Sounds and the City: Noises from my Neighbors

by: Raechel T

I have trouble sleeping when I travel places outside of a major city. For six years of my adult life, I lived in the hustle and bustle of Chicago and then, for the past three years, I’ve lived in Minneapolis. The sound of traffic and trains and drunken songs from those either heartbroken or in love have become a welcome soundtrack. When I visit family back in Ohio, the silence of the suburbs is deafening. Chirping crickets keep me awake and I long for the rumble of the city bus screeching to a stop.

But the city sounds don’t stop on the streets and sidewalks. As anyone who has lived in an apartment complex knows, we are privy to unique noises from our neighbors who dwell above, below, or beside us. In The Problem of Place in America, Ray Oldenberg laments that not only are the suburbs an example of the dwindling public sphere but that “[t]he cosmopolitan promise of our cities is diminished. Its ecumenic spirit fades without ever-increasing retreat into privacy.”

I tend to agree with Oldenberg, that there is indeed a problem with the lack of shared communal spaces and activities, but I also think we shouldn’t totally write off city-living as a lost cause. To do so would be to dismiss that “privacy” in the context of the city has a very different definition than it does in the suburbs. I know when I play my music, fight or fuck loudly that my neighbors will hear it. And there’s something sort of liberating about living in such close quarters with strangers, and still being vulnerable to letting your private selves seep through the walls into the public sphere. There’s an unspoken contract apartment livers sign: “I’ll let you hear my business, if you let me hear yours.”

Here are some examples of “the business” my neighbors through the years have shared with me.

Lincoln Park, Chicago. 2006.

My roommate and I lived in a garden apartment about three blocks from DePaul’s campus. We painted the walls pink and brown, which, juxtaposed to the white ceilings, led to the name “Apartment Neapolitan.” It was a brick building with about six other units and an attached building that had six or so more. Most of our neighbors we never really saw, except for one. He was a wiry man with pale skin who wore thin, silver-framed glasses and Eddie Bauer pullovers his mom probably bought him. He had a terrier that he took for walks on a red leash, and he always said “Hello!” in the hallway, with an awkward, toothy smile.

Now, I could never say for sure, but I am almost certain that he was also the man behind the music we heard reverberate from above. It had nothing to do with a too-loud stereo. No, this man had pipes. Pipes that echoed the melodies of what I could only identify as “Celtic opera.” Beautiful, perfectly pitched notes, delivered with a smooth Irish brogue, filled up our apartment like grassy hills.

When we first heard the music, we sort of laughed about it, but when we started hearing it daily, it became a comfort. I felt a new bond with the thin man in the Eddie Bauer pullovers, so much so that I would smile at him even harder when he passed by with the terrier on the red leash.

Lincoln Square, Chicago. 2009.

Cindy Diller* lived upstairs from us. We know her name because we retrieved our mail from the same hallway. Most of her mail was bills and junk catalogs, but sometimes a Netflix would arrive, and I’d hold it up to the sunlight in a vain attempt to learn more about Cindy Diller’s taste in film.

We learned a lot more about Cindy from the sounds she made above us in our split-level house-turned-apartment. We didn’t start hearing it until the second month we lived there, but all of a sudden, every day, there would be a scuffling above followed by a horrible sound that could only be described as…

“Is a cat being tortured upstairs?” my roommate asked.

“Or is Cindy Diller just having some really kinky sex?” I wondered in response.

We listened again to noises that, really, could be either.

“It’s one of those two,” my roommate nodded.

“Poor kitty,” I frowned.

“Or lucky Cindy,” my roommate shrugged.

Uptown, Minneapolis. 2011.

I think I miss the noises from this four-plex most of all. My roommate and I lived on the second floor, across the hall from two young, gay, hipster guys. They were white, both thin, both well dressed, and one had longer black hair, the other a close-cut crop. We saw them a lot, since they smoked on our front stoop. “Hi,” we’d always exchange politely. They’d wave with their cigarette in hand, and I’d dodge my head away from the smoke, hoping they wouldn’t notice.

They’d get visitors at night sometimes. Other hipster friends would come to party and sometimes I’m fairly sure they had mutually-invited sex partners, and we’d occasionally hear laughter and ironic merriment from behind their door.

But the really note-worthy noise always came in the late morning/early afternoon. It would often start after a wrecked-looking hipster girl would leave in the clothes from the night before, or after a satisfied gay man would saunter out. It was not until the two men were alone, together, that the real joy was unleashed.

They must have spent all their money on drinks and their sound system–because the speakers made the music sound like it was inside our apartment. And it was never that loud during their parties, only the days after. Blaring loud jams would begin as I was typing away on a paper or lesson planning. Destiny’s Child and The Jackson 5 were the most common, and often played on repeat, closely followed by a random mix of frequently-rotated old and new hits: Shout Out Louds, Otis Redding, Gossip, Dusty Springfield and Bon Iver.

It was the most distracting thing ever, and I could never get any work done, but they are probably my favorite neighbors of all time. I never got to see it actually happen, but I could feel them dancing to those tunes in the middle of the day, alone, together, feeling good. And probably knowing full well, that they were sharing that with me, too.

*Names have been changed.

Raechel T is a PhD Candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include: critical media studies, queer studies, rhetoric, critical pedagogy, and the labor movement. She’s a long-time labor activist and a full-time cat lady. You can read more of Raechel’s thoughts at rebelgrrlacademy.wordpress.com, and you can follow her adventures with vegan food and healthy living at rebelgrrlkitchen.wordpress.com.

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