Downtown View: The Sounds of August

Karen is taking her first break since beginning to write in this space. She is offering some of her most remarked-upon columns for you to enjoy again.

The sounds of August (first published in August, 2010)

August is the melancholy month, and I’m glad it’s over.

It’s all about ends. The end of the tomatoes, fresh home-grown basil, and corn on the cob. The end of Esplanade concerts, outdoor swimming, and listening to people laugh as they dine outdoors on the sidewalks. It’s during August that the ferns dry up and the sun-scorched leaves on the trees turn the color of toast, especially this year. In fields in the country the yellow mustard has long passed, the St. Johnswort is gone and even the goldenrod has lost its gold.

In New England we plan for summer like no other season, but it is short and slippery, and as the days slide into fall, it is the sounds of season’s end that symbolize the feeling of loss more than any other attribute.

The cicadas start the elegy at the beginning of the month, but by the end the katydids are outperforming them. The jay’s squawk has replaced the finch’s tune. With the windows open in summer we’re in touch with the street—the kid on the skate board shooting down a hill, the police or ambulance siren, the car’s motor as it backs up and inches forward with a driver who hasn’t learned to parallel park on the first try. In the summer I’ve enjoyed the flute player across the street who, sadly for me, moved away. I’ve heard babies crying, and though they may be sad, their cry makes me happy. Another family is beginning; they are living in the city; I hope they stay so I can listen for their shouts in the playgrounds when they grow older.

I’m particularly fond of the crank I hear when the car in front of my house is hoisted up on the tow truck, and then I listen for the mechanical street cleaner’s swish. It’s the sound of clean—at least for a little while.

The summer means the crack of the bat hitting a ball at Fenway. It’s the hospital helicopter transporting the injured, the coast guard helicopter cruising the coast or the river, or the news helicopters covering activity at the State House or on the Waterfront. The sounds are my favorite part of living in a busy city—even if I’m cooped up inside my house I’m always in touch with the outside world.

The sounds of fall are fewer and less noticeable because the windows are closed. In the country, people listen for the sounds of leaves being stepped on or raked. And to some extent we can listen to people stepping on leaves on the sidewalk, but it is not the same. It isn’t until winter that sounds signifying a season return. We hear the scrape of the snowplow or the scratch of the snow shovel when our neighbor—bless him—shovels our 17 feet of sidewalk. It’s then too we hear cars in a different way, when the drivers rev their motors and spin their tires trying to extricate themselves from a snowbank. But before the sound of snow removal, we can’t hear the snowfall since its silence is the opposite of sound.

Not everyone enjoys sounds and their symbolism the way others do. Some people enjoy listening to music on an iPod, but I don’t because it makes me claustrophobic to blot out the world’s sounds. Many successful restaurants have the decibel level of a rock concert—Scampo at the Liberty Hotel is one. I don’t understand the attraction of that noise. The food is wonderful, but one can’t hear the waiter when he is reciting the specials on the menu. I want to go to restaurants in which I can hear my dinner companions. After all, I’m out with them because I like them and want to learn about what they are doing, thinking, predicting and complaining about. (Secret to evading the sounds at Scampo—get a table on the terrace, where all you can hear is the traffic on Storrow Drive, a welcome relief from the inside cacophony.)

But even at restaurants that provide relief from noise, it all ends just after August. It’s not the cold. It’s not the dark I mind. It’s the sounds I’ll miss until next May.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at