By KIM GIRARD
Blast Boston Bureau Chief
The first time I sat in my new living room I nearly cried.
"We live in Beirut, honey," I told my boyfriend, Jim.
He was crushed. I was somewhat distraught. How could this be happening, I thought, as the traffic zoomed by at a deafening level outside the window. "It's so damn loud," I said.
Several months ago, Jim found our apartment here in Boston and fretted for weeks about whether I would like the place when I moved back from San Francisco.
For me, liking the interior was never the problem. The first time I walked into the apartment I fell in love with it -- wide pine floors, a quirky kitchen that's sponge-painted yellow, ceiling fans and a lovely bathroom with tulip shaped lights and cobalt-blue tile on the floor.Yes, the place has character.
But the place lacked the one thing I craved at that moment in my life: quiet.
You see, in San Francisco, I spent a year never sleeping past 8 a.m. in a neighborhood plagued by crazy people, traffic, loud neighbors and drunks.
First, there were the 18-wheelers. I lived next to a supermarket and several days a week the trucks delivering eggs, bread, milk and whatever else parked in front of my flat. I'd typically awaken to the crash of shelves as drivers pulled their wares in and out of steel racks and yelled greetings and jokes to one another. Then, as they prepared to leave, their huge engines would rumble and let off loud steam. They'd
jack these beasts into reverse or forward and heave loudly past my building, letting me know exactly what an 18-wheeler sounds like when it seems to be driving straight into your bedroom.
It was another lame start of a new day. Toast, coffee and trucks!
Upstairs from me lived a stomper who kept weird hours. The first week I lived in the building I became very ill with fever and chills. I huddled in bed all morning trying to sleep and warm myself with showers. Around 11 a.m. I heard a pounding -- it was the bass line from that ubiquitous Abba album, along with the stomping of someone's footsteps.
"Oh lovely," I thought, writhing in pain. "A stomper who listens to Abba."
That day, the stomper blasted Dancing Queen four times in a row. I could hear several people up there singing at the top of their lungs. I'm dying to Abba, I thought. How campy!
"You are the dancing queen, young and sweet only SEVENTEEN!!!" They yelled. Then they moved on to another song. "Take a Chance, take a chance, take a chance, chance!!" they chanted.
It all seemed like some bad San Francisco drag queen dream. So I threw on a nightgown and a sweater and crawled upstairs. After knocking for about 10 minutes, someone finally opened the door a crack. "Can you please turn down your stereo? I am very sick and trying to sleep."
"Sure," said a skinny guy peeping from inside. He was wrapped in a towel. He shut the door. They turned the stereo off. What a caring man, I thought.
The stomper was a flamboyant pony-tailed boy-man who lived with his mom. He stomped day and night with purpose. He stomped when he vacuumed, he stomped when he got out of the shower. I think he stomped while he was in the shower and maybe even while walking in his sleep. My dad is a stomper, and I have always wondered if this habit is related to self-importance or just a symptom of mental illness.
Besides the stomper, there was always the stream of drunks walking down my street on Friday and Saturday nights. They parked near my apartment to go to one of about six Irish bars in the neighborhood that let out at 1 a.m.
By 1:30, most people had grabbed their pizza and were heading home, which was never a good time for me.
Ever notice how drunk people YELL at the person who is walking next to them because they are so goddamn excited? And nothing is ever a chuckle with a drunk person. It's always HAHAHAHARDY friggin’ HAR HAR!
Then they all slam their car doors and screech off.
One night, I awoke to a woman belting out show tunes across the street. It was about 2 a.m. and I think she was serenading someone. She wasn't a terrible singer, she just wouldn't stop. I finally opened up my window and asked her kindly to shut the hell up. She kept on singing Porgy and Bess or some tune about sailors.
Another evening I awoke in a cold, heart-pounding sweat to a menacing, thumping sound I thought was coming from my closet. Someone was in my apartment preparing to kill me to this eerie soundtrack.
Disoriented, I jumped from my bed. It took a minute to figure out
that the bass was coming from outside. I opened my blind a crack and two
teenagers were standing directly under my window lighting cigarettes.
One took a long drink from a bottle of water and placed it on the
ground. She started to dance, one of those techno dances where you move
your arms but not your feet. They had placed a boom box on the ground. I
had never heard anything louder in my life.
They both looked bombed out of their minds on ecstasy or some other teenybopper-dancing drug. I was scared to yell at them as it was 3 a.m., and I lived alone. They left after dancing for about five minutes.
The boom-box thing was nothing new in my life. A homeless man typically wandered down my street at about 1 a.m. several nights a week blasting some 1970s Superfly music from a small-tape deck. The sound was more tin than bass but typically loud enough to wake me up and freak me out a bit. Help, I am in a bad movie with Barry White, Al Green and Marvin Gaye!
