When I moved in, a longtime tenant was on her way out. “The noise,” she told me, as I held the courtyard gate open for her. I figured she had it worse because she lived in the front of the building, right on top of Western, like a skybox over a racetrack, whereas my unit sits tucked into the back corner of the courtyard, at least 30 yards farther away. A whole other sonic galaxy.
Or so I thought.
After years of having roommates in Los Angeles, I’d been looking forward to the peace of my own space again, my own noises, room for my thoughts to skitter about and be weird, do what they needed to do, a place where I could write and be okay with my own imperfect housekeeping. And the place was something special in daylight. I opened my windows onto the courtyard that first morning to a camouflage of shadows against the brown Spanish shingles and peach stone façade, potted red geraniums perforating the terrace railing, and a shady breeze mimicking a European scene. Home at last.
The first time I heard the sirens, I convinced myself they must be a fluke. And soon after, when they kept coming, that it would only be a matter of time before I acclimated to my new environs and the shrieks dissipated into the background. Hearing them during the day was one thing. Just a city being a city, I thought, something I’d never truly experienced in my years living in the sleepy Southwest or growing up in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, where the most assaultive sounds came from gas-powered lawn equipment and the subsequent tschick-tschick of sprinklers machine-gunning freshly mown grass. But emergencies don’t stop at night. The sirens screamed through my dreaming brain, and I awoke in a state of panic. They were so shockingly loud I figured they must be headed somewhere far worse than a routine fire call, and then: Were they here? Out in front of my own building? Was this really home?
City noise swells, and just when you’ve enjoyed a nice stretch of calm, sometimes for an entire day, noise comes roaring back with a vengeance. There are times when it’s so loud I wear silicone ear plugs covered by noise-canceling headphones with music on covered by a hoodie cinched around my forehead and chin. On important phone calls, I hold my breath and hope for a clean call, my finger at the ready to hit mute at any moment. I’ve squeezed into my closet and shut the door trying to minimize the noise; I’ve curled on the kitchen floor and covered the mic, as if the smaller I made myself, the harder it would be for sound to find me, but it’s deafening to the point of absurdity, a cosmic mockery. If I forget to hit mute, the tone of the voices on the other line is one of shock and then pity. Yikes. Where on earth do you live?
Multiple houseguests have decided, shortly after arriving, that they’d rather stay elsewhere. I don’t fault them. This isn’t the California they’ve come for — it’s not the serene, pillowy beach or the chill canyon vibes of online travel sites. And it’s certainly not the sexy real estate required to land a second date in this town. I think of the screenwriter who drove me home from our first date, looked at my building, and said, “Here?” Or another friend who’d traveled from out of state and, upon experiencing the first wailing siren, said, “How about we go to San Diego?”
“Now?” I asked him.
A few years into living here, I’d honed my awareness of the sirens in a desperate effort to distinguish if they were louder at certain times than others. I still thought that I could outsmart them, that if I only listened more closely, or anticipated more precisely, I could wrangle a tiny shred of control over my environment. One day, early on in the pandemic, I had become so frustrated by the combination of sirens and horns that I called the fire department and asked to speak to the fire chief. Couldn’t they just do one or the other and spare us all? He assured me it was protocol, both the sirens and the horns, the latter of which is where I thought there might be some room to negotiate. “You’re not the first person to call,” he said. In the silence that followed, I realized that my only option, if I couldn’t make peace with it, was to move. When we hung up, I immediately started looking for other places to live, but nothing within my price range was any better situated. The rents had climbed steadily since I’d moved in, and any place that wasn’t going to be too loud was going to be too tiny or too far away. So, I stayed.
Sometimes the source of noise is closer and more personal. Once, I mistook the sound of a chainsaw as originating from my neighbor, Chico the chihuahua’s dad, who occasionally cuts wood for home improvement projects on weekends in the alley we share. Except it was a Tuesday, and louder, and closer, and when I lifted my bedroom shade, I watched my landlord slice into the only tree in view, the one tree in a four-parking-lot area, one of the only signs of the natural world in the shadow of one of the noisiest intersections in the city. Birds frequented that tree — pigeons used it to stop over between their perches on surrounding rooftops, and sparrows took up residence whenever the pigeons weren’t there, their sweet song floating into my apartment even amid all the other, bigger noises. And not just the birds but the bees, too, who pollinated it and occasionally buzzed through my apartment to the geraniums crowning the courtyard in front, my space a thoroughfare for them.
