The Sounds of the Day

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For most of my life I’ve been surrounded by beach sounds. The ocean, of course, its current coming ashore in a predictable, rhythmic pattern (though sometimes, more so lately, the water makes lazier progress with a more common calmness, a wave seemingly wandering to the sand almost as a second thought instead of its normal troop movement speed and persistence).

Also at sea are the gulls, calling and diving, chasing each other for scraps of found food or small fish claimed just below the surface. And pelicans occasionally lift from their glide to angles of light and school movement, then dive into the shoal rising slowly with a catch. It is the only time I hear a pelican; they are quiet. Dolphins, too, seem silent unless one breaches and spins, and even then she would have to be quite close to shore, which happens, sometimes.

On the beach is a symphony I’ve tuned in to since I’m a child. There’s the music from other blankets and people sunning in beach chairs, from vendors and from the speakers during scattered events up and down the strand. In the sixties when I was a toddler it was transistor radios with the “tiny tin voice of the radio man,” and in the seventies in my teens it was boomboxes mixing disco and Beach Boys; always the Beach Boys. Add to this the constant conversations ranging from requests for suntan lotion application to talk of kids and parents, to talk of work, to the best places to eat according to the guide they found in the top drawer in their room, to the heat, to the humidity, to financial plans to boyfriends and girlfriends and wedding plans and sunburned shoulders and faces and the dreaded burns on the backs of knees.

Further back still near the hotels, a store owner on the boardwalk is hosing down the sidewalk and a sanitation truck rolls by surrounded by workers walking while peering in garbage cans at each block, and the joggers muffled headphones, their shoes methodically hitting the pavement, and the two men in suits who always stand in the same spot next to a table of bible literature, never pushing but always encouraging people to have a good day. They refuse donations. They’re okay, those two men.

And it all works. It works as if Leonard Bernstein or Toscanini stood atop the twenty-feet tall Neptune statue at 31st Street and covertly conducted the separate sections, blending them so everyone anywhere on blankets and beach chairs, under umbrellas with kids or strolling with elderly parents on the boardwalk, and the three guys throwing a football, and the handful of surfers at First Street and the bike rental girls wearing bikinis and holding clipboards and the people fishing off the pier and the businessman on break talking on the phone, one foot on the rail between the boardwalk and the sand talking to someone about an appointment that didn’t go well, all of them, charted out in three quarter time and blended to some shoreline perfection.

I don’t know if it is some sort of Doppler effect or another sound-wave phenomenon, but if you stand on the sand right where the waves break and look to sea and listen, it is like being in an altogether different theater than when you simply turn around and face the boardwalk.

I spend a lot of time looking east across the pounding and ever receding tides. The seasons remain on their perpetual flow, and after some time you can recognize the nuances, the subtleties of change.

In fall I look forward to the slow erosion of tourists, some in September, and by October they’re nearly all headed home to West Virginia and Pennsylvania and Quebec. That’s when the dominant sounds are the natural ones coming from the current. But come spring, when the sun has risen higher and so have the room rates, and the traffic is heavier and you have to pay the parking meters again, and stores which had not been open since Labor Day once again have their baskets of body boards and circular racks of T-shirts on display on the sidewalk, I welcome the movements of summer, the sounds of the season, as the months slowly drift by of their own free will.

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