For so long the only sounds outside were natural ones. That isn’t to say that crows can’t make one heck of a din, that the stiff pad pad pad of a mountain lion outside of an open camper window didn’t wake me up hard and fast, the hairs prickling on the back of my neck in some atavistic body and mind response, some ancient inherited memory of danger coming on four paws and the muscular sinuous bounce of big cat smelling food. It isn’t to say that I slept well in campgrounds where bear lockers were life savers, or that were so remote and deserted that any human with bad intentions could wipe out a small family and no one would ever know…..or care.
Sometimes when we were sleeping in parking lots the sounds were more civilized and less appealing. Drunks vomiting, couples fighting, men threatening each other, horns blaring, radios blaring out some kinda outlaw music from this culture or that.
Cholo low riders bouncing in front of Fred Meyer in Klamath Falls seemed to me to be the equivalent of the mountain lion just trying to get a meal: tattooed faces trying to look mean, their pitties following suit, as if some wiseacre said ‘put on yer best mean face’ and both dog and man did their best to wear the freaky mask of danger. Unintelligible numbers and script, black tear drops done stick and poke with biro ink in a jail cell, warnings to the honest world that they are not, under any circumstances, to be fucked with. Close the window. Don’t approach the cougar, and never, ever make eye contact.
To start with I used to stare, then I learnt that staring was perhaps not the best route to ‘low profile’ and averted my eyes like any good road-traveler does. The sad lolling cry of the drunk with nowhere left to go. The panicked laughter of guys, not much more than boys, spat out by their families, their community, by society and Success, her Bad-Bitch-Self, and with nothing left to do than wonder how they would ever get a foothold back again. The price of living successfully in the USA has been rising for so long that even with three jobs and a side hustle the rent is always in danger of not getting paid.
These nights were not so peaceful. I would rather take my chances with the bear and the mountain lion than risk an attack by a human beast with a taste for suffering, domination and the blood of innocents. It is all to easy to blame it on the booze, to lash out at the liquor, to point fingers at the methamphetamine sulphate and make that easy connection to the heroin. Drugs do not maketh the man, they just sometimes loosen the leash on the beast.
There are many drunks out there that don’t have that kernel of hatred, that seed of destruction within their sloppy souls: they are, essentially benign within. When the liquor reaches inside the sop and meat of their brains all it finds is neurons that tend towards kindness. They might get wild, they might sleep with some stranger and wake up on the floor in a puddle of puke and piss, but they don’t terrorize the neighborhood. The same goes for heads and freaks of all kinds: there has to be something dark and cruel within for that tendency to be amplified by the filter of the substances they imbibe.
The most terrifying of these drugs is power. I have never met a crackhead that was nearly as dangerous as any cop on a power kick. You can distract a man deep into his reptilian brain, flashing one overgrown pinky nail like some beat velociraptor, teeth bared for the biting. Throw something bright and shiny, a handful of copper wire, a cheapass 5 cent pin reading ‘Blondie’, a handful of glitter dust, and they scamper away growling, distracted by the scattered rays of light that have permeated their primal brains, thankfully disconnected from any higher power or elevated thoughts. It is a somewhat harder proposition to distract a cop that is focused on mischief making.
In short, the most dangerous thing out there in urban, or at least heavily populated unhoused land is the police force. They can tow your truck, they can fine ya for out of date tags, they can drag you away and throw you in a jail cell. They can taze ya for blinking, or reaching into your bag too fast for your ID they just asked for. They can shoot you dead, if they wish, and do so with very little fear of either justice or retribution. The cop signature ‘KNOCK’ on the door is the most terrifying sound of all.
Billy, for all his cool cat had an awful tendency to knock on doors as if he were the fucking law. BANG! BANGBANG! Ugh! Hide! That reflex reaction of going to ground, of playing quiet and low in the face of a deadly predator. Except this predator doesn’t want to be left alone and not fucked with. This predator wants to toy and play with it’s prey. The human beast. The most dangerous animal out there. That sound signals getting rolled or moved on, popped and sent to jail, or at the very least harassed into a nervous breakdown. Are you living in this? Where have you been? Where are you going? Why are you here? Questioned for existing with not enough money to function in their so called ‘civilization’. The sounds of sirens don’t frighten me for the potential trouble they are heading for, but for the fact that the sound represents danger, a group of humans mostly protected from consequence and with a tendency towards brutality and ruining lives.
The sounds of the city are a different matter. It is not just the outbursts of people living on the edge in an urban sprawl that keep a sensitive person awake at night. The traffic never stops. The constant stream of vehicle noises becomes a never ending urban disturbian nightmare. There is always someone who has to get somewhere in San Francisco, no matter what the time. 3am doesn’t even bring relief. The only thing that does it time. Eventually that hustle and grind of people moving people blurs into a white noise haze. The brain starts to tune it out as an omnipresent burr, and what starts off as irritation starts to become a comfort, an always there constantly moving fixture of the 24 four hour clock turning night into day, day into week, week in month into year. The same cannot be said of trains. For a while we lived next to an active trainline. The lights and the noise, the horns that always sounded the motion and iron fury felt like a dragon invading the night. I don’t like living next to train lines or cross roads. It feels like tempting fate. Whether it be a train crash, or if it be the devil, you know something is gonna go wrong sooner or later.
Because things do go wrong. They go wrong on Tule Lake. They go wrong in Neskowin. They go wrong in Moclips and Yahauts. Things go wrong in New York City. Things go wrong in San Francisco. They went wrong outside my window. I am sufficiently high up to feel somewhat removed from the street, both metaphorically and literally. I am not scrambling around in the street any longer, and I emotionally feel safer than I did. That said when two people decide to beat the living daylights out of each other just under my window it is never a good thing. I am not legal. I can’t just call the cops, besides what if I did and the cops blew away someone. I can’t live with that. I am no busybody. That also said, I didn’t want someone to get seriously hurt or killed out there…Thankfully it is a very busy street, with lots and lots of apartments. A man intervened and no one was seriously hurt, but the sound of fist against face, face against sidewalk, elbow against bone, clothes tearing, screaming, shouting for help and not being able to give it against a backdrop of city drone broke through my quietude, even if there is never any silence. It shattered through Joni singing about wampum beads, it broke through my headphones and the distant chatter from a tv screen. It broke my mind temporarily.
Music can bring back a time and place so vividly for me that I can taste it and feel the arms or the sun or the snowflake storm of a day and its inhabitants that has long since rescinded into history. I imagine if I ever hear the sound of crows feet on hot tin roof again I will be transported back to Billy and the kids and a campsite on the coast. The patter of rain always makes me panic and shiver. The sound of fists and screaming sends me outside of myself and back to Tokyo and that little tatami room where I bled onto the floor and left my hopes and dreams in tatters and shreds.
The rest of the night continued. Screaming and shouting, fights and altercations. Everyone is on edge and raring for a fight. Some of the general war-like air of the times we live in has bled into the collective consciousness. Perhaps some hippy needs to drop acid into the water supply a la Timothy Leary. Maybe we all need to tell each other we love each other and that goes double for San Francisco that has lost a lot of its peace love and understanding along the way. Perhaps we used up all our share to try and break on through to the other side in 1969.
It is unusually silent outside. The day is ashamed of the nighttime. The city is in a time out. I am not going outside today. I am battening down the hatches and putting on the kettle. I need more tea.