Pleasant city sounds: Bells, whistles and birds

May 05, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

I'M SO HAPPY to be rid of this past winter, its cold and long nights, that I've been getting up at 5:45 in the morning. I'm not sure that I really have any choice in the matter. The birds are a potent alarm clock - but what a delightful way to be roused from sleep.

Friends who don't know what it is like to live at 26th and St. Paul in the city are often surprised when I tell them how quiet the old neighborhood is. The other night, I was dropped off at my front door after the end of the game where the Yankees clubbed the Orioles. It was a warm, otherwise ideal May evening. The trees were fresh and green. The street traffic had died down and the birds, so noisy at dawn, were asleep. It was so quiet all you needed to do was think sleep. It is amazing, on one of these dead quiet nights, how you can eavesdrop on pedestrians' conversations, often at the 2 a.m. hour when the bars discharge their lingerers.

I know that Baltimore has a noisy reputation - fire sirens, gunshot pings and the sound of liquor bottles being smashed on the sidewalks. That's the word. And, on some days, it is the reality.

But it's a city of other noises and sounds, too.

The other morning, I was walking a watering can around my garden and heard quite distinctly the peal of the 6 o'clock in morning Angelus bell from some distant church steeple. I couldn't place the sound of the bells. I don't think many churches follow this ancient custom. But, as often happens, just when you think something is washed up, there it surfaces.

But the Angelus, which if properly rung, involves a triple set of three rings followed by a long clap of bell bronze - maybe 21 or so strikes of the clapper. Needless to say, the morning Angelus is not a welcome presence in most neighborhoods. It could wake a drunk. But, hearing its sound miles away was a reassuring pleasure.

These days of wide-open windows bring another urban voice, the sound of the train whistle. Herein, I'm twice blessed, with the CSX line one block away and the AMTRAK route 10 blocks distant. Years of listening have educated me to the nuances of difference between the two mighty carriers.

Make no mistake. The engineers communicate warning anything within hitting distance of their approach. The CSX line, which burrows via serpentine pathways from Ravens Stadium to Clifton Park, is a whistle listener's dream.

There are grade crossings where, by law, the engineer must toot away. If the weather is right (humidity helps transmit sound waves as well as summer agony), you can hear these diesels as they pass Mount Winans or Warner Street in Southwest Baltimore. The vibrations from their horns bounce off the tall buildings. It's like a crazy xylophone.

One of my favorite train listening experiences involves the arrival of a long train composed entirely of loaded coal cars. This is one for the physics books - ton after ton of material gamely defying the law of gravity on its way from the Patapsco water level uphill to Rosedale or White Marsh. It's a climb.

In this case, its not the sound of the whistle. It's the engines working so hard to make it up the Baltimore hill. At first, they seem to be miles off - and thanks to the tunnels -the sound will disappear entirely. Then it returns, so close you think it's under your feet, which, in my case, it is, shaking the terra firma as its rumbles along 26th Street in search of Philadelphia.

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