It was a cold January morning, gray on gray, like sheets of wet newsprint.
I was on my way to the streetcar stop when I heard a startling cacophony—bark-bark, quack-quack, honk-honk. I looked around for the source and saw nothing except a man on a bench at a transit shelter drinking from a water bottle. The sounds started up again. The man with the water bottle was up on his feet, propelled off the bench by some invisible electrical force, eyes and mouth contorting into a clownish, surreal mask of curiosity and consternation as he bellowed at everyone and no one at once: Suck it in, suck it in!
A man in a Nike ballcap froze. I stared fascinated. Others moved away. The sounds grew louder, insistent—barking, quacking, and wheedling, brrps and phritzzes, clicks and pings, and an urgent, shrill ‘Suck-it-in-Suck-it-in’
The streetcar arrived. The man boarded first. He headed to the back and sat down. A handful of us got on and waited for the inevitable. The light turned green, the streetcar clanked forward and suddenly the air was electric with a loud honk-honk, several quacks, a rat-a-tat-tat of cawing and wheedling and a torrential downpour of gassy pings and clicks. I bowed my head, trying to stifle the tears of laughter streaming down my cheeks. A man next to me smiled as he tried to silence his toddler’s animated questions.
‘He’s got quite the repertoire,’ said the woman across from me.
I lifted my head.
My heart sank as the thought dawned: Tourette’s? The neurological disorder that produces involuntary vocal and motor tics.
The woman across from me nodded. “It must be so hard for him.”
I felt terrible for laughing.
The streetcar driver kept her eyes on the man through her rearview mirror. His noisy eruptions peppered the air. People turned away, trying not to look or cause him discomfort. I watched him as he struggled to contain himself, to shore up the onrushing river.
As the light turned green and the streetcar clanked forward, something remarkable happened. The man’s jarring sounds seemed to merge with the streetcar—with the clanking, ringing, and hissing of the car against the tracks, and the screeching and honking of traffic. Within seconds, the bbrpps and pings, clicks, cawing and wheedling no longer sounded discordant or obtrusive; they were music.
I could feel joy rising and it took me by surprise. I found myself in rapture, fully present, like a child mesmerized by the sight of her first snowfall. I felt as though I was in the presence of a genius. I looked around wondering if anyone else on the streetcar was hearing what I was hearing.
I wanted to shout: He’s the Picasso of Sound!
A composer scavenging symphonies from the detritus of days. A sculptor carving gargoyles for protection, hope and chance. God Himself! delivering The Secret of All Secrets: How You Listen, Changes What You See. Listen with love and you make every broken heart whole. Listen with fear and you shut out every possibility of a miracle and break every heart in the place it was broken before.
My stop arrived.
I glanced back at the man as I got off. I thanked him silently for his presence on the streetcar.
He was completely still now, his face relaxed, eyes fixed on a distant horizon.
~ Christiane Schull
Photo: “Picasso Paints in Light” , 1949 – Credit: Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images,