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Hearing Home

Life on the front porch—we call it the Green Room—can be very pleasant until the late afternoon when low sun runs its length and there’s nowhere to hide. The bamboo shade helps a little.

It’s the sound that’s most annoying. Not the disproportionately heavy traffic on a two-block one-way street. Not even the can crunching that carries two blocks from the recycling center on Fourth Avenue. No, it’s that damnable air conditioning unit on Klai Hall just a half block south. It’s f—ing incessant this time of year, exactly when you’d most like to be outside our un-air-conditioned one-hundred-and-twenty-year-old house, reading a mystery and crunching some ice. Somebody ought to call Buildings & Grounds, because no major piece of mechanical equipment making that much noise can be in optimal working order. 

Trying to read this afternoon, I recalled the sounds of the drowsy Chicago suburb of my youth a half century ago, when life may have been less complicated and my hearing more acute. Howard always tells it so much better than I.

“A few figs from thistles…”

Howard A. Tabor

Hearing Home

As a child I spent much of my time outside: on the way from here to there, running errands, walking slowly to school and quickly back, often in the company of our dog Frank. I often wondered how the world seemed to his sense of smell, four hundred times more acute than mine. Or what he heard that never registered on my sonar. Walking to work early Friday morning—only a block from home on the other side of Broad—I tried to hear the sounds of my childhood.

Old houses are alive with sound and ours was no exception. My room in the family place on West Fennimore, the house where my mother still lives, was in the basement, though it had a wood floor and big window well that helped dispel its basement-ness. Just inside my door there was a floor board mysteriously connected across the room with the closet door: step into the room with your right foot and the closet door popped open twelve feet away—a source of frustration to my sister Catherine the Trickster. I couldn’t have built a better early warning system as a defense against her pranks.

Being so much closer to the furnace, I was intimate with its eccentricities, the whirr and clicks of its cycles, the hum of its health, the wheeze of fatigue and old age. I might have had a career in home heating as the Furnace Whisperer. The water heater and plumbing, on the other hand, were another matter altogether, the gurgle and glug of domestic bowels defying my analysis even today.

Outside, especially on languorous summer evenings, there were the lowing sounds of lawn mowing (old style push mowers grazing like indentured sheep) and the simultaneous smell of freshly cut grass—a pairing of sound and smell that still transports me to the 50s. Until sunset we often played “kick the can” where silence meant survival and extraneous rustling—even heavy breathing—led to discovery and your turn at being “it.” The can, of course, was something big and raucous formerly filled with coffee or cooking oil. When was the last time you heard “Olly Olly Oxen Free” bellowed in pre-pubescent tenor?

Windows were usually open then and a walk down any street revealed the full range of domestic life. Parental strife, teenage angst, competing TV stations, and the gradual shift from radio to stereo. I knew everyone who lived between our house and Van Kannel’s soda fountain, so there were no surprises along the way.

Daytime street sounds were predictable as well and helped to tell the passing time and seasons. Home milk delivery by Fennimore Farms—bottles rattling in a metal carrier—punctuated Tuesday and Friday mornings about 10 a.m. And the clang of Vandervort’s Bakery truck sounded about noon on Wednesday, though I wondered why because the store was only a three-block walk. We were close enough to Darwin School that the bell for class changes carried through our open kitchen window and the Lutheran church bell reminded us it was time to head toward St Joseph-the-Carpenter for 9:30 service. And sirens, of course, brought everyone to the porch or front windows in case we could be of help. It was a regulated sonic world that everyone understood.

Too many of us live hermetically sealed today, ear pods and iPods denying and defying discourse with our fellow creatures, scurrying from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car on the way to a similarly sealed work, play or worship environment. I miss the sounds of youth and the civility it bespoke.


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