoly oil producers have on vehicular travel is loosened, we’re all at the mercy of noisy, horrifically inefficient combustion engines. What did seem avoidable, at least to me, was the situation I noticed a young Audi driver in. I’ll admit that the song he played was one I enjoyed, but the volume he played it at seemed extraordinary. I would almost describe it as pleasant, except that it was a pleasant volume for me, standing a good fifty feet from the vehicle. I could hear every note; there was absolutely no lack of clarity in the lyrics. How could that be anything less than agony for the poor bastard behind the wheel?
His calm demeanor added to what I was quickly coming to perceive as the scene of an accident. He just sipped a soft drink and bobbed his head to the beat, while people passing on the sidewalk covered the ear turned to his car and grimaced. Friends say I sound like an old person when I point out how damaging subwoofers can be on one’s ears, but it’s not like I’m saying I hate the newfangled hip-hop bebop music the young people are listening to nowadays. It doesn’t matter if it’s rap or southern gospel; anything over 120 decibels is going to sow a field of tinnitus that will bloom gloriously come middle age. I mean, for God’s sake, the car was shaking along to the bass.
I once had a past girlfriend chastise me for calling an old friend of hers an idiot. He was pulled over for a noise violation, and when he exited the vehicle his ears were bleeding. What else could I call him? A defender of auditory freedom? Please; that sounds too Republican for me to even entertain.
Overloud music is for my generation what smoking was for our parents. We know it’s going to wreck us, know it is wrecking us, but we simply don’t talk or think about it. We’re going to grow old pretending the world is simply becoming progressively quieter, in bizarre proportion to our growing age.
A block from the library I began to keep pace a few steps away from a man who decided to rap. He was pretty impressive, actually. His lyrics were insightful, melodic, and rhymed naturally, his themes building organically upon each other. But his attitude annoyed me. As we passed a known homeless camp he turned towards the gathered indigents and rhythmically detailed why he thought they were the cause of their own problems. Doesn’t it seem like they’re suffering enough? Does some dickhead twentysomething really have to cap a day of barely-not-starving-to-death by berating them with deprecating rhymes?
He flamboyantly waved his arms at random passersby, too, which I also found unjustifiably obnoxious. He honed in on one guy in particular when lyrics concerning the lack of concern on the part of the rich for the poor entered into his narrative. This seemed unfair. I mean, other than the man’s unfortunate decision to wear sandals with slacks and a sport coat, there didn’t seem to be anything about him that actually warranted criticism.
Then his rhyme faltered, and he lost his beat. “Aw, damn,” he said, then waved a hand in dismissal. “Fuck, these people probably think I’m crazy, man.”
I’d thought the guy walking beside him was a friend of his, but when they reached the library entrance the two parted company, the rapper’s companion nodding while crossing for the bus stop. I then found myself beside the rapper.
“People gotta know,” he said to me as we entered, “what it’s like. Starting from the bottom don’t mean you can’t go back to the bottom, man. People don’t wanna hear that, but someone’s gotta tell ‘em.”
I imitated the companion from before, nodded, and made my way up the stairs as the rapper turned down a side hallway. It occurred to me that maybe he wasn’t finished, and that maybe I’d just been rude, but I decided I didn’t care. The large tea I’d drunk while I read had been increasingly threatening my personal annihilation since I’d started walking, and I would’ve stepped over the body of a dismembered child in my single-minded pursuit of a urinal.
When I finally pissed it was with the kind of relief that requires a sigh. The sudden choir music, though, seemed overblown.
Having been raised on television, I have a subconscious belief that any personal event of significance should be met with an off-panel choir singing “Hallelujah,” so for the first few minutes I was under the impression that the harmonized voices were solely in the back of my mind. But the more I listened, the more I realized that the sound was real.
“Oh, what the shit?” I growled, directly to my penis, to the bemusement of the guy beside me. Was noise pollution really this pervasive? Had they converted part of the library to a concert hall?
I stepped outside, and without the obstacle of a door the true harmonic beauty of the voices became clear. It was gilded, and I made my way to a nearby landing to find a Madrigalian troupe performing classic hymns.
I sat through half the performance, quietly changing seats between each song until I could safely walk into my favorite reading room. They’re still singing now; I’m typing this to the sound of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Adoramus te. While they sing, I think about the woman who stood across from me when I first sat down, how her forehead creased with each song, how she wiped at the corners of her eyes at each break.
Their voices make the marble around me quiver. I feel the vibrations through the oak table I’ve taken in a far corner. The strained grunts of diesel engines whisper through the second-story window. Clouds flash in an excited self-awareness that we call “heat lightning” out of habit.
I think again of the man in the shaking Audi, of every car stereo I’ve ever heard an entire city block away. I hear two drunk men yelling at each other on the sidewalk. I hear homeless men and women laugh together. I think of the order that keeps our lives bearable, and the random thunder that keeps us alive.