Our new next-door neighbors moved in this past February, and we had introduced ourselves to each other and begun on good terms. But a few weeks later, I was regretting an outburst I had indulged in a moment of anger and frustration. An outburst that might have undermined the still-newly-fledged goodwill between us.
There had been ungodly noise coming from their backyard, a terrible screeching that continued longer and louder than I thought permissible for anyone civilized enough to be aware of the need for consideration of their neighbors. I assumed the noise must be coming from their five kids who at the moment were outside, hollering and shrieking as they played. Or perhaps it might be coming from some noisemaking children’s toy or device newly on the market that some money-is-our-god capitalist had struck gold with, now set to invade the already loud-as-hell American soundscape nationwide.
The kids had been very noisy on an ongoing basis almost from the beginning, which I tried to tolerate for a time. But this went considerably beyond previous intrusions: the straw that broke the camel’s back. Anger rising within me at the violation, my emotions began to boil over. I yelled over the tall, stockade-style wooden fence that hid the neighbors’ yard from view — as forcefully as I could without damaging my delicate vocal cords — “Hey! Hey! Can you pipe it down over there!?” No response.
The ungodly screeching continued. So I repeated my combined query and command, “Hey! Heyyy! Can you pipe it down over there!?” Whereupon I heard back from an adult male voice, “No!”
I am generally an easygoing and mild-mannered guy. Too much of a “nice guy” in fact, probably. Which is likely why over the years I have found myself prone to the occasional outburst like this — because I tamp down my general and ongoing frustration and occasional outright anger at today’s society and its seeming utter disdain for the peace and quiet necessary for many of us to maintain sanity. And that in my view should be something of a “right” akin to those for fresh air, fresh water, and security in our own homes.
Much more than most people, I am someone who requires a plenitude of peace and quiet. It’s not just that my ears are highly sensitive, an apparently inherited condition that affected my maternal grandmother as well. By any measure, life amid today’s ever-more-high-powered noisemaking technology and power tools has become louder than ever before, and increasingly so by the decade. For me, these two things together are a double-barrel. More than that, though, my entire being craves solitude… stillness… blessed peace.
Over the last several years, my wife and I — myself, particularly — had been spoiled with more peace and quiet than usual in terms of lack of noise from nearby neighbors than had been the case overall in the 17 years we have lived here. The neighborhood in general skews elderly, though not exclusively, and of course older people are quieter in most cases.
On our left lives a friendly and ever-more-frail widower now in his mid-80s, whom my wife has known along with his now-adult children most of her life — the place we now inhabit being her deceased parents’ old place. To the widower’s left lives a quiet, laid-back young couple with two young toddlers, who have been warm, friendly, and respectful neighbors we are grateful for.
Directly across the street from us is a retired woman in her late 60s who is active but doesn’t bother anyone. Well, other than her neurotic little dog who’s a noisy headache when let outside to pee or poop, after which it will bark at anything that moves until the owner hears and lets the dog back in. But these episodes usually last no more than 20 minutes or so a couple of times a day.
Compared to a few other dogs I sometimes hear going at it elsewhere in our neighborhood when out on walks, we are fortunate indeed, so I cannot really complain, given what skunks these other dogs’ owners must be. The existence of a few such neighbors in the vicinity always makes me uneasy, because of the chance the next neighbor who moves in somewhere close by might also be one of these ringers.
To the above neighbor’s left — catty-corner from us across the street — lives an elderly 92-year-old man whose lawn I used to mow at one-third the going rate for several years, also very quiet and friendly, and with a very long lifetime of memories to share. Behind us across the back fence is a middle-aged couple whose lawn I also mowed a few times around the same period, when I had a small lawn-mowing business to help make ends meet. They, too, rarely engage in activities that intrude on anyone. Next door to their left: a single fellow about my age whose only fault from a noise-generating standpoint is doing carpentry and power-sawing on weekend mornings when others (including me) might be trying to sleep in, which fortunately doesn’t occur often enough to get my ire up much.
Rounding out this mostly tranquil scene for the bulk of the last five years (if you don’t count the traffic noise from the main arterial a block away), the property just to our right — the one our new neighbors just moved into — had been either vacant or mostly unoccupied. In the years prior to that, the use of the swimming pool in the property’s backyard by a previous owner’s noisy children had been an issue I chafed at. Once they moved out, though, that took care of many of my worries over noise issues, as the bedroom where I sleep sits on the side of our home that borders the next-door property, very close to where its pool is located.
