Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Siren Screams

When I first moved to Baltimore, my girlfriend visited and asked me, “Why are there so many sirens?”

The question was largely rhetorical as we lay in bed, about to go to sleep, hearing the fourth round of sirens since her arrival four hours earlier. The reasons were obvious enough. Baltimore was the homicide capital of the United States. The setting for HBO’s violent historical fiction/social commentary masterpiece The Wire. A place where, when researching apartments online, I’d ruled out the runner up choice because the reviews opined, “A nice Chinese man who never hurt anybody got beat up and had his wallet stolen last week. It’s not safe here.”

“You could be that nice Chinese man,” she had said.

That girlfriend and I had grown up in similar small cities in upstate NY. The kinds of places where police, fire department, and ambulance sirens were abnormalities because such services weren’t called as often, and when they were, there might not have been enough traffic to justify turning on a siren to clear the way.

“The sirens mean people are getting help," I said. "It means it’s safer here.”

This idea that a preponderance of sirens meant safety rather than imminent danger became an inside joke.

By that night, a month into my tenure in Baltimore, the sirens had become a normal part of the backdrop and they remained a presence in the years to follow. That’s not to say I heard them every day, but it wouldn’t be unusual to for them to fracture the normal night sounds--to pierce through the screams of the neighboring children, or the idle talk of politics from the front stoop smokers, or the parking lot arguments between the couple that routinely cursed one another out then raced up the stairs, one to lock the other out. The sirens superseded these sounds, let alone my quieter tap of the HP keyboard, turning of library book pages, or sound my computer speakers could muster to broadcast Netflix.

I left Baltimore for Corvallis, Oregon. East coast to west coast. From a city of 600,000-plus to a college town of 55,000, more than half of that figure students at Oregon State University, the majority of whom had not returned from summer when I moved in. A few nights into my stay, Heather and I watched an episode of Orange is the New Black. A siren wailed and I reflexively arched my neck to peer out the window behind the sofa. Whether or not I could see the flash of red and blue lights was usually a sign of how close the action was to my apartment.

But the sirens were only on TV.

I knew I’d miss my friends in Baltimore. An office job that had been largely supportive of the creative and academic endeavors I undertook during my time there. A few favorite restaurants and bars. The gym. The library. But I never expected to miss the city noises--least of all the sirens.

But as the scene ended on television, the sound disappeared, and there were no flickering lights outside to be seen, I recognized that I had not only moved, but driven into a different life.

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