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Music From a Distant Room

MY 18-YEAR-OLD SON is out in the garden, shaking Preen over the mulch — his job assignment for the day. He’s wearing half a dozen leather bracelets, a 9-pound metal chain attached to his wallet (in case slugs attack, I suppose) and headphones.

I don’t know why he bothers with those headphones. It’s summer in the city, and there’s everyone else’s music to overhear.

In winter, when frozen drivers keep their car windows rolled tight and neighbors shut and lock their house windows against the cold, we have nary a clue as to the musical taste of the folks who live down the street. But come the heat and cruising season, car windows are cranked and so is the bass. We have a daily soundtrack, like it or not.

Most of the time, I like it. Our house sits mere blocks from “Eat Street,” and the sounds wafting (well, blaring) from passing cars are as multicultural as the restaurants and groceries along Nicollet Avenue. I’ve learned that what sounds from afar like polka music often becomes, as the car draws near, a Hispanic tune with the driver singing along, full throttle. Keeps my weeding moving along at a brisk pace, though I never get to hear the end of the song.

The Somali women who regularly walk to the corner store raise their voices in melodies and percussive sounds that amaze me and confuse the squirrels. Every now and then, they dance while they walk, in a swirl of bright rainbow fabric, revealing elevator clogs on their feet. Makes that dancing business even more impressive.

A guy three doors over hauls his drums — two tall things that look like bongos on steroids — out to the front stoop and pounds rhythms that attract dogs and small children and sometimes even a small crowd. If I’m in the kitchen, I know he’s out there by how the windows rattle. Gives me a beat to dice onions to.

Rap seems to have the longest hang time, projecting blocks ahead of the teen-filled vehicles it permeates and lingering minutes after the SUV rounds the corner and heads off to the highway. My husband, a conductor and classical musician with the Minnesota Orchestra, occasionally counters with his own boom box, studying a score at the patio table with Mahler doing what Mahler does best — bursting eardrums — beside him on the CD player.

Almost makes you wonder why the birds bother to sing, though I think Mahler has helped to drive away the crows.

One summer evening, my Iowa aunts came to visit and settled here and there around the garden on lawn chairs and the back steps. My father’s sisters, in their 70s and devoted church women one and all, are members of choirs and bringers of hotdishes to church basement suppers. The sun set, the street lights came on and they drifted into song.

After a round of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” which seems requisite, given what was going on in the night sky, they moved on to Lutheran hymns. I am not Lutheran, nor am I given to singing (or even humming) hymns, but I have to admit, it was darn lovely, swinging slowly in the hammock and hearing the old tunes my grandmother used to bang out on the parlor piano rendered in vocal harmony, punctuated occasionally by the slapping of mosquitoes.

It’s good to make your own music now and then, in between listening to everyone else’s.

This appeared in the Southwest Journal June 28, 2007.

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