ome has cancer of the air. The louder humans get, the louder their cities sound, and Rome’s metastasis is pervasive. But it’s not fatal. The city carries the gene of its own immunity. Romans are an outdoor, earsplitting people, like infants born to a lifetime supply of rattlers. Their din can transform a meek outsider — me — into a stunned and speechless mope.
I was first introduced to Rome’s city center clatter 35 years ago, with its farting buses and hustling citizenry that gesticulated with nuclear abandon in pretty piazzas. Honking drivers were anointed minstrels in an ever-exasperated band.
My escape was my mother’s apartment, located off a dead-end alley and overlooking a vast park. The only percussion there was the shriek of laughing gulls, the bray of zoo lions, and distant tram rumbles. When the gulls and lions and trams quieted down so did the whole, making a phone ringer sound explosive. Even the attention-getting jangle the passing knife-sharpener made on his triangle stood out. Amazingly, I once heard what sounded like an accordion in the distance. An organ grinder with a panhandling accomplice had paused to play at the mouth of the alley. An organ grinder — in the mid-1980s!
If today’s focus is on plagues and bombs, mine is on noise pollution, a hapless oxymoron in an age of portable glass rectangles into which people talk or shout, making every human into a potential piazza of one. Rome’s city center is louder than ever, as centers should be — even Dante’s inferno sounded noisy, at least on paper — but the real transformation, for the worse, is in my organ grinder fringes.
Those fringes long ago lost both grinders and sharpeners, though the gulls, lions and trams persist. But they’re hard to hear over their newer competitors. Up and down the alley, and along nearby streets, drills and chainsaws start early and hiccup until dusk. Someone is rebuilding. An embassy is trimming trees. Small cars zip up and down the alley, once barred to cars but no longer. It is now a miniature drag strip. Car alarms provide an awfully separate music. Louder still are burglar alarms, usually set off by thunderstorms or power surges. In summer, they wail for hours, when no one cares to interrupt thieves.
A nearby airport, once a relic reserved for VIP arrivals, is now a hub for low-budget flights that land either early in the morning or late at night. Many fly older jets with thundering engines. The midnight night is rarely silent. Add to that the wonderful (to some) corruption of year-round fireworks and my mother’s one-time nook seems under siege. The fireworks may be a relief for some: big lights and loud sounds distracting an otherwise sullen population. The same with free rock concerts in the park.
But they also shatter what’s left of the urban peace.
Four floors up from the alley I now hear out whole life chapters. Residents pause to yell into their phones, and their verbal spillage rises. I hear about their money woes and lawsuits and doctor diagnoses and breakups. Workers do the same, breaking from their drilling or saws to moan lunchtime stories into their ever-ready rectangles. The eruption is added to by the zoo’s 21st-century public address system whose speakers are propped atop tower, their volume locked in at 10. At intervals, announcers scream at the city, in Italian and English. Attenshun pleez! When these gulag announcements join car alarms, drills, saws and phone shouting, my outlying parts could double for the boisterous center.
Which is usually when the lions try to break through, louder and more determined than ever, very probably because they have no choice but to turn up their volume. Roaring for your supper is an enterprise of itself — as is survival of the fittest, in which fitness and deafness rhyme.