Then, there was my true nemesis: The White Minivan. For weeks, the alarm in The White Minivan would go off several times a night. It typically took the owner at least 10 minutes to wake up and turn the damn thing off. I have no idea what triggered the alarm and why the guy didn't just disable it. It drove me mad. One night I pulled open my window and screamed, "What the fuck is wrong with you?" It didn't help. No one answered. The alarm went off an hour later. It got to the point where I'd just lie in bed and wait for it -- no sense in even trying to sleep. And I figure if I made too much of a fuss the guy would send a hit man over to take me out. Living alone makes you think of these things.
On weekends, there was construction. All of our neighbors were in the process of renovating their houses because the real estate market was the hottest it had been in years. Many were choosing to sell.
Typically, by 8 a.m. at least one work crew was busy tearing down a roof or drilling some beam. One morning Jim, who was visiting, shared one of my weekend joys: a painting crew moving scaffolding next door. The men were moving the scaffolding back and forth across the front of the apartment unit. The rattling was excruciating.
Then they turned a radio on a Spanish station and all started singing.
By 8:30 a.m., Jim and I were laughing hysterically at the fact that three men could make so much noise. They weren't even painting. When we looked out the window, they were just shooting the breeze and taking turns moving the scaffolding.
"It's your turn to move it!" I'd say, peaking out the window watching them, screaming with laughter. I crawled back into bed. "Maybe we can get all this scaffolding moved by 10," Jim said, chuckling.
"They're professional scaffolders fresh from the scaffold academy!" I exclaimed, crying I was laughing so hard.
My life had come to this.
The woman next door, who was also having her house worked on, hired a man I called "Old Yeller." He never talked. He bellowed and blustered. He had several kids working for him and each morning he would bark commands at them like: "I HAVE TO LEAVE EARLY TODAY SO WE HAVE TO GET THIS SIDE DONE." Or "THIS IS LOOKING REALLY GOOD AND WE HAVE TO KEEP IT UP!" He would yell from the moment that he started work at 7 a.m.
"Jesus, how do you live here?" my sister asked after spending several loud days with me in July, shortly before I left the place.
"Well, I don't sleep," I told her. "I haven't had a good night's sleep as long as I can remember. I sleep when I go home to visit mom and dad."
Ahhhhh. The joy of visiting a dead-end in the Massachusetts suburbs.
When I left San Francisco, I knew I would never spend another night in that awful place. I was happy.
And then I got here.
Typically, the clamor in my life in Boston now starts about 6:30 a.m. when traffic begins trickling down Beacon Street, a main commuter route. I am a terribly light sleeper and always awaken at the first sound of a speeding truck, its innards rattling as it bombs over a pothole, or the rev of a Saab accelerating to about 50 in our 30-mile-per-hour residential zone.
Another stomper lives upstairs from me here. Martin is German and stomps angrily about the apartment, often dropping large objects.
Being deaf would have its appeal, I sometimes think, despite the fact that earplugs make me crazy. I just don't like having things in my ears.
When I work from home, I can't open the office window past a crack or the raging, urgent sounds of traffic come rushing in -- squeaking breaks, angry horns, farting exhaust pipes and rumbling engines. This sounds professional, I think, as I answer a call from a source for a story.
The commuter rail also runs behind our house. That starts around 6 a.m. It whooshes by and it's fast and painless. The train is actually the least offending noise and sometimes, on good days, I don't even hear it.
Before bed each night, I shut all windows because the whoosh of cars is so deafeningly loud. The choice in summer is easy: suffocate or lie awake with the windows open listening to traffic. I can't tell you how many summer nights I've awoken sweating and bitching and stumbling in the dark trying to find a fan as Jim wakes up fuming at my poor sleeping skills.
We tried to keep a window open in the living room while watching Vertigo the other night. It was out of the question. Jim blasted the set to Loews theater levels, which was fine until the cheesy background music nearly blew me off the couch.
When I recently bitched of my noise nightmares to a friend Mindy, she shared a similar tale of living on a main drag with her boyfriend. They lived near a fire station with ambulances and fire trucks constantly driving by their apartment, sirens wailing. She said they nearly went mad. Later, when they were looking for a house, they found a perfect place in Arlington. But wait, Mindy said, something is wrong. "Do you hear that?" she asked her husband. In the distance, Mindy said she could hear the sound of traffic on Route 2. It was only a faint sound, but it was enough to make her run scared from that house.
Now, they live in peace on a hill in the middle of nowhere in Arlington. I tried to conceal my jealousy during a recent visit. "I almost think it's too quiet," Mindy said. Shut up, I thought. It can never be too quiet.
Sometimes I look forward to seeing my parents just so I can sleep over.
And every once in awhile, despite the cars, the stomper and the train, a tiny miracle occurs -- I sleep through the night here. And when I awaken in the morning I feel truly blessed.