Tuesday, September 25, 2007

City Sounds

Today, as it has done every Tuesday for my entire life, the sirens sounded at noon, echoing through San Francisco. No longer needed, the former air raid siren is now just the relic of a warning system. As a child of the 60s the sound used to cause nightmares of nuclear holicaust. Right up there with the school imposed practice of dropping under the desk in case of the A-bomb. I'm glad we lived to realize how futile that little effort would have been.

In North Beach, the sound of Big Ben has been placed into a loudspeaker at St. Peter and Paul, and is broadcast every 15 minutes from 9 to 6 every day. Because of this, I thought I knew the sound of a bell. Then, in 1977, I went to Europe; I heard a toll that simply can't be duplicated. We don't have that sound here. There are other bells here, and they are lovely, but they do not hit you in the solar plexus and force you to come to church.

A constant whining tone can be heard from my flat. I don't know what it is. It is some kind of industrial sound that seems to come from the direction of the sewer plant near Fisherman's Wharf. My father has lived in this flat for 40 years, and he has heard it as long. He has asked many if they hear it, but no one does, except me. Not only do I hear it, but I hear the accompanying minor second that joins it from time to time, ringing dissonance throughout the town. Dissonance that no one else seems to hear but we two.

Sea lions bark at each other from their perches at Pier 39. They are the best part of Pier 39, a conglomeration of Disney style shops on a pier that was built to replace another pier that burned down in the 70's in a spectacular fire. Boats honk from the wharf. When a cruise ship backs up out 0f its pier, it gives 3 long and low blows. That's what tells me to come and watch as it starts its journey out the Golden Gate and into the open sea.

The rolling of the Powell and Mason cable car line running under the street to pull the cars sounds from 6:00 am to midnight. It is always a quiet day around here when the line is shut down for repairs. The operator rings the cable car bell in rhythmic beats, the tourists scream in an E-Ride thrill as the car flies down Mason Street. Formerly, it was a mode of transportation for San Francisco residents. Now, at five dollars a ride, it is simply a charming tourist attraction.

A relatively new sound to the auditory landscape of this city is the chattering of parrots. A number of years ago, some were let loose somehow and they now dominate the city. They dine on pine nuts and other delicacies they find on local trees, and seem to have found a great niche here. They fly in flocks to and from various favorite enclaves and are quite vocal. Noisy yes, but endearing.

Sounds that annoy: The pile drivers, the car alarms, the youngsters in the flat next door at 2:00 am, the concerts in Washington Square which should be banned for disturbing the peace, The Blue Angels. Wait, The Blue Angels? Yes. Love to watch, love to hear, but the cost of flying those planes, and the waste...those thoughts are always present and almost as loud as the jets themselves in the spectacle of their Fleet Week visit.

Finally, the consummate San Francisco auditory delight; the fog horn. A quiet symphony of tones when the fog is thick, to lull me into sleep. The sound that haunts my dreams, from wherever I am on Earth.
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