Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Didja Hear That?



There is silence and silence. In Louisiana they plug in the electric trees at dusk and the insects, the frogs and the nightbirds go to work. Eventually, it becomes background and when it stops for a minute you wonder if the world's ended. A friend in Oakland, Calif., was complaining about global warming because the nice weather keeps the birds chirping until dark and it drives her insane. I couldn't quite understand: don't most birds chirp until dark? I never heard of a place where they shut up while it was still light out, but now I know: Oakland before global warming. I wrote her back that I lived in a place where if you wanted silence you had to wear earplugs, but I, personally, am not at all bothered by birds and bugs having a nightlife. Hell, you only live once, and if you're a bird or bug, you don't live that long anyway.

But then I did see how she might have a point when I went to the Ozark Mountains and there was suddenly quiet at night. It was magical: I could hear myself thinking and I could see better by starlight. Each noise had its own distinct personality and it meant something. A branch falling was significant and I got goosebumps at some unidentified sound that could have been a small animal snuffed out by a night-hunting owl. There was no chatter at night in the mountains. From there I went to San Francisco to live (temporarily) on top of a hill in a magnificent house overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. The silence here is profound: the fog that's just rolled in off the ocean has buried everything in a dreamy, cottony substance. The sound of my typing sounds like a roaring waterfall. The birds are still asleep in the morning fog (or can't penetrate it) because of the cloud we are in. It is also Sunday and early morning and there is no traffic outside. This isn't just silence: it's Sunday silence doubled by the silence of the rich.

Sundays have a quietness about them (or should anyway) that slows down the machinery of creatures buzzing for food. One of my favorite novels is Le Dimanche de la Vie ("The Sunday of Life") by Raymond Queneau, a book that tells the story of a quiet Sunday in Paris in the 1950s when a soldier falls (quietly) in love with a seamstress. That book is just about the silence of Sundays and there are no rich people in it, but here in the Marina in San Francisco, there is a padded extra wall of wealth that surrounds the hilltop villas like a handwoven quilt. I've noticed, over the years, how much quieter the environs of the super-rich get. You don't see the extra silence mentioned in the house price, but it is, sure as grammar, part and parcel of talking rich. I once heard, on an exclusive millionaire's golf course, the cry of a burrow crit slugged by a golf ball. It was agonized, but polite. Even the dying muffle their shrieking around the rich. I can live with both, but I prefer the din of life unfettered, i.e., the swamp.

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