The first thing you hear, before you open your eyes on a summer morning, is the singsong of the robin. “A yes, a no. A yes, a no. A yes, a no.” It seems to voice your own indecision about whether it’s really necessary, after all, to drag yourself out of bed so early on the day of rest. This matter is soon settled by the urgent and insistent click of basset hound toenails on the Costco bamboo flooring.
If you are lucky this week, while you’re outside in the gravel dog run groggily waiting for your friend to complete her assigned tasks, the rumbling bass of a bulk carrier will announce its appreciation for the crooked Cuyahoga’s museum of moveable bridges. Do the bridge operators wave to the mates on deck, as we used to wave from our back fence in the days before cabooses vamoosed? Some Sunday morning, hike over and check.
Such lakers go on humming their softer alto notes below the rising and falling of single cars passing along Fulton Road. They continue so long that you will forget for a while that you’re still hearing it. A thousand feet of limestone or steel doesn’t exactly tootle along.
Stopping in the garage for a measure of sunflower seeds, you imagine you detect an immediate uptick in aviary excitement. And it’s true that before you’ve even bestowed on the hound her post-constitutional fake bacon yummy, here at your window are the neighborly mourning doves, the pushy sparrows, the perch-stealing cardinal and ungainly grackle. The click of seed recklessly scattered against the window glass and the chatter of their gossip is temporarily subdued by the raucous coffee grinder.
No matter how early the basset hound has set her own alarm clock, there is always some earlier-rising, even-more-motivated neighbor. So by the time you settle on the patio with your coffee, the sun-stirred shooshing of the breeze through the locust trees is infused with the steady thrum of a 4-stroke engine. If the grass has already been mowed before the dew has dried, just think how much they’ll have done before the first crack of fireworks from Jacobs Field.
The sound of the mower signals the okay to neighbors plying power tools—your favorite instrument in the urban orchestra. Since you first sat in this yard 23 years ago, you have never ceased to take comfort from the music of home improvement. The tap of hammers, the whine of the circular saw, the shouts of laughter and command, they build a ballad of hopefulness and hard work.
And then, still early, comes the eleven-bell chime of St. Patrick’s on Bridge. Though real bells and not some phony baloney recorded carillon, their striking is obviously pre-ordained, since they play the same hymn before every Mass. At least, it’s supposed to be a hymn, even though your pacified brain, singing along to the sound of the bells, has somehow composed its own unsacred lyrics: “There was a young sailor who sailed on the ocean. He sailed and he sailed ’til his sailer was sore…”
Possibly that’s the subliminal influence of the ore carriers. You are relieved that, by the time the ice cream truck starts making its rounds—the one whose jaunty ditty ends with the sinister, sneering chuckle of a horror film clown: “Toot, toot! Hell-o!”—your brain will have re-engaged enough to resist writing a jingle for that.
Friends and relations have often expressed perplexity at my tolerance, even preference, for urban living. How can I stand to be so hemmed in by other houses, all these strange people, so much noise? Sometimes I point out that I do indeed feel some claustrophobia, but that it’s relieved rather than aggravated by the windows I keep wide open and uncovered until snowfall. They raise a skeptical eyebrow and smile a pitying smile.
I have seen my classmates’ Facebook photos of their mountains and their forests and their glowing expanses of green soy bean fields, and I get it. But the comfort and inspiration country people get from a life story set in wide open spaces—I can benefit from that only in small doses. I think my own heart expands like a gas rather than a muscular mass. Without the dirigible container that this city has provided, I’m not sure how much use I would have ever been to the planet. With too much space, amidst too much beauty, too much peace, I suspect my own soul would have been weakened by ever-increasing inter-particle distance as my focus and my energy, never especially disciplined, were drawn ever outward.