Speaking out

Ecotone home page

The Ecotone wiki site is a collection of essays on "place" and its meaning to the writers. My other bursts of

Coming & going
Food & place
Maps as place
Mythical place
River and Estuary
Rocks and place
Saving place
Visitors & place

Back 1

I hear voices.

No, not those voices -- the ones from the other side of your head, or God or whoever -- they never say anything but "Hey, bum! Mow the lawn!" and "If you weren't a slob you would have put the laundry away by now!" Those voices must have a direct line to my mother, and I don't pay much attention to them.

The voices I hear are much rarer. They are the ordinary voices of adults chatting in the street out front.

Now, if you don't live in suburban America, you might not have noticed the phenomenon. There's plenty of noise here, but never the sound of talk. Over the hiss of the wind in the pine tree and the rumble of the washer's spin cycle, there's a lawnmower out there somewhere, chewing up leaves and small branches by the sound of it. Now and again, a small plane passes overhead. The sparrows are chattering about some midday prodigy; a starling disagrees. A dog barks: Woof!, pause, Woof! -- happy enough to hear its own echo, I guess.

Somewhere in this green and insulated neighborhood, mothers are talking to their kids. Somewhere, kids are talking to each other, but I can't hear them. Somewhere people are washing dishes and talking on the phone, I suppose, and everywhere, the damn tube is talking, but that's not the same thing. It's extraordinary to hear adult conversations outdoors, and I have to control the urge to rush to a window and find out what they're talking about.

Oh. It was my neighbor's maid service, packing their buckets and saying goodbye to their customer.

Maybe this is why people hang out in bars, for the chatter. With so much to talk about, you'd think we Americans would be blathering nonstop, on buses and in elevators, to grocery clerks and mailmen and over the back fence to our neighbors, for heaven's sake. Polite people don't do that, and it embarrasses others when they do. I shocked the heck out of some folks on an elevator last month by asking the woman closest to the buttons which two floors were missing from the panel.

Feet shuffled. Eyes, hitherto glued to the readout over the door, met and glanced away. Folks edged away from me, one of those idiot conventionnaires -- drunk, probably (quite dry, in fact); dangerous, possibly. A thousand miles from home, I just didn't care. I debated whether to leave them counting and told them, as I stepped off, that the missing floors were 13 and 5. Give 'em something to think about as they ride the rest of the way up. Why 5?

I wondered what would have happened if I had muttered something about foreign policy. Likely they would have decided that I, not the president, was insane, and phoned Security about the deranged person on the sixth floor.

The sound of voices brings a lump to my throat. Now and again you hear it. Outside the pool or the ballgame, it means something's going on, and I feel impelled to go be a part of it.

Back to top