Hearing Voices

So the other night a friend and I were milling about Sacramento’s Second Saturday (It was Zombie Night!), walking down the street among throngs of people and catching completely random snippets of conversation, which we then tried to figure out and explain. “I was drunk off my ass!” one woman said as we walked by. Why she had been in such a state is a mystery, though we had fun trying to come up with reasons why.

It was then that I recalled this piece that I wrote for OC Weekly back on May 28, 1999 on this very phenomena. The story was for the paper’s “Beach and Beer Guide,” one of the many, many special issues we put out a year. The piece isn’t part of the Weekly‘s online archives anymore, so I’m reprinting it here for your enjoyment…


Don’t even say anything about this fuckin’ faggot shirt — I was cold.

-Unknown man speaking to another unknown man outside my apartment, summer 1998

Sometimes when I’m alone in my apartment, I hear voices. They’re always fragmentary–disjointed pieces of conversations that when heard in isolation, make almost no sense. They’re clearest and greatest in number during June, July and August. And there’s nothing I can do about them.

It would be easy if they were just schizophrenic hallucinations or restless ghosts–I could get help for those. But these voices come from something far more plentiful and far, far more insidious.


It’s all because I live in an apartment. All people who live in apartments hear their neighbors showering and talking on the phone and doing all those dreary things we spend most of our lives doing. It’s something people who live in apartments accept. And get used to.

But I live at the beach–Balboa Beach. And not in one of those big gated complexes either, where grass lawns and trees separate the apartment rows from the world. I live in one of the quaint bungalows on Balboa Boulevard–a big, four-lane road that’s heavily traveled by cars and pedestrians. All that separates my bedroom from the endless rows of tourists, bikes, skateboards, Miatas and SUVs that line Balboa Boulevard are three inches of plaster, stucco and fiberglass insulation.

So I hear stuff. Like that midnight last July when I couldn’t sleep. My neighbor (who has since moved) apparently couldn’t sleep either, so he and his buddy were yakking up a storm outside my window. That is, until some girl and her dog walked by. That’s when I realized my neighbor was an idiot:

Him: That’s a nice-looking dog.

Her: Thanks.

Him: You’re not so bad yourself.

Her: . . .

After a while, it all becomes background clutter. You hear it, but you’re not listening. For most of the year, this isn’t a problem. The days are cool, so the sidewalks are barren. But then the heat turns up in June. Then the bikes start racing by day and night. Imagine a quiet moment concentrating on a Dodgers game momentarily interrupted by a couple of middle-aged men on bikes, one breathlessly informing the other that “it felt worse than what happened when it was paralyzed.” Or the last moments of consciousness after a long day’s work broken by a teen yelling to his friend as they jump the curb by my front door, “When I turned around, she grabbed my ankle!”

Many of the conversations, or snatches of conversations, or whatever is smaller than a snatch, rise to me Dopplered into meaninglessness. The conversations of the thousands of meandering pedestrians who swarm down Balboa Boulevard in the summer arrive like a passing train. First, there’s the incoherent but unmistakable rumbling of conversation. Then a word or two–“mom,” “Drano,” “colon,” “tomato.” Then an entire sentence to consider:

“I’m 33 years old, and it’s time to start making some money.”

“Sunday morning, I was in Arizona, and I got supersick this morning.”

“Well, guess what, Liz? You have to ride with me in the trunk!”

And then the words turn to aural mush, and I’m left wondering what the hell they were talking about. And I’ll never know because they weren’t talking about anything I could possibly know. People talk about intimate personal stuff while walking down the street. I guess they figure no one’s listening.

Well, I’m not listening. Why would I want to listen to two women standing outside my window as one asks the other, “Is that my car?” What could I gain from hearing a little boy ask his father, “Is Mom going to get another tattoo?” Should I lie awake at night speculating on the old man’s answer, since he uttered it out of my earshot? People, I don’t want to hear about it! I don’t care!

So why do I put up with living so close to a major street at the beach during the summer? Lots of reasons, really, like the fact that many of the voices belong to beautiful women in string bikinis. And their dogs aren’t bad, either. I love living at the beach.

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