For two and a half years of the final three of the last five-year span, the house had been up for sale, but dead in the water in a down real estate market, a situation in which I reveled, and would have been delighted to see continue indefinitely. In the winter, a mostly inactive time for real estate here, the property was seldom checked on by the real estate firm responsible for overseeing the house.
This lack of oversight led to me fantasizing idly from time to time about how nice it would be if someone were to pull off the feat of surreptitiously and completely removing the pool and backfilling the hole without anyone other than myself bothering to take notice. Because when it comes to all the potential noise sources in a neighborhood, pools are probably the worst. If you get a family that has kids or likes to party, odds are roughly 50/50 you’ll end up with next-door neighbors who revel in beer- or wine-laced evenings beside the pool with their friends; or show-off teenagers congregating around it; or loud and rambunctious little kids using it for raucous, nonstop splashfests.
Contributing to the just-purchased property on our right’s long and unfruitful time on the market was that the couple who had put it up for sale paid far too much for it. And afterward, they put in what must have amounted to many thousands of dollars more fixing things up or correcting various deficiencies, whether real or perceived.
Then, the breadwinner of the family, a young and ambitious optometrist with shrewd business operations insight and a penchant for good customer-service practices, was promoted and transferred to a new job managing a sister outlet in an adjoining state that the company’s partners had targeted for a boost in profits. So the couple and their two infant children were suddenly forced to move. Based on the time the house continued to linger unsold even after the market began picking up again, they must have been loath to lower their asking price.
We were sorry to see them go, because they had been commendably quiet and considerate in their use of the pool. Once or twice, the wife had even queried when we bumped into each other outside if the noise level had been reasonable, and I was happy to reassure her it had.
Finally, one day last year — after the property’s two-and-a-half-year sojourn on the market — the house sold, and a young single man moved in from out of state due to a job transfer of his own. Once again, we lucked out when it came to noise. Because oddly, after the first couple of months or so, the man was almost never there. The lights were off virtually 24/7 aside from a couple of exterior security lights. For a while, he would show up perhaps once or twice a week and spend a few short hours inside, or maybe mow the lawn on weekends. Then he would leave again posthaste.
I began joking to my wife that perhaps the job he had mentioned was just a cover story, and he was instead a drug dealer who returned only in between runs for more dope to resupply his local distribution chain. Or along a different story arc altogether, perhaps he had met the woman of his dreams, and was now shacked up at her place most of the time.
After a few months of this, a for sale sign suddenly appeared in the front yard and, amazingly, within just two days of being listed, a sold topper popped up above it. It turned out, of course, this young man had been the recipient of a second job transfer not long after his previous one.
He showed up almost immediately with a rented moving truck, spent a day schlepping his relatively sparse furnishings and other belongings into it, and was gone. We never heard so much as a goodbye from him.
Within just a few days more, a hive of activity descended upon the just-sold property, and we began to worry. The new owners had arrived.
We worried because of the above-mentioned pool the property included — an “improvement” in real estate terms (but the opposite of that, in my book) that’s uncommon in the older development where we live. As previously alluded to, if you draw the short straw, pools can mean ongoing, if intermittent, noise all summer long. Potentially screaming and yelling kids. Inebriated adults staying up late jawboning loudly. Unwanted music or the radio playing. Any of this making it impossible to enjoy being outside in our own backyard.
We also worried because the house had a number of bedrooms, which usually entails children (the previous single-guy owner having been an exception to the rule), who are too often excessively noisy these days. Indeed, we soon learned the owners who had just moved in turned out to be Catholics carrying on the tradition with five children. (Thankfully not ten or twelve, as might have been the case in this church denomination not so many generations ago.)
And we worried simply because of the unknown. In America today, civilized behavior has been deteriorating for years now. People appear to have less and less and less regard for others than ever before when it comes to basic, obvious courtesies like not subjecting others to noise unnecessarily. “It’s a free country, I will do as I please, so you can just shut up if you don’t like it.” More and more, that seems to be the attitude.
You can only hope your new neighbors don’t turn out to be an example of this increasing proportion of me-first chumps.
