Mute Button Blues

Last night’s presidential debate was branded by many a pundit a historic first. The rogue Interrupter-in-Chief would be held in check by the latest technological breakthrough from the Pentagon, one developed after years of research and billions of dollars spent: the mute button. A policy of Cold War containment would be applied to the hot words between the super-pac powers, Democrats and Republicans, and their septuagenarian strongmen, Sleepy Joe and The Donald.

In the run-up to the debate’s opening bell I snapped a photo of a remote control that friends had given my wife and me when our kids were small. For a laugh, I sent the picture to the family group chat. My three siblings and I are uniformly scornful of both candidates and their parties, whereas the nieces and nephews, many voting for the first time in this election, are generally more optimistic or—they might say—pragmatic. One dauntless brother-in-law bangs the drum for Joe Biden and dismisses our recalcitrance as a supercilious luxury.

During last night’s proceedings Trump did get silenced a few times as he tried to penetrate the Plexiglass Iron Curtain of two-minutes allotted to minor topics like Climate Change (a neutral term that should be changed to something like Ecological Armageddon).

After the first carefully-policed exchanges, I began to miss the cacophony and counterpoint of the first debate, the old men contending in tones that at times approached song. Theirs was a bungling version of those duets between adversaries at which Handel excelled, as in his first London opera of 1711 in which the crusading knight, Rinaldo, and the Saracen Sorcerer Armida, have at it, first launching their vitriole separately, before fury overtakes them and they jump into the fray, their words piling on each other.

The heroes and heroines of Handel’s stage were both sung by high voices, whereas the current presidential candidates are has-been contralto and sunken tenor respectively. But their semi-improvised set-pieces back in Cleveland on October 1st were no less operatically outrageous.

I went to bed musing on the two-edged sword that is the mute button. At about four this morning I awoke with an urgent desire to mute the world. Somehwere in the not-so-sleepiy (and certainly not sleeping) small city of Ithaca a few blocks away, a street cleaner was humming its way loudly through the night. The city’s website informs residents that the “street cleaning typically begins at 7:30am” but in recent months these operations have begun in the small hours of the night, often three times a week. My wife will testify that I am a sound sleepy, yet I have forfeited an average of six or seven hours of a sleep a week over this period:, which totals nearly an entire night. Many other residents still more slumber.

Aside from the epidemiological implications, sleep deprivation is a form of torture. It also has a big impact on “productivity” not to mention joie-de-job, all of which can confirmed my tired strides up the hill up to Cornell university to teach in-person as one of the few faculty members to do so this semester. Yawning behind a my mask, I don’t doubt that my students notice a difference when I’ve the Street Beast has been on its nocturnal prowlings.

THe city’s new-found approach to asphalt cleaniness in the midst of a pandemic runs agains CDC advice and common sense. The former’s website informs us that, among other deleterious effects “Sleep loss reduces production of antibodies, which increases the risk for infections.” Yet the city aggressively targets its own for the benefit of its streets, and I suppose the automobiles that dominant our landscape and lives.

The Musical Patriot is no layabout! I understand the value of rising early. As a kid I often got up at 4:30 in the morning to practice in the basement the piano for three hours before breakfast then the bus. My parents never complained abthough thinking back, I don’t doubt that they would have heard at least faint outlines of scales and arpeggios echoing up through the heating ducts.

Later, after I took up the organ, I would be dropped at the country church by my father on the way to the 5:30am ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle to practice for a couple of hours before school. That early morning slot had the advantage of avoiding the parish priest, who when I practiced in the afternoons and before Sunday services had the habit of sliding onto the bench and getting busy with his own hands.

But there is a difference between getting up to milk the cows or play the organ in an isolated church and driving a high-decibel.

As the hum and beep of the machine trawled through the streets, receding into the distance than inexorably returning I was tossed between sleep and wakefulness. Finally an hour—or two/three?—I reached for my bedside remote control with its “world mute”button, but that was a fantasy of my fitful dreams.

A few weeks nearer the beginning of this nocturnal siege,I’d roused myself and had gone looking of the street cleaner. Eventually watching it move through its matrix, listen to its shifting sonorites. On that excursion I hadn’t brought my phone so was unable to record its mechanical labors and sonorities.

Finally, at 5am this morning I pulled myself out of bed, grabbed my phone and headed out in search of the machine.

We live next to gorge above downtown, and with the recent rains the creek had woken up too, rusling and riffling with the leaves still clinging to the oaks and maples. Still through nature’s sound the unnatural pressed.

After the three minute descent of the gorge path I was downtown and thought I. It is a fascinating exercise to try to locate a distant moving thrum. Was that the thing at the end fo Court Street with its flashing lights? I couldn’t be sure. The lights disappeared, and I wasn’t sure. That’s the other things about distant, insidious noise: you keep imagingin it after it disappears and then begin to doubt if you had ever even heard t in the first place. Sleep deprivation mixes with subtle psychological torture.

It was an frighteningly warm late October morning in Upstate New York, well into the 60s already. At the corner Court and University streets, A bunny hopped out from sidewalk a bed with tis dahlias still in their full glory illuminated by the street light.

Was the hum gone or not?

I walked towards something but wasn’t sure what. It felt like a Borges short story: a hearing test conducted through the city. If you can locate the source sound aren’t deaf or crazy. If you can’t, well …

I walked blocks towards the business district. I began to hear air-handling system of the Hilton, as I approached it got louder. Was that what I had been hearing? An occasional car rattled by. I lingered on Buffalo Street near Dewitt Park, listening. A few early lone walkers appeared in their spandex, cutting wide swaths around me, as one does in Covid time. After a half an hour two garbage trucks collection company began patrol the district: their revving engines, back-up beeps , and gasping brakes mingling with the buzz of streetlights and the relentless gallop of the air conditioning installations of the big buildings. A poodle and its master came nipping along the sidewalk opposite. Doubt growing about my mental and auditory faculties I went back and listened at the hotel. The light in the low-slung Key Bank went on and a cleaner began his early morning labors. A man wearing shorts heading into to his shift at the hotel. Even without the phantom street cleaner Ithaca was beginning to wake up.

I waited another ten minutes, dazzled in my drowsiness by the soundscape. After twenty minutes of amazed listening to these sonorities— Eine kleine Nachtmusik meets Sinfonie der Kleinstadt.—I began to wonder what the occasional motorists and pedestrians might think of this lone figure standing motionless on a desolate sidewalk head back. I felt tired and turned to head home. The hum was gone.

Then suddenluy After a couple of blocks I heard a rush of some big machine that wasn’t the garbage truck. I turned and saw the yellow street cleaner, its brushes up, race through a a an intersection two blocks away. I ran towards it, and as the machine sped up the incline of Buffalo Street—with its grand 19th-century houses. The sped up the base of the hill, then slammed on its breaks, began beeping loudly as it reverse to get as close to the front bumper of the lone car parked on the street, and clean and extra twenty feet of curbside asphalt. The driver engaged the brushes and moved forward, the contraption rising euphorically from a guttural grow to piercing, overtone-rich middle C and started its ascent.

I reached for my phone to get a video of this fantastical creature so that I could verify for others —and myself—that it had been haunting our city. But The screen remained dark. I pressed at the on-button. It was out of batteries. Grinning, maybe even cackling, I watched the beast climb the hill it turned, singing through what was left of the night.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at