On a sweltering September afternoon near East 17th Street and Euclid Avenue, site of Cleveland’s newest luxury apartment tower, the Lumen, two men in hard hats stand behind a temporary chain-link fence.
They huddle around a spot where dandelions and crabgrass grow from the pavement cracks. One of the men adjusts his safety goggles. The other yanks on his leather gloves and checks his earplugs. They smile and speak to each other in a way that seems almost conspiratorial.
Then the foreman gives a signal, and they begin to jackhammer a slab of concrete, gleefully turning it into rubble. In the spiraling cloud of gray dust, the men look like a pair of potbellied rock ’n’ rollers taking turns riding a lunatic pogo stick.
At 130 decibels, the noise they make is incredible, unbearable really. It echoes up and down the narrow canyon of buildings and frightens away the pigeons picking through the cigarette butts and cellophane wrappers along the curb. Wincing at the commotion and unrelenting noise, I wonder what effect this all-pervading roar of progress has on the mental health of my fellow Clevelanders.
Do their ears ever stop ringing, these hyper-stimulated cosmopolitan men and women? Can they feel it coming on, the big city crack-up? Or has the cacophony of rush hour traffic (85 decibels), car horns (100 decibels) and ambulance sirens (120 decibels) taken them captive?
Incredibly, no one else seems to mind the noise. It plays as a kind of soundtrack over our daily lives. Dozens of pedestrians, jammed tight together at intersections and on crosswalks, attentively swipe their smartphones, narrowly dodging buses, cars and hot dog vendors brandishing bottles of Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard. In the city, everyone appears to be searching for something of crucial importance — a corner store selling T-shirts and leg lamps, a brewery serving pints of high-octane craft beer, a trendy bistro offering bresaola, boscaiola and smoky chipotle pumpkin hummus.
Medical researchers may tell you all that noise can lead to hearing loss, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and the risk of heart attacks. Studies have linked big city noise to increased risk of obesity, impaired sleep and depression.
A researcher at Case Western Reserve University has even concluded: “Working under noisy conditions can profoundly affect a person’s ability to perform well. Noise may impair concentration, decrease motivation, increase rates of errors and can thus lead to preventable accidents in the workplace.”
These findings don’t bode well for those gentlemen and their trusty jackhammer — or for me, for that matter.
So I continue walking along Euclid, not looking for anything special. Today, I’m just here to observe. It’s a relief to stop being after anything. As a novelist, I decided long ago to settle for simple peace of mind. But in any urban environment, that can be a difficult thing to find.
Luckily, I know a place. It’s less than 15 miles to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where on a good day I can usually find an open spot in the parking lot beside the Steven Frazee House, a two-story Federal-style building of handmade brick and rough-hewn beams. Constructed in the early 1800s for an estimated $130, the house sits atop a gentle hill, overlooking a meadow and the adjacent Ohio and Erie Canal.
But even then, I’m not shielded from nerve-wracking noise. On Canal Road, I often see leather-clad burly bikers revving Harley Davidsons and amped up 20-somethings on Kawasaki Ninjas popping wheelies at 50 mph around hairpin bends.
So, in my quest for a little tranquility, I retreat farther, riding my bicycle along the Towpath Trail until I enter a forest of hardwood trees. I hear a strange silence mushrooming around my head. Then I encounter the quiet chirping of katydids, the territorial trilling of a robin, the flapping of blue heron wings.
I try to come here at least once a week, spending a couple hours pedaling from the Frazee House to Peninsula and back, dictating ideas for new stories into my iPhone. I’ve made it my practice, my yoga, you might say.
The park has this mysterious power to tap into hidden creative reserves. And yet, despite its beauty and inviting nature, it can make me painfully aware of another distracting sound — the jackhammer of my own maddening thoughts.
Our minds, for better or worse, have adapted (one can plausibly argue evolved) to cope with the innumerable challenges presented by a human rather than a natural environment. Our restless brains are hard-wired to help us navigate not only crowded city streets and congested interstate highways but also the labyrinth of complex
It’s a world fraught with social pressures of every kind, made that much worse by online media with its armies of trolls and ideologically possessed Twitter mobs.
Ill-adapted to the solitude and drowsy magic of the forest, we continue to grumble about the boss and hold imaginary conversations with family, friends, rivals, political foes. Much too late we think of a clever rejoinder. As a consequence, all we ever do is think and worry all the time — about a future of empty expectations, about a past teeming with regretful memories.
Consciousness is just another form of internal noise, and yet it seems more real than the sounds of our own breathing and heartbeat. The voices in our heads can drown out the sounds of croaking bullfrogs, crackling leaves and the murmuring Cuyahoga River.
But how does one accurately measure the decibels inside one’s own head? My hope is that, by concentrating for long stretches on the sounds of nature, I can somehow silence what Walt Whitman calls “the false reality” of my thoughts.
In the city, because we are focused on so many unpredictable forces outside ourselves, we must renounce our own inner psychic potential, especially creative potential.
But on the bike, my mood invariably improves after a while, the world becomes a sunnier place and, if all goes according to plan, I have the privilege of experiencing one of those proverbial eureka moments of spontaneous awe.
But unless one is willing to take holy orders and live in a misty mountain monastery, that precious tranquility rarely lasts.
Back downtown, as I approach East Fourth Street, I glimpse a blue-collar daredevil straddling a steel girder 50 feet above the ground. With a catlike instinct for self-preservation, he shimmies toward the edge, lowers his welding hood, lights an acetylene torch with his cigarette and sends a bright shower of sparks cascading down into the construction pit.
A blimp casts its shadow across the street where a merchant shouts the low, low prices of jerseys and baseball caps. Trapped behind masks of anxiety, the good people of Cleveland rush to a ballgame, to a sidewalk cafe, to a secret rendezvous that might make for an interesting page-turner.
Under the scant shade of a solitary tree, the air gritty with dust, I listen to the tumult and frown, thinking how this constant craving for stimulation is beginning to feel like an elaborate plot to keep us all from contemplating what’s really on our minds — the common places of pain and disquiet.