Last weekend, I went walking through my city to answer a question that had floated through my head for a while—what, exactly, does my city sound like? Of course San Francisco has its fair share of stereotypes. Was it really a mass of tech talk and honking cars stuck in traffic?

“…supposedly he keeps like 800 characters in his head…”

“…when crossing the road, ok?”

Despite living in this city for years, I’d never really paid much attention to its sounds. Most times I was too busy listening to a particular sound, maybe a voice that was speaking to me or a snatch of birdsong that caught my ear. Other times, I was too absorbed in whatever I was doing in the moment to notice the ambient atmosphere. I realized I couldn’t really pin down the sounds that made up the audible texture of my neighborhoods. How many conversations had I walked by without hearing? How many snippets of life had I passed by in my rush from point A to point B? On each of my inter-city travels, moving from one destination to another, was I taking for granted this extraordinary soundscape that I was immersed in?

“Look, there they are, over there, see?”

“…unless you’ve left…”

“…oh well, i’ll talk to him.”

“I walk by and he says, I guess you’re gonna measure the bike… And I say, why?”

In listening for the words that other people shared—glimpses into the window of strangers’ lives, if you will, or journeys that I briefly crossed paths with—I noticed a few things.

One, there really are lots of cars in San Francisco. Even in a quiet, residential neighborhood in the early hours of the morning, I could only catch a few words here and there because, undoubtedly, a car would rumble down some road or the other at the same time I passed a couple of pedestrians. Strangely, the asphalt that looked empty at first glance was only empty until I glimpsed a fellow person coming towards me.

“…salmon, onion, capers…”

Two, for a city with so many people packed into seven square miles, there is less conversation than I would have expected. A large number of people were walking solo, like me. Some went striding by. Others made their way towards their destination at a more leisurely pace, swaying slightly to the beats from their earbuds. One of the soloists exchanged words over the phone.

“I’m gonna…uh…I’m gonna fly home—in September—for, for the baby shower…”

Three, on the busiest streets, sound fell squarely onto the extreme ends of the audible spectrum, never in the middle. There was either a plethora of voices that evened out all sound, creating a buzz like bees, or else moments left unvoiced—quiet, an unspoken conversation. Perhaps, on these crowded streets, many people were just tourists too caught up in the sights, forgetting their voices momentarily as their visions became inundated. Or perhaps they were locals, happy to be lost in the crowds and to blend in with their soundscape.

*These words are merely one person’s fleeting attempts at faithfully recording the passing world. Any inaccuracies and substituted words are the fault of the author.

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