Columns 2015

The sounds of summer

Anchorage in the summer likes to think of itself as a city of flowers. And it is. But it is also a city of sounds, sounds that we don’t hear in the winter because we close our doors and windows to the cold. But in the summer, we open those windows and the sounds of everyday life come rushing in.

Last night I lay in bed reading while outside I heard a train whistle, kids playing and yelling to each other, dogs barking, lawnmowers roaring, birds singing – compared to winter in my house, it was a cacophony of sounds. It brought me back to my childhood, to the days when not everyone had air conditioners but just about everyone had windows to open to the street. Our windows overlooked the main street in our neighborhood.

Watching TV in the summer involved a lot of “What did he say?” questions because the TV audio was drowned out by some mother calling her kids in, some guys heading to Victory Billiards, which will forever in my mind be Maratti’s Pool Hall, some girls heading up to the Boardwalk to catch the sunset and maybe the eye of some handsome young man. We couldn’t hear the TV but we heard the neighborhood.

My parents’ bedroom was in the front of our apartment making it prime territory for the sounds of the block. I wonder how they ever slept in the summer. You couldn’t close the windows or you suffocated. Atlantic City has a damp, oppressive heat that discourages all but the most desultory of movements unless you have air conditioning.  So I know they couldn’t close their windows. Maybe, given that they also grew up in an inner city neighborhood where life in the summer was lived outside on stoops and porches, they were so used to it that it ultimately became their generation’s white noise.

My brother and I slept in small side bedrooms, each with one window that opened on to a very small alley. How small? I could reach out the window and touch the wall of the building next door. Opening those windows did nothing to dissipate the heat and humidity. So we got window fans. I’m not sure that blowing hot air around was all that much of an improvement in cooling the room but it sure added a whole new level of sound as the fans whirred and clanked through the night.

Our homes are devoid of outside sounds in the winter here in Alaska, unless you live in the Bush where even the tightest seal on a window cannot drown out the snow machine revving past at 3 AM. Windows are closed and locked against the cold. Birds have gone south to find warmer places to spend our frigid months. While the sound of the occasional snow blower might intrude on our solitude, not much else does. Only on New Year’s Eve do the bangs and explosions of fireworks shatter the calm.

There is a sense of community that occurs when you live life outside on the sidewalks and front yards of your city. It’s a hard sense of community to maintain when the snow falls. Come spring, we all cautiously peek our heads out the door and survey our neighborhood, wondering who has come or gone during the long dark months. We reconnect with our yards and trees. We discover walking without cleats, four layers of clothes, two scarves around our necks and a hood drawn tight over our ears. We revel in the colors of flowers, the red of the raspberries and the white glare of the sun.

I suspect many of us live here because we love winter. I particularly love the silence that accompanies a big snow dump. It seems to quiet the world by blanketing it with white. But I also love the sounds of summer, when Alaska opens its windows and doors to the life outside our front porches.

Mostly I love the sound of that train whistle that brings me right back to my grandmother’s house off of Wayne Junction in Philadelphia. My cousin Toni and I are curled up together in her room listening to the train and wondering who was on it, where they were going and if someday we might also be on the train whistling in the night. Good memories.