Monday, June 27, 2011

Waste noise

Once a week the same truck roars by our house. It turns left on Birch and grumbles the last quarter of a mile to Riverside Cemetery, where it picks up a dumpster load of garbage, and returns by the same route, passing again in front of our house, before it roars off to its next stop. It used to come Wednesdays. Lately it’s been Fridays.

You have to wonder what sort of waste a cemetery generates to fill a dumpster every week.

I’ve never seen the truck. I know it’s a dumpster truck for several reasons: it comes and goes in the dark, it comes and goes quickly, within five minutes, and it comes and goes with regularity. It also has the grinding diesel sound of a garbage truck, a tenor compared to a bass. It must be a garbage truck. Still, when I hear it pass, I don’t picture a dumpster truck but a dump truck, with an open box on back and a hydraulic lift that raises the box like a drawbridge, a truck for carrying dirt. That’s the sort of truck I owned when I was four or five and played in a sandbox. It was yellow. This truck is different: longer bed, rig in front to lift the dumpster overhead into the back. Trucks like this around here are usually green. Monstrously huge grasshoppers.

The truck passes with remarkable regularity, which I would never have noticed except it comes when I am sitting, meditating, in a corner of my study by a window in the front of the house. I sit mornings between half past five and half past six. I do not remain still the whole time. I usually start, cup of coffee in hand, reading a short essay or poem – instructions for sweeping the porch or carrying out the garbage. It’s surprising how even the most mundane chore can become an occasion for delight. By the time the truck arrives, however, I have set aside the book, and I am simply sitting, facing an empty white wall. I hear the truck approach. A distant grumble. Perhaps a tractor-trailer on the highway. Perhaps a nearer car. But the engine grows louder. And as it winds the narrow streets, the noise grows by waves as gears shift up and down: Montford, Chestnut, Pearson. It seems to be coming for breakfast. It’s outside the window. On the porch. In the room. But the intensity shifts from left to right. The truck passes, guns its engine, double clutches, downshifts, expresses brakes with the squeal of a tuning fiddle, and turns. I listen as the sound falls away along Birch, but then, just as the distance is about to swallow up the sound, its effort picks up as the truck rises the last fifty yards into the cemetery.

I have come to pay attention to the engine, to listen as it passes, to follow as long as I can, in hopes of following the whole way, through final stop, turn, stop, forward, stop, hydraulic grind, shake and clash of dumpster, more grind, reverse, stop, then the returning hum, whine, and roar.

But I cannot hear it all. I lose the truck before it gets to the dumpster. Despite effort, I’ve never managed to hear the clatter of the dumpster itself being lifted, shaken, and returned to its concrete pad. I think I can hear the truck in the cemetery as it climbs the last hill before descending to the cemetery office, behind which sits the dumpster. I’ve seen the dumpster. As I said, I’ve never seen the truck.

Some times, while sitting, I’ve thought, with the right training, one could hear everything, the reverberations, however slight, diminished, even quiet now, but still there for ears with sufficient sensitivity. The fantasy I have is that reverberations persist forever, albeit quieter. Just think. If that were true, and you had the right ears, you could hear every sound that was ever made. Perhaps that hum I take to be distant air conditioners, fans, planes, cars, surf, or simply tinnitus is in fact the sound of all time. Perhaps those who hear voices – who think aliens are giving them instructions or that the CIA is reprogramming their brain – are simply picking up on past conversations still floating around on the air, a kind of cosmic party line.

It’s an idea that comes to me when I’m sitting.

Then I let it drift away in the morning stillness.

The first couple of times I heard the truck I was annoyed. The noise invaded my quiet. But it eventually occurred to me to follow rather than resist, to listen carefully, to witness the morning routine, to acknowledge it with an inner wave of recognition, to hear its gears churn along Birch into the cemetery, and to keep listening even when I could not hear it anymore, or at least could no longer be certain that what I heard was the truck or distant traffic or wind in the trees, and then to listen for the gradual return, to stay with the truck even as I remained on my cushion in a corner of the study by the window in front of the house.

Over the years, the garbage truck that I have never seen has become a focus of attention, a mantra or koan, repeated even when I can no longer hear the truck, until once again I catch the low hum of its return.

This morning, after the truck came and went, after I sat a while longer and bowed to the wall, once I’d gotten up from the pillow, I thought of how rarely I stay with sound, any sound or thought or feeling. As soon as music or noise or odor diminishes, I tend to give it up, turn to the next salient thing, then the next. Of course I do. I cannot listen to everything. And the same goes for ideas. Even people. What have I given up as I’ve turned to other things? No doubt too much. So I rather like the practice of staying with the garbage truck – the truck I’ve never seen – with ears that do not always hear but know that it is grumbling away out there somewhere.

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