[This story was updated Wednesday morning.]
Among the many reasons I love Ninth Street in Durham is because it’s the onIy place, with the exception of a university campus, where people still post flyers on kiosks and light poles. This old-school way of communicating—not via social media, which does not require you to leave your chair (or your bed)—reaches people who walk around, look around and, in this case, listen.
At Ninth and Perry streets, this flyer was stapled to a lamp post. It was 8:45 on a Tuesday morning. I stopped, although I admit I did not close my eyes. But I did listen intentionally. (I recorded the experience, but out of context it’s not that interesting. You had to be there.)
I heard a lot of car engines, which muffled the sound of birds chirping. Judging from the white noise—the kind you hear when you open your freezer—the building that houses Bruegger’s Bagels seemed to have its air conditioning on.
There were people on the street but I heard no one speak.
I love natural sound—and I’m fortunate, after years of listening to very loud music, to have good hearing. In the quiet of the night, I can distinguish which of our four cats is roaming the house. (Honor, the 12-pounder clomps; Gateway’s nails click on the hardwood floor. At just 8 pounds, Brownie seems to float, her paw pads barely touching the ground. And Billie’s gait is longer than the rest of the cats’.)
A couple of years ago, I remember hearing a bathroom fan at the North Carolina Museum of Art. It had an oscillating rhythm and a shrill pitch that could have been a soundtrack to a horror movie.
I returned to Ninth Street 11 hours later and this is what I heard: The rustle of a plastic bag being carried. The squeak of a Styrofoam container being opened. Rap music blasting through a car window, nig … A man singing, possibly a tenor. A woman at Tijuana Flats exclaiming, “I don’t need that!” A faint phone conversation. A car engine revving. Another decelerating. The squeal of brakes that probably need checked. A motorcycle purring. A motorcycle growling. Footsteps, probably a soft sole.
The flyer listed a web address listen.rtkt.co, which leads to a page called Listening Point. It invites people to explore and share the soundscapes of their community. I got in touch via email with Chris Gollmar, who created this project. His blog post explained the concept behind Pause. Listen. Repeat., quoting from R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian environmentalist and music educator:
“We must learn how to listen. It seems to be a habit we have forgotten. We must sensitize the ear to the miraculous world of sound around us.”
it turns out there are 15 listening points in Durham (a photo on the website shows one near Lloyd’s Lounge on Rigsbee Avenue.) I called the number listed on the flyer and, based on the prompt, recorded my response to Listening Point No. 642. I listened to a response from another person who had left a message (sorry, but you were breaking up).
At the end of the phone call, a recording said, “See if you experience this place in a different way. Goodbye.”