Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hey, I heard that

You know who you are. Actually, you probably don’t—though it’s time you knew. If you’re like most people, you don’t even notice when fluorescent lights buzz or floors creak. Or when someone close by is tapping, tapping, tapping.

But if you’re like me, you notice everything.

It isn’t a matter of exceptional hearing. Plenty of people besides me ace their hearing tests, even a select few who attended more concerts as teenagers. Yet I don’t miss much. Cars that pull up in the driveway. Conversations in other rooms of the house. The difference between the low and medium fan settings on the kids’ air conditioners. Upstairs. When I’m downstairs.

Mostly, though, it’s that that my antenna is always up. If I’m having a conversation or deeply engrossed in something I’m writing, little that’s going on around me will jar my concentration. (The political yappers in the office hallway are the exception.) But trust me: Those other little sounds have not escaped my notice. I suspect I’m the product of having grown up in a family of eight. Any time we were home at the apartment, chances were that someone, in some room, was talking about me.

Is it a problem? You tell me. I wake up each morning still peeved at whichever bird outside was discourteous this time. (I don’t happen to believe that a bird whose call is Jeter-Jeter-Jeter, for instance, should wake up a Met fan.) If I park to get coffee on the way to work, I’ll notice every SUV that simply must bark to tell its owner that the keyless-entry remote works. Should your watch’s alarm go off—tattling on you for never learning the settings—believe me, it registered. And don’t get me started about Velcro.

I’ve known for some time that I lack the ability to tune out ambient sounds. At one school I attended in the Coast Guard, I wished I could change my morning schedule so that I wouldn’t be shaving at the same time as one fellow student. He’d run his razor down one swath of his face, then strike the razor against the edge of the sink to knock off the excess: Tap-tap. Another swath: Tap-tap. And so on for seemingly ten minutes, which I found odd since his beard didn’t leave much surface to shave. Never a tap. Never a tap-tap-tap. Either of these would have broken his unintentional yet accursed pattern. I considered deserting.

And these days, I drive to work with special memories about the years I spent riding the Metro-North commuter train into Grand Central. Yep, there’s something about riding a train, that certain rhythm of the wheels as the air beneath the cars stumbles over the rail ties with a gentle woppata woppata that can lull me to sleep. And would have, too, if not for my fellow passengers. It wasn’t merely the cellphone talkers, however much I’d wished them into a special prattle car. It also wasn’t just the loud headphones, or the man who once napped beside me and hummed a long note each and every time he exhaled. My special beef was with those who habitually came onto the train with a newspaper and proceeded to tear it to shreds. One article after another: a little reading, then a lot of ripping that, somewhere inside my brain, was breaking apart lobes. If this happened today, I’d be writing Santa. Not for noise-canceling headphones but, rather, a few online Times subscriptions—for them. Smart phones and laptops are a lot harder to rip.

Fortunately, what often seems a curse can become a blessing. My wife, Elena, often tells the story from once, in Ogunquit, Maine, that we were walking through an open parking area at Perkins Cove, on the way to some shops. Without warning, I suddenly gave her a good, hard shove. What added to her shock was that she was seven months’ pregnant. But before she could respond, the car that had been approaching us from behind, its driver passing out from a stroke, rolled by. An instant later the passenger, the driver’s wife, got her foot on the brake. Elena hadn’t heard it coming.

So I’ll take it. If anything, I’m first in line at the ice-cream truck.