Now, though, I hoped I hadn’t been a bit of a chump myself, in having yelled over the fence like I did. Was it really that pressing a situation I needed to lose my cool like that? Still nursing frustration after the negative response from the man of the house to my exasperated flare-up, I tried to regain my composure, and walked over to ring their front doorbell.
His wife answered the door, and I asked if the terrible noise coming from the backyard was the kids. Heavens no, she said. She would never allow them to make that kind of noise. No, it turned out it was actually her husband putting up a swing in the back. The piercing squeals had been coming from metal bolts being screwed in with a power drill. Ah, okay, I said, it was so loud I had to say something, thanks for letting me know.
Ill at ease in situations that are stressful (for me, at least) like this, I wasn’t sure what else to say, tried to close on a polite note, and retreated back to the safe space of home.
But the situation continued to bother me over the next day or two. I decided to go back next door soon at an opportune moment when the husband was there to talk. I wanted to apologize to him for my outburst while also communicating that I was bothered by loud noise.
When I did return to talk things over further, another small surprise was in store. “I didn’t even hear you yelling,” he said. “Really, no kidding?” I responded. His wife looked over at me quizzically, “You yelled over the fence about that?” “Yeah,” I answered a bit sheepishly.
I could only assume he must have shouted “No!” not in reply to my outburst, but to something one of the kids-gone-bonkers had asked him or had done. Or… perhaps he was just being polite to allow me to save face. Hard to say.
We had a bit of a laugh, and then all went out back, where the kids had congregated while awaiting dinner, all behaving like little angels for the unfamiliar guest now present. The husband introduced me to each of them and showed me the swing he had put up. I had assumed it would be a swing set for the kids, but it was a wooden lounge swing that seated two or three, made from an old wooden door or gate — a creative carpentry project, for sure. The wife had told me in a previous conversation after they’d first moved in that her husband was very handy. She was obviously proud of his skills, as she should have been.
Since it was an evening when I had returned to talk, there was time to converse more, and we got to know each other a little better. I left feeling good that I had gone over to smooth things out.
As weeks and then months passed, however, my fears and those of my wife were fully realized. The standards of the woman next door about the level of noise permitted for the family’s kids have proven to be far different from what we feel is normal. Certainly different than when we were children ourselves.
Weather permitting, the kids play outside for hours almost every afternoon and evening after school during the months it’s in session. In itself, that’s exceptional and wonderful compared to most kids who sit around inside all day rarely moving much, all the while glued to their smartphones or the TV — slowly and surely laying the groundwork for future diabetes or a roulette wheel of other chronic diseases.
However, I cannot remember ever having been as continually, unrelentingly loud as they are when I was a child, nor any of my friends or the other kids who lived on our block. The noise is virtually nonstop whenever they are outside, at least twice the level I consider acceptable. Constant whooping, screaming, screeching, squealing, and shrieking.
But it’s not simply the noise level — it’s the sheer duration of it too. This first summer since the family has been here, with the pool now open so the kids can keep cool in the high heat, they’re outside anywhere from mid- to late afternoon all the way until nearly 11:00 p.m. just about every night. That is past many adults’ bedtime in the neighborhood, including mine some of the time.
Every month or so, the neighbors’ circle driveway plus the street in front of their house turns into a packed parking lot, as friends with kids swoop down on the place for a huge half-day or almost-all-day rumpus around the pool and/or yard as if the residence were a community playground. (One time, out of curiosity, I counted up 11 cars and trucks total, including the neighbors’.)
We get a bit of a respite on Saturday evenings when the kids are brought inside somewhat earlier, likely to get up early for church the next morning. Occasionally, all the commotion and noise might cease for a few days when the property is evacuated en masse, presumably for short family trips out of town.
An example: Last week, for several consecutive days around the 4th of July holiday, things suddenly went dead-quiet next door. We were able to luxuriate in an unexpected ceasefire and cessation of ballistic chaos across the property line, with only two evenings of actual fireworks going off elsewhere in the neighborhood on the 3rd and 4th. (Because of the extreme temperatures and humidity during this time, no one in the area was willing to endure being outside during the scorching heat of the day just to blow things up.) When the clan returned, I knew within a few moments of their arrival: A stampede of sound suddenly kicked off and the clamoring herd resumed business as usual with maximum vigor.
