Tuning in to the sounds of the city.
Neighborhoods in the city can often be described by their sounds. Each has its own soundtrack. Every section of the city, every street and alley contributes, each unique. A collage of sound. A picture of all that is heard. This music of the streets is found in any urban environment: North Philly, the Fairview section of Camden, and the Orleans Street/Front Street neighborhood of Baltimore; the St. Clair-Superior section of Cleveland and the Highland Park neighborhood in Detroit; the Mid-City section of New Orleans, the Third Ward in Houston and the West Side of Phoenix.
If you listen carefully, there is substance to it. Noises and tones, layered and complex make up an urban melody. It ebbs and flows, flows and ebbs. It starts, stops and starts again. Fast, slow, and fast again. There is rhythm, and like an orchestra, many soloists come together to form a composition. The composition takes on a life of its own, and an audible theme develops. You can break this theme down into movements, much like a symphony. Allegro, adagio and allegro. Fast, slow and fast again.
Aggressive sirens, annoying car horns, the screech of tires and the heavy thump-thump-thump of rap music…. the wails and howls of crying infants and the woof-woof-woof of barking dogs…. the arbitrary sounds of television and the sometimes friendly, sometimes aggressive greetings and small talk of residents…. the pop-pop-pop, bam-bam-bam of weapons discharged in the distance, interrupted by the short, awkward squeaks and squeals of a poorly played trumpet as a boy sits on his stoop and practices on his instrument…. the busy flapping of wings and coo-coo-coos of pigeons, too many to count, as they descend on the neighborhood, attracted by the food carts and foot traffic….
“Nickels. I got nickels! The raw,” yells one young man with tight braids and lime green Nikes, slinging five dollar bags of crack on a corner – his corner – to all who pass by.
An older gentleman wearing a “Jesus Is My Boss” baseball cap sits on a three-legged stool at a busy intersection and offers rides in his banged up, dusty Kia, “Hack! Hack cab! Hack!”
“Loosies here! Loosies!” yells a young man in a blue Adidas track suit, standing in the shade of a bright yellow awning, selling individual cigarettes for seventy-five cents.
“Socks and t-shirts! Phillies and Eagles caps here! iPhone covers and car chargers,” barks a Nigerian man with a deep voice and heavy accent, standing tall and proud behind his plywood table.
“No you didn’t. Oh, no you didn’t….” argues a middle-aged woman to her male companion, objecting to the beer and fistful of scratch-off lottery tickets he bought, and the cigarettes and weekly bus pass he didn’t buy.
“You got 50 cent…. you got 50 cent…. you got 50 cent…” mumbles a filthy homeless man over and over and over again, at times speaking only to himself, seated on the sidewalk with his back to the wall, shoeless and picking at his bare feet.
A man, orange-bearded, in large square sunglasses and wearing a dark green tunic makes his pitch to all those who pass by his neatly-organized table as he gently caresses and tugs on a set of wooden prayer beads. “Oil and perfumes! Sweet potato pies! Bean pies! Oils here!”
“I’m here…I’m here…. I’m here…” pleads a pretty young woman clutching a large box of diapers in one hand and waving her car keys – jingle, jingle, jingle – in the other, moving as quick as she can in her bright blue heels, wearing jeans so tight that she squeaks while an indifferent officer from the city’s parking authority writes up a ticket for the quarter she failed to put in the meter.
A large Jamaican woman working from a refrigerated food cart with a large Sunkist sign advertising fruit salads and party trays repeats her customers’ orders back to them as she fills Styrofoam containers with fresh fruit, “dat’s one large watermelon, one large mixed and dat’s two small strawberry smoothies,” speaking loudly over the whir of an industrial strength blender as her teenage nephew makes vegetable and fruit smoothies, quiet at his work….
Two Asian gentlemen go back and forth, full of energy and moving large cardboard boxes using a handcart, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, talking to each other in a quick, focused clip in a language nobody recognizes as a fish truck with New York plates makes a delivery to a Chinese take-out joint …..car doors in need of WD-40 squeal and groan sharply, driving the dogs of the neighborhood to howl in displeasure as a sharply dressed older gentleman helps his wife into their two-door, cherry red Cadillac, and sets their bag of groceries and his wife’s cane down in the trunk of the car…..children and young teens laugh, yell and tease one another as they make their way to and from the bus stop, shouting and talking in shrill voices, innocent giggles scattered here and there ….several young men talk excitedly about the previous day’s football games in front of a donut shop, cigarettes and hot coffee in hand, pausing in their chatter only to eyeball the women passing by ….voices and crosstalk in the background, much of it directed into cell phones, yapping mindlessly and making up one collective crescendo….
Sounds, noises and tones…. melodies, rhythm and movements…. fast, slow and fast again…. a symphony.