What Sound Looks Like

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt

I rent a small office. In the morning it takes me about half an hour to walk to the office from my home. This commute is a modest version of a fantasy I have long harbored — not so much a fantasy as a scenario, and it’s probably not really even me in the scenario. It’s someone older, less social, more focused. I think this someone only writes fiction. I think. He has two homes. There’s a home where I live now, out in the Richmond District of San Francisco, and there’s another home deep downtown. I’d wake up — he’d wake up — in the morning, walk all the way downtown, which would take about an hour and a half, and then he’d write for the whole day. The next morning he’d wake downtown and walk all the way back to the Richmond District, where he’d begin writing again.

I’ve been in this new office for about two months, and the commute, the distance, the half-hour walk, has provided some of the structured reflection that the fictional scenario presupposes. One core component of the scenario isn’t just the distance, but how different are the two locations from each other. My half-hour walk doesn’t provide as much distance or difference, but it’s still re-orienting. Key among the office’s distinguishing characteristics are sonic ones. It has a carpeted floor, for one thing. And then there are the sounds from outside — church bells next door on the hour, the recess chatter at an elementary school just past the church, and the Tuesday noon civic warning siren.

There are a hundred-plus speakers spread around San Francisco that ring out with a test siren each Tuesday at noon — first the siren, then a male voice intoning in English (and in select neighborhoods in Spanish and Chinese) that this is only a test. Even with that many speakers, the majority of the citizens of this city hear the siren from some distance. Were there actually an alert, it would be louder and more insistent. As it turns out, the siren in my new work neighborhood is directly across the street from my building’s entrance. I had lunch earlier than usual today, and happened to walk right beside it as it rang out. Since I moved into the office I haven’t been sure where the siren is, until suddenly there it was, drawing attention to itself, high atop a massive pole in the middle of the street — loud as could be, telling us that all is well, at least for now. At home, the Tuesday noon siren is far more diffuse, to the extent that I hear several sirens at once, their relative proximity creating an echo effect, as if I live in a deep canyon when in fact I live on a high hill. At the office, the same siren is thundering and declarative, a forceful reassurance of the status quo.

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.

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