I didn’t say anything the day the tree died. What could I do, anyway, bike-lock myself to it? I also have to worry about retaliation: rent increases, or worse — eviction. Which is what happened to the Korean photographer below me who vacated at the beginning of the pandemic, after running a business here for over 10 years, because he could no longer make the rent. Now, even the price of noise is going up. Rent has increased 30–40 percent citywide in the few years I’ve lived here and shows no signs of slowing down. It’s little surprise then that landlords have improved their properties and jacked up rents to piggyback on the gentrification boom. Strike while the iron’s hot. My landlord makes noise because he can, then goes home to his quiet neighborhood.
Even though the amount of noise is the same as when I moved in, the types of noise have changed. There are still constants: the metal gates slamming downstairs; a neighbor’s video-game murder rampages subwoofing into the courtyard; Björk spilling out of my other neighbor’s window as he tends, stoned and blissful, to his verdant plot of terrace. When I moved in, a Salvadoran Pentecostal church resided in the old low building at the entrance to the alley I can see from my bedroom, where someone with a microphone led the congregation in the same cycle of songs every night. At times it was hell, and at other times it treated something in me I didn’t know needed treating. As dissonant and Jesusy as it was, it wasn’t a siren or a bandsaw. When the churchgoers’ children weren’t screaming their lungs out in the empty furniture store lot between us, when only the repetitive Spanish chorus floated into my apartment while I cooked dinner on a Sunday night — the guttural, oceanic traffic agroan, awhir, and awhoosh, the scents of barbacoa wafting in from another alley neighbor’s grill, Chico yipping at cars invading our turf as volunteer valets squeezed them into the church’s parking lot (a slide puzzle as complex as anything I’ve ever seen that took at least four men to oversee and solve) — it didn’t matter that I had no idea what they were singing about, only that it was the hypnotic sound of devotion, that strange and seductive spell cast by someone else’s heaven.
Now the noise is of the church being converted into one of a dozen art galleries making their way to the neighborhood and the farther-off sounds of multiple high-rises going up, erasing our skinny view of Downtown: urban palimpsest. In the first year of the pandemic, while much of the city reveled in its newfound silence, Melrose and Western stayed loud. I had an awareness that the city went all Zen elsewhere, that beyond the wall of sound I live in lay a softening, a stillness, but nothing really changed sonically from where I sit other than the dissipating white noise of morning and evening commutes. In fact, in many ways it got louder: more drag racers throttling down the wide, empty roads at all hours of the night, more unhoused people screaming into the void — and at us, at anything — to listen, more buildings being torn down and constructed, and the sirens, always the sirens, but more so in 2020 because of the pandemic and the wildfires and because the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd reverberated all the way to Los Angeles, the marches outside my window rounding the corner west onto Melrose, the steady drumbeat kept by someone in the crowd, megaphones leading the charge, and the response of thousands of urgent voices calling into my apartment, a different sort of siren, pulling me from my desk on a Monday afternoon and out into the streets to make some good noise.
Outside, we marched into the sun, sweaty, squinting, and masked. It was so hot that a parade of support vehicles drove alongside us, children popping out of sunroofs to hand out bottled water. Shop owners who had boarded up their windows set out boxes of free granola bars all along the sidewalks, and some people cooled themselves in the shadows cast by the protest signs in front of them: STOP KILLING US. SILENCE IS VIOLENCE.
Within months, at that same corner, there appeared, very nearly overnight, the restaurants ORGANICO, Kuya Lord, and Ggiata, a hip, Jersey-style hoagie shop that sells $85 sweatpants and hoodies. A few blocks away you can buy mochi donuts, or a pink praline brioche from “deep France.” There are more high-rises, for-rent signs, and homeless encampments, more pop-ups, food carts, and boarded-up storefronts. At night, when I wake up to pee and moonlight illumines the empty parking lots outside my bathroom window, I often see people squeeze their way through an adjacent building’s fence, or climb it, then disappear into a dumpster. In the parking lot next to ours, two adult men sleep in a pickup truck with the windows down every night. And across Western, the 24-hour donut shop, whose neon lights have burnt out so that all that remains lit is hell’s DONUTS, has more round-the-clock patrons, some of whom live beneath the sign in a corner of the parking lot.
