Sunday Sounds: An Audio Landscape in a Los Angeles Suburb

Declining eyesight (but slowly, thankfully) and a distracted habit of mind have made the sounds of my pedestrian life more present than they might be for someone else. I don't notice much, but I do listen.

Early on Sunday morning, with the dislocation that comes twice a year from Daylight Savings Time, I walked out into the mild gray light, somewhat humid air, and sonically alive atmosphere of my neighborhood.

The local birds were at it, calling and recalling. I'm not much for identifying who's who by voice, but I guessed I heard ubiquitous sparrows chirruping and house finches with their scruffy, descending scale. A jay yakked for a moment. There may have been a yellow warbler in the mix and down the block a black phoebe, stridently calling.

Crows lifted off the parkway panel along the service road as soon as I reached the end of my block, but so silently (and so quiet was the traffic) that all I heard was a sound like the susurration of a heavy silk dress being straightened. Later, high overhead, and flying due west, a lone crow called.

Leaves have been falling from the street trees since the heat ended, but not in drifts yet. The wind made individual leaves skitter crabwise on the sidewalk. I stepped around, not wanting to call too much attention by loudly stepping on them. Why, I don't know; habit, I suppose.

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A runner came up behind me, uncaring of the advance knowledge his intermittent leaf crunches brought. I moved over to the right edge of the sidewalk to let him pass. He ran, it seemed to me, inefficiently, flatfooted, his shoes going thuwap, thuwap, thuwap. Another runner came from the opposite direction, loping with less effort and only the slightest scrape from his running shoes on the sidewalk.

Sunday is when, according to local legend, mild tax accountants and orthodontists get on their leathers and their Harleys and signify their inner anarchist by flocking with other part-time outsiders. People have complained to city hall about the bikers' noise, which can rattle the windows on Clark Avenue. Today, their roar was muted. I could hear a women watering in her front garden, a gurgling splash from her hose.

The digital bell from my church's tower "rang" a minute or two before mass began. I wish it were a better recording or a less brazen fake bell, if only to benefit the non-churched of the neighborhood who have to hear it four times every Sunday.

The Lutheran congregation across the street has spire and a recorded carillon that plays old-time hymns, but only occasionally. The Lutherans' recording is a much sweeter sound.

It was a plain mass for us; no signing (although the rules say we should). There was only the familiar murmur of the parts given to the congregation, a general baritone recitation of the creed, and the other responses.

Catholics are notorious for not singing well except for Christmas carols and one or two lugubrious hymns the nuns taught us. We can carry a tune and salve our cultural anxieties at mass by singing "Amazing Grace" occasionally. Despite the song's dubious theology (for Catholics), that song makes us seem properly American.

This Sunday, a general silence would have ended mass, except for a cell phone beeping madly as we were blessed and urged to go out into the world again.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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