I live in the Bronx. Across the street are Roberto’s restaurant and a Mexican bodega that plays ranchera music. Down the street is a park where kids play, people yell obscenities, and Evangelical preachers blare sermons for hours at a time on Sunday afternoon. Behind me is a guy who practices the trumpet on the corner. He wears a straw fedora and plays “Silent Night” in July. Up the street is St. Barnabas Hospital, which has a constant stream of ambulances and traffic. Then there are the deep-throated, goose-like honks of the hook and ladder fire engines, barreling their way up and down Arthur Avenue. And, last but certainly not least, there is the interminable, sickly-sweet jingle of the Mister Frostee ice-cream truck whose ditty lasts 27.5 seconds with pauses of 13 seconds in between. I clocked them one night with my mobile phone as I stood in my fourth-floor walk-up, looking down at the street and contemplating murder.
“Well, just close the window and be done with it!” you say.
The problem is if I did that, I’d have to put on the air conditioning, and I don’t like air conditioning. Awful devices, those. Apart from preserving lettuce from Salinas and the gelato I occasionally buy at DeLillo’s Pastry, I can’t see a reason for them, at least not at freezing temperatures. There is a grocery store on Arthur Avenue where I have to put on a coat if I stay longer than ten minutes. The checkout clerks are bundled up, too.
But this is about noise. The world is much noisier than it was 10-20-50-100 years ago. Pick a number. Even with ear plugs and personal devices of all kinds, outside has become a high-decibel world of horns, trucks, shouting, sirens, power tools, leaf blowers, helicopters, jets, and gun shots. Even worse are the leaf blowers–what, exactly, are they blowing and where are they blowing it to? And car alarms. Seriously, does anybody believe that car alarms do anything? Nobody pays attention to them anymore except to stop what they are doing until the damn thing turns off. I have even dubbed certain nights as “Car Alarm Night on Arthur Avenue.” You can hear one after another after another after another…get the idea…?
But the worst, the lowest level of this Dante-esque noise hell, is reserved for the back-up beep. Originally created in response to a tragic event involving the death of a child, the back-up beep has now morphed into an omnipresent background element that permeates every aspect of our lives. It is so prevalent that we rarely notice it anymore, accepting it as part of our post-modern condition. But we pay a price for allowing noise to seep into our unconscious in this way.
Think about it. Noise in all its forms has become our worst enemy. It deprives us of concentration, conversation, sleep, peace, and even sanity. The back-up beep is the most cunning expression of this evil precisely because it is subtle when compared to things like fire engines, Mister Frostee, or my microwave, which not only beeps but has a “nag beep,” supposedly reminding me when I leave leftovers in after thirty seconds. I’d like to meet the engineer who thought that one up.
The back-up beep lingers in the liminal area between our conscious and unconscious states not like a refrain but like a virus or parasite. And it is a parasite. Before you know it, we’ll have back-up beeps implanted in our own bodies. Guess they overlooked that in The Matrix.
Lest you think this is just an Andy Rooney kind of bitching, take note. Back-up beeps are everywhere, like pods…beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep…