The intangible essence of Baltimore noise

Kate Pipkin

September 01, 1993|By Kate Pipkin

FOR A long time I forgot about my grandmother's house -- one of thousands of rowhomes that stretch so tightly across Baltimore's inner city. It took the intangible essence of noise on a hot, breathless August night to bring forth a childhood memory -- a memory that has influenced my adult life much more than I ever realized.

This trickle of memory was actually prompted by a simple inconvenience: the central air conditioning in my apartment died. The landlord said it would be several days before he could get it repaired. The mercury in my wall thermometer had settled at 95 degrees. I tapped the instrument, hoping perhaps it was broken, that maybe it really wasn't that hot. But it was.

Resigned to my stuffy dilemma (and apartment), I opened all the windows and pared down to my underwear. Now I was ready to toss and turn in my own sweat -- late summer in Baltimore.

As I lay there in the darkness, listening to an argument ensuing across the street, I suddenly had the feeling I had been in this situation before: in the dark, in the heat, in the city.

I remembered my grandmother on my father's side used to live just a few yards from Patterson Park in East Baltimore. As children, my brother and sister and I would often visit and spend the night with her. We lived just beyond the city line in Baltimore County.

Summer was the best time to visit my grandmother because we could sit out front on the immaculate marble steps and watch the other children sitting on their grandmothers' stoops. We could also go to the park and climb the dizzying circular stairs of the pagoda to catch a bit of breeze at the top.

But for me, the best part about visiting the city was the noise. On exceptionally hot nights, my grandmother would let me sleep in her bed in the front of the house. The sounds of the city drifted lazily into that front room, and I would lie there for hours, in just my undershirt and underwear, listening.

The urban noises gave birth to a special magic -- the kind of magic that weaves spells of excitement, life, mystery. An impatient car horn would blast out front, young men would laugh and call to one another and always a siren was wailing in the distance. Some nights the high temperatures would cause an argument to erupt. On other evenings the tinny notes of a transistor radio would serenade me in the heat.

As a child, I knew the noise meant something was happening out there, something thrilling and wonderful, something very much alive. I vowed to be a part of it one day.

Now, some 25 years later, I was a part of it, living and working in the inner city. But over the years, I discovered those charming urban sounds weren't as romantic as I imagined them in my child's mind. Now I know that sometimes men shouting means a drug deal gone bad, and occasionally the shouts are followed by the staccato pops of gunfire. A siren shrieking down my street can mean anything from a drive-by shooting to a carjacking. The sounds of a domestic fight often include the slap of a hand against a face or the smash of a bottle followed by weeping.

Until I was without the luxury of air conditioning, I didn't realize how much I had blocked out those city sounds of woe I once found so intriguing. And I learned something else, too. I needed the breakdown of the air conditioning to remember that some of the city's cacophony is just as romantic as it ever was, even when heard with the experienced ear of an adult.

The early light of that first morning with no air conditioning brought fresh waves of heat and noise into my bedroom. The mesmerizing call of a train whistle broke the air. I've always found something soothing and dependable about the sounds of a train. Then came the deep-throated blast of a steamship. This was followed by the bass voice of an older gentleman walking by, filling the air with a verse of "Go Tell It on the Mountain."

Two small boys ran past, giggling as they chased one another, their bare feet slapping against the concrete, like little waves. I simply rested there in the heat and listened, just as I had done many years ago.

Baltimore was waking up to another hot day and, if I listened carefully, the sound of it was still exciting.

Kate Pipkin writes from Baltimore.

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