Some days, when the noise gets to be too much, I take my bike out for a ride, clip in and reset my odometer as I pass through the graffitied alley, weaving around piles of trash, then exit the alley near Laundrywood and turn left at the abandoned apartment building with boarded-up windows, a developer’s sign out front. Across the street from the alley, a man lies on a mattress as if at the head of a long table. Sometimes we acknowledge each other, him by nodding, me by flashing a peace sign from my handlebars.
The building will get flipped eventually, but when is anyone’s guess. Security guards used to patrol it so that nobody could inhabit it, but beyond their standing watch, nothing has really happened there aside from graffiti wars. For well over two years now, it’s been vacant. I’ve asked the security guards and neighbors and even my sweaty landlord what will become of it, but nobody seems to know or care. I think about it falling often, what the explosion will feel like after it hurtles past Laundrywood and Chico’s apartment and the street vendor reloading his cart in his garage for the afternoon shift, and past all of our gated garbage. I wonder where the man at the head of our table will go, or if he’ll stay and watch it all come down.
Rounding the corner onto Western at the end of a recent bike ride, I crossed over the 101 and passed a man on the outside of the railing, preparing to jump. It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday, the sun was out, and so was traffic, but nobody had stopped. His companion stood on the sidewalk with a cartful of belongings.
I rode to the end of the overpass and stopped in the shade of a corner building (SOFA U LOVE), grabbed my phone out of my bike jersey, and dialed 911. In the distance, the gold onion domes of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral sat skewered in place by crucifixes shooting into the sky, and farther beyond and to the left, the Hollywood sign hovered in front of the hills like a shattered cloud. Traffic on Western and the 101 crept by. I watched as the man’s companion bargained with him from the sidewalk and we both — or all three of us — waited for the sound of sirens that never came.
Where were all the sirens now, when he needed them the most?
It can feel bleak and hard here in the middle of the city, overstimulating to the point of exhaustion, hyperactive to the point of chaos, neglected to the point of despair. It can feel impossible to hear your own thoughts, let alone make sense of it all. For most people, my neighborhood has always just been another stoplight, not a destination, but that's all changing now as billionaires continue buying up old furniture stores to lease to high-end gallerists. Its magic is fleeting, but it’s here.
When the traffic breaks for the night and the air stills, sometimes I hear my downstairs neighbor sanding canvases she’ll soon paint on, or the tattoo artist beside her, gunning his art into the flesh of someone’s body; the Armenian and Ukranian furniture store owners dragging cardboard side-by-side to the dumpsters out back, the sound of another day’s work coming to an end, the sound of American dreams actualizing; G., the Peruvian Disaster Artist, singing yet another song badly but boldly, throwing his voice into the courtyard and out into the sound cloud in the night sky above Melrose and Western, fading into the collective residue of all of the wailing sirens and thumping bass and angry motorists and relentless helicopters of that day; the Spanglish as Israel talks to his mother on speakerphone and spritzes soot off his plants; the dog walker playing fetch with a pit bull in the courtyard; the clanging of grocery carts and low rumbles of skateboards wheeling by; our French neighbor grumbling after watching an unfavorable football match as he and his wife prepare dinner, the sounds of a kitchen reverberating with everyone else’s noise — even mine, once I’ve stopped fighting it, when I’m no longer telling them all to be quiet, when I’m not covering my ears or hiding or running away from it all, when I’m not bracing for the next fire-truck assault or the thunder of an abandoned building falling, when I’m not afraid to say something, to dig deep and make some noise myself: the squeak of my old headphones when I put them on, clacking keys, and an exhale, when I remember to breathe. The essay you’re reading, a tiny scream, a sound I couldn’t produce for years until I found my own voice among all the others.
This is what it sounds like to be home. For now. We’re all just screaming over here, each in our own way. I think I’ll stay a while longer, though, keep making noise. I can’t afford not to.
Michael Wolfe is a writer and freelance editor in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Phoebe, Bloom, American Book Review, Cool Thing: The Best New Gay Fiction from Young American Writers, and elsewhere. He has taught creative writing at the University of New Mexico, Southwestern University, and Cal State LA, and he was a founding editor of the online journal Front Porch.