The Sounds of December Silence

Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET
Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

I got up at five on Sunday morning and left my house still in the dark of the longest nights of the year. Restless, with a project for the city to finish on deadline, I thought I would get to early mass at St. Cyprian's, a 45-minute walk away.

Suburban streets like mine are never truly dark; so much light is generously discarded by homeowners and the city. They are never silent, either. But this morning -- perhaps because of the recent cold or because night and day were equally poised at that hour -- the street was quiet in the still air.

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I heard the click-click-click of a dog's paws on the sidewalk and the muffled rattle of the owner's leash long before I could see either the dog or its owner. He materialized out of the the overhanging shadow of a Chinese elm that no amount of cutting back has ever tamed.

The man and I exchanged unexpected good mornings there.

The city repaved the highway bordering my neighborhood with rubberized asphalt concrete in the last decade. The rubber came from tens of thousands of used tires, ground up and blended with asphalt. An effect of having rubber in the road is quiet. The noise of the few cars that passed as I turned the corner at the end of my block faded away noticeably.

The traffic signals at the intersection where I cross were replaced along with the button that pedestrians push. These now make a loud, slow tock-tock-tock for the benefit of those who have difficulty with sight. I heard the sound from a block away, like the ticking of an enormous grandfather clock. When activated the buttons announce in a male mechanical voice that the pedestrian signal has changed: WALK SIGNAL IS ON! The voice of the button I pushed echoed over the empty intersection. The voice used to be louder. Perhaps complaints from the houses nearby got the volume turned down.

Part of my walk parallels one of the city's parks. Halfway across it is a basketball court where on most mornings a pick up game is underway. This morning, although it was nearly full dark with only a sliver of dawn in the east, someone in the distance was bouncing a basketball on the court. Each bounce was a crisp smack of the ball on the concrete and a slight ringing as the air inside the ball decompressed.

A wildly customized, mid-70s Cadillac convertible -- miniature wheels, elaborate paint job, Continental kit -- rumbled past with thumping bass notes, loud enough to be heard coming but not loud enough to rattle the windows of the houses facing the street. Either the end of a long night of cruising or an early start to a kustom kar show.

The street trees facing the park are finally loosing their leaves, and in the stillness the fall of one dry leaf striking another clinging to a lower branch produced a click followed by a pause until another, lower leaf was struck -- click and pause again -- until the falling leaf struck the litter of leaves on the ground with the same clear sound. Lifetimes were in those pauses; the waning year in the tick-tick-tick of the fall.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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