You can hear them on a hot summer night, when you’ve opened the window with the mistaken assumption that all you’ll get will be a gentle breeze.
You get your breeze, but if you live anywhere in, or near American-style civilization, car alarms wailing and keening and beeping and crying because a car passed too close or someone who owns the damned car didn’t cut the alarm off before he put the key in the door lock.
We all know that, in most situations, nothing is wrong with the car. I don’t need to see a stack of statistics that “prove conclusively” that car alarms stop auto thieves. As far as I know, when anyone hears an alarm, they cringe, grit their teeth, try to ignore it and hope it goes away. They don’t ring the village bell, call the cops or rush toward the distressed vehicle with the intention of defending local property values.
A little more than ten years ago, Tim Robbins starred in an obscure movie called Noise, about a Manhattan lawyer who has a mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore moment and decides to disable car alarms on the New York streets whenever he hears them. He does this by popping the hood and cutting the battery cables. Another word for this activity is vandalism, and our hero is duly arrested. At the trial he makes a grand statement that is supposed to be the equivalent of other cinematic courtroom oratorios–one thinks of those in Inherit the Wind, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Judgement at Nuremberg or even The Fountainhead–but it doesn’t quite come off, which is probably why the film remains obscure.
Because we live in an era when machines not only cry, inform us when they’re hungry (the intentionally annoying microshriek of a smoke alarm that wants a battery change), tell us where to go (GPS navigators, in a variety of dialects) and conduct humorlessly polite conversations as they provide us with music, turn our lights on and off, make a telephone call, order a pizza, tell us that someone is at the door and remind us of pending family birthdays and doctor appointments(Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and their clones), all the while reporting back to some algorithmic overlord everything we have said and have had them do.
These advances haven’t quite happened in the way that science fiction writers predicted. About a century ago, when magazine editor Hugo Gernsback coined the term “scientifiction” to describe imaginative tales of the future based on current scientific or technological ideas, the presumption was that the industrial revolution would continue to change our private lives by creating robots (named by Czech social critic Karel Capek in his play R.U.R.) that were mechanical versions of displaced working class people who were beginning to flood the urban centers in Europe, the United States and Canada searching for factory employment. No one ever forgot the lesson of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, even if the Boris Karloff filmed version replaced the complexities of the book: it’s okay for God to make man in God’s image, but man risks unintended consequences when he imitates God.
Back then, everybody thought robots, and, by extension, labor-saving machines, would resemble human beings, with arms, legs and brains that could do things that humans couldn’t (or wouldn’t). Their flaws made them interesting. The Tin Woodman in the filmed version of the Wizard of Oz could sing, dance, chop wood and click his heels together, but nurtured an inferiority complex because he didn’t have a heart.
What about the fussy, bronzed British “droid” C3P0 in the Star Wars films? George Lucas modeled this manservant manque on the creepy mechanical goddess in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and gave him the prissy personality of the white faced clown that, in circuses and the Comedia del Arte, is always getting mad at the plucky, tricky, sloppy, earthy red-faced clown, represented by the lovable mobile garbage can R2D2.
One of the charms of the evolving Star Wars movies is that there is a robot for everyone and everything, from barely functional appliances to soldiers that move like a chorus line. In the prequels he tried to answer the troublesome question: if machines are so good at so much, why don’t they fight our wars for us? Answer: machines only do what they’re told, they can’t take the risks, endure humiliation and enigmatic slogans from cantankerous puppets so that they may ultimately master “the Force,” the universal energy that ripples through everything BUT machines.
What no one predicted was how that gradual takeover of autonomous Americans by intelligent machines would be so decentralized. Forget about the vast central computer that starts experimenting with cocktail recipes and decides to rule the world. The potential for Frankensteinian unintended consequence has already happened, in the form of adroitly user-friendly devices that mostly resemble appliances (or, in the case of our cell phones, a playing card) that link up to these not necessarily benevolent technology companies that want to learn everything about us so that they can 1) serve us better (or so they say) without charging us for the service 2) sell us stuff that pays for the services rendered and 3) sell what they know about us to people who would exploit that immeasurable mountain of trivial detail for their evil ends.
You can understand how I felt when, not long ago, I entered our small kitchen and heard an unusual tone. It was unlike any plaintive machine bleat I’d heard in that it wasn’t immediately irritating. It did not demand action, but, rather, attention. Hear me, it seemed to say. Find me and do what you’re supposed to do so can forget about me and I can continue to leech details of your life to an unnamed corporate entity!
It wasn’t like other sounds I’d heard in the house. One of our toilets sings as it fills–don’t ask me how, or why. (Air in the pipes? Maybe.) The tune is oddly satisfying: it starts low and ends high, as if to say, just a friendly reminder of how grateful you should be that I’m ridding you of that which you want to disappear, and readying myself so that the next time you need me, I’ll be here!
