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On a recent afternoon in leafy Alief, Howard Lehrman is sitting in his modest brick house, surrounded by his four cats, their scratching posts and plastic frog toys, when, as he puts it, he is “acoustically raped.” Beats blast out of a trunk, rattle his windows and pound his chest like the fists of an invisible gorilla. The feeling of violation is annoyingly familiar.
Lehrman has entreated the nearby “boombox boys” over past months to turn down the bass. In response, some of them have turned it up. So this time he calls the cops. And the owner of the offending ride drives off with a $150 ticket.
Lehrman opens his front door a few minutes later and comes face-to-face with his 28-year-old neighbor — a friend of the ticketed boomer — standing on the stoop with his mom. He calls Lehrman a fag and a child molester and lunges at him. “You’re going down!” he yells, as his mom holds him back.
Short and middle-aged, Lehrman hardly seems like the kind of guy to inspire fear in ghetto blasters. He wears a mustache and a comb-over and enjoys watching tapes from his large collection of salvaged video cassettes, which he plucked from a Dumpster behind Hollywood Video and once timidly tried hawking in a RadioShack parking lot.
Even so, Lehrman holds his ground. “I told him, ‘You get the hell off of my property now,’ ” he says in his thick Brooklyn accent. “ ‘You get the fuck off my property now, and I’m calling HPD. I consider that a threat. That’s gang talk.’ ”
In recent years, Lehrman has confronted four different neighbors about their invidious racket, including the Christ Incarnate Word Catholic Church, which was celebrating Vietnamese New Year. Some teenagers now stop in front of his house just for sport and crank the dial. But the squabbles weren’t for naught. They were valuable test runs for Lehrman’s new business, Noise Busters of Houston: The Noise Pollution Solution.
Using Lehrman’s guts and legal savvy, Noise Busters will rescue aural hostages. The company’s literature says it will shout down “Binge-Barking/Yelping Dogs,” “Midnight Mechanics” and “Early-Morning Power-Broomers.” As unlikely as it may seem, Lehrman could well become Houston’s very own superhero of shush— albeit one who charges a small flat-rate fee. Houstonians have suffered from pandemonium long enough, his press release says. “The aggravating and escalating frequency and intensity of unwanted noise intruding into our very HOMES…does NOT…have to be ‘tolerated.’ ”
Houston is, with a few exceptions, a city of loud bastards. Other towns have their buzz-saw hobbyists, rev-heads and howlers, to be sure. But unusual numbers of them have flocked here, like hippies to San Francisco during the Summer of Love, who too found the ideal place to piss everybody off. Being an-noyingly stentorian in Houston is easy.
Hans Schmid, the president of the Quiet Society in Vancouver, says a peaceful city is free of hordes of lawn men and their droning mowers, omnipresent airports and roaring jets, and late-night freight trains blowing songs. “As far as noise is concerned, a compact city would probably be better because you have less traffic,” Schmid says. Noise also travels faster and thus sounds louder in hot, humid weather, he points out — so he’d ideally live someplace cool.
Clearly, Schmid is de-scribing the un-Houston.
Our torrid, sprawling, weedy, aerospace-oriented shipping hub could, of course, somewhat counteract its loud predicament by strictly limiting noise, he adds.
But don’t count on it.
In residential neighborhoods, Houston bans most unnecessary sounds that measure above 65 decibels — louder than the intensity of somebody shouting across his fence. Freedom rings in this great land of inalienable property rights. It also screeches, hisses and caterwauls.
Take, for example, a day in the life of Mary Griffin, a 45-year-old elderly-care nurse who lives in Northmore, 15 minutes from downtown. Walking into her backyard, she can drop a match and watch the pine needles on the ground go poof! — like the grate of an igniting space heater. She’s not the only one who took note of the telltale natural gas. Workers recently hauled wooden slabs and large machines down her narrow street. A few yards from her back window, they began drilling for oil.
“Oh, Lord! It has been something else, believe me,” Griffin says. The excavation pounded away for two months, 24 hours a day. She likens the sound to a jackhammer.
Oil exploration in Houston tapered off decades ago, when land close to downtown was still dotted with cows. Yet with crude prices topping $50 a barrel, wildcatters are suddenly pulling out old geologic maps and targeting areas better known for their taquerias and corner marts. Wes Johnson, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, says two permits have been issued in recent months for drilling in Houston, and a third is pending.
Griffin stands in a pink tasseled shirt and bedroom slippers outside her pink bungalow on a warm afternoon and prepares to take an overdue nap. “You can’t go to bed,” she says. “You can’t sleep. And not oncedid they ever come out and knock on the door and say, ‘Is it too loud?’ ”