My wife is a master gardener and in previous years would attend to her garden both in the morning and evening during the growing season. Mornings were primarily for watering, and in the evening she liked to go outside to observe and assess the plantings. She enjoyed the quiet leisure time to mentally focus on any issues in the garden requiring thought and planning, while mulling over and musing what she might do in response.
Now all the fun and satisfaction has gone out of evenings in the garden out back. She has curtailed that and tries to complete as many tasks as she can in the morning before the kids next door have invaded and commandeered the local airwaves. It’s simply too loud to enjoy her former evening gardening anymore with the kids screaming and the radio blaring outside next door.
The neighbors and I have not spoken since the two conversations we had about the screeching incident I was upset about. Not because of any ill feelings, but simply because that’s par for the course when it comes to neighborly relations these days in the U.S. of A.
It’s apparent we don’t share much in common. They’re nice people, but exist on a very different wavelength than my wife and me. No matter how seemingly nice on the surface, people can still be highly annoying and inconsiderate. Actions speak louder than words. (Far louder, in this case.)
As with much of America, the family’s actions demonstrate what they do and its effect on others isn’t something they care about, or have really considered whether others might. The oldest child is 13 and the youngest five. That time span between them indicates many years of ingrained, habitual behavior enabled and permitted by the parents’ own standards for acceptable behavior that is not going to change from a few complaints by a neighbor about what’s noisy or not.
It’s not only the kids. I have heard the husband out mowing before at 7:00 a.m. — added confirmation of obliviousness to the needs of neighbors that comes from the top down. Even a moment’s reflection would suggest the hour is too early to be making noise like that when others nearby may still be sleeping, or trying to, simply for one’s own convenience.
It’s clear from these and other signs how wrapped up in their own lives the parents are, and how unaware they are of the family’s effects on others outside that circle. To say anything further to them about the noise when I’ve expressed my feelings already would simply cause ill will.
This is today’s America, the land of a strangely interpreted freedom with a chronic disregard for fellow citizens as displayed by actual behavior. Apparently, anyone can do whatever they want without thought for others, and that’s just fine. This so-called “freedom” without responsibility is what the country has devolved to.
Freedom? Not really. Now it’s mostly another word for selfishness and self-absorption, while religious or political injunctions about loving one another or serving one’s fellow man have become mouthed but unobserved platitudes.
There are only individual and corporate rights now. The rights of the community itself, “the commons,” are not often considered anymore. If they are, and it comes to a court fight — if anyone other than the rich can afford that — they usually lose out. Any semblance of balance has been destroyed.
The situation with the neighbors my wife and I must endure is just a demonstration in microcosm of the macrocosm of thoughtlessness that has engulfed our country and stolen its former spirit and soul.
It is three-thirty in the morning, and I am out for a walk in the humid summer darkness. Streetlights cast intermittent pools of light on decaying asphalt amid the shadowy expanses between. Except for the faraway drone of tires on concrete from the interstate three-quarters of a mile away, and the occasional subdued swooshing of a passing car on the main arterial a few hundred feet away, it is quiet. A light breeze caresses my face, arms, and bare legs.
I start out slowly, feeling the stiffness in my muscles gradually ebb away as I stride softly down the deserted residential roads. The cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects provide a serenade that is calming, even mesmerizing. The volume is not low but neither is it loud. It is just right for my easily overloaded ears. It is a living peace and quiet I crave. Not the absence of sound or activity, but harmony. A placid sweetness. A rhythmic, syncopated peace.
As my body relaxes, my being begins to expand, and I fall into meditation. The locus of identity shifts, the tether tying me to myself loosens, and who or what I am begins to open up and breathe.
In the city, few oases of peace and quiet exist anymore. During daytime hours, the relentless invasion of technology has torn asunder the natural soundscape and shredded it until almost none remains. Humanity’s noisemaking machinery has also encroached far into the night, but a few blessed hours of tranquility in the deepest part of it still survive.
I used to bridle at these mornings when I would awaken this early, unable to get back to sleep for one reason or another. With age, sleep time sometimes suffers. Now, I do not mind so much. These unplanned nighttime spells have even become precious sanctuary. And getting outside for a half-hour’s walk will always do the trick to put me on the road back toward sleep.
During these interludes, I can reconnect with the remaining vestiges of what the natural world once was — whose echoes still ring in the vacated pockets of time when most of those who would disturb such peace are dead to the world.