Add to this sounds that originate outside the house. I hear the unearthly snarl of the motorized garage door opener, righteous, early-morning grumble of pick-up trucks (in our neighborhood, having a big pick-up truck earns you more curbside status than a luxury sedan or fancy sports car), the scrape of garbage cans dragged into position for the clunking, banging, devouring whine of the garbage truck, the patter of squirrels across the roof, the thunk of playing children colliding with the sides of unalarmed cars parked outside, the distant yowl of emergency sirens rushing to that one intersection that is so dangerous that you’d think something would have been done by now but no, and the glowing ambient chords from the wind chime we hung in the garden so long ago that we forget about it until the wind picks up.
But in the ten years this house has sheltered me, I have heard nothing like this sound. Like most people confronted with the inexplicable, I assumed that if I ignored it, it would go away.
Until my wife heard it.
We considered all the machines in the house that could make that sound. The nearest was the smoke detector. We touched the TEST button and it immediately yelled at us–how dare we disturb its sleep but, now that we did, the battery was low and it was going to yell at us until we changed it.
We fumbled through the Strange Small Stuff drawer for a 9 volt battery. We found two. Both, according to our smoke detector, were insufficiently charged to meet its needs.
I was so annoyed at the damned thing that I disconnected it from the ceiling. It still beeped at me and it wouldn’t stop. Worse than that, the beeps roused others from their beauty rest. Smoke detectors on the first and third floors smoke detectors began to beep in sympathy. The machines scolded us: WE ARE NO LONGER SATISFIED WITH YOUR BATTERIES AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.
My wife and I have raised demanding children. We did not yell at the smoke detectors to shut up. We did not permit the slightest physical abuse. I went to the supermarket and spent too much money on post-Christmas season batteries which, as everyone knows, are sold for full retail in January because in December every kid in the country has torn the wrapper off some made-in-Asia toy that runs on batteries and, by the time the dreariest month comes around, he has drained the first, strangely marked (“Is that Chinese? Korean?”) batteries that came with the toy–dry. Those battery makers know they have millions of perpetually panicking parents in their pocket, and they put on the squeeze.
I dutifully fed all my complaining smoke detectors and–the sound happened again. My wife went to the fireplace and adjusted the flue. We heard the sound again. We searched the kitchen for whatever device might have caused it, and found nothing. Could the sound have come from another room? A quick check of the room near the heater revealed that a carbon-monoxide detector was on the brink. We replaced the batteries and we still heard the sound. What did this mean? My wife went out and bought a new carbon-monoxide detector while I awaited the one heater repair guy with a carbon monoxide sniffer who was willing to make a same-day emergency visit.
The repair guy did not find any carbon monoxide, but a pipe leading to the hot water heater was letting a little bit of gas into the room. He tightened it. We thanked him and felt relieved. What if that leak had become leakier? One static electric spark from an acrylic sweater or a our polyester blend fleece jacket and KER-BOOM!
The heater guy left and I did the addition: $16 for new smoke alarm batteries, $40 for a new carbon monoxide detector, $199 for the emergency furnace inspection and…
We heard the sound again.
I turned to my wife with a where-have-we-failed expression that I never thought I’d wear again, considering that both children have graduated college without student loan debt and have decent jobs. Eldest is married. Youngest is engaged. We searched the house, overspent on batteries and detectors, and even sought the assistance of a professional!
And, still we heard the sound, especially when we were in the kitchen, cooking, eating and cleaning up.
Now I have studied folk superstitions, tend to anthropomorphize too much, and even harbor a few irrational beliefs regarding the future, Why Bad Things Don’t Happen to People Who Deserve Them, not to mention The Meaning of It All. Though we live about thirty-three miles from Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood where novelist, screenwriter and Georgetown University alumnus William Peter Blatty set one of the most infamous horror novels (later made into five feature films and a TV series) of all time–I was not about to call the exorcist!
I resolved to endure the sound, live with it and ultimately ignore it until–
We were in the kitchen making dinner and I put my foot on a the lever that opened the lid of the stainless-steel-and-black-plastic euro style garbage can. I tossed in the skins from peeled onions (having learned NEVER to put onion skins down a garbage disposal) and took my foot off the lever. As the lid slowly closed it made a–
I opened the lid again, removed my foot, and heard the sound again.
I brought my wife over. She’s a scientist who teaches. She believes in the scientific method and, like me, is impatient for the Twenty-First Century space-age awe and wonder promised by science fiction writers that NASA is no longer delivering.
I opened the lid and let it close. She told me to do it again. I did it again.
“Must be the hinge,” she decided.
I agreed. I opened the lid one more time and realized that this was more than two under lubricated surfaces creating a sympathetic vibration as they moved against each other.
This was not a crying machine demanding attention. It was something different, deeper, a cry from that very essence of the thing’s being.
Our garbage can, having heard the clarion call from the singing toilet, was talking to us, saying, you may not know me personally but I just want to remind you how appreciative you should be that I take in just about anything you put in me and keep your kitchen stink-free so you can savor all those fragrant fumes from that roasting chicken or the Bolonaise sauce whose onions you just peeled, and I will continue to do so, whether you listen to me or not, whether you consider the existential angst inherent in being a willing receptacle for the smelly, unwanted organic material that you so blithely discard, of your as long as you carry the trash down into the garage at regular intervals, replace my liner and rinse me out with soapy water when the liner breaks.
All in one heroic toot!