Lowering the Boom
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. Youre 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 Im calling HPD. I consider that a threat. Thats 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 werent for naught. They were valuable test runs for Lehrmans new business, Noise Busters of Houston: The Noise Pollution Solution.
Using Lehrmans guts and legal savvy, Noise Busters will rescue aural hostages. The companys 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 Houstons 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 HOMESdoes NOThave 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 hed 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 dont 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. Shes 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 cant go to bed, she says. You cant sleep. And not once did they ever come out and knock on the door and say, Is it too loud?
Other major cities also harbor drilling outfits such as the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. But few can compete in the hospitality department with zoning-averse Houston. After all, this is a city where residents of the gentrified Heights drop triple digits to live next to a squeaky wire-fence fabricator, developers build brand-new town houses across the street from a roaring Sunbeam Bread factory, and people watch their windows get blown out by deafening refinery explosions repeatedly and dont move.
On the subject of noise, the citys oil-drilling rules are predictably mum. Johnson says companies wishing to drill here just need to secure a permit from the Texas Railroad Commission and a letter from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; pay a fee of $255; drill more than 500 feet from city water wells and 1,000 feet from Lake Houston; and obtain permission from nearby landowners. And because homeowners may receive royalties if a drill hits pay dirt, eureka: A 150-foot rig towers over backyards in Northmore.
Still, not everyone in the black-gold zip code is happy about this. On the second day of excavation, vibrations from the booming drill cracked Griffins ceiling, she says. And she wasnt offered oil royalties, because shes only a renter. I wont get nothing, she says. Just a bunch of noise and a headache.
In fact, thats all anybody in Northmore got. The drilling crew pulled up stakes last month, empty-handed.
Rented or bought up, a big plot of land is the best ticket away from the scourge of noise. And what better place to escape Houstons urban clamor than bucolic Old Katy? So thought Emanuel Gonzales, a self-described city boy who loves the sounds of nature.
Gonzales and his wife had lived on their peaceful four acres for two years when he found his neighbor, Gail Frank, sobbing in her car. She had lost her house to a bank and didnt know what to do with her nine African geese. Gonzales thought the large birds would be the perfect countrified addition to his backyard.
The problem was, next to Gonzaless rural retreat, nine people lived in an apartment building. The guys started yakking that my geese were making a lot of noise, he says.
The geese did their best to meld with urbanizing Katy. When bawling mourners would emerge from a funeral home down the street, My geese came out and would be sitting there going, Waah! Waah! Waah! Waah! Gonzales says. You know, crying.
But this did little to quiet concerns.
The apartment dwellers and the funeral home director, former Katy mayor Hank Schmidt, petitioned the city to yank Gonzaless livestock permit. So Katy City Council summoned the Gonzaleses. They were given three minutes to defend the geese. We werent prepared, says Gonzaless wife, Carole, and the permit was unanimously revoked.
The family wept for the geese. The geese, used to weeping for mourners, now wept for themselves. And their former owner wasnt too happy either. Gail Frank had enjoyed visiting the Gonzales house, where she would look at the geese and smile.
Fortunately, the Gonzaleses knew a Houston attorney who had once represented them in a dispute involving a retriever dog. She agreed to take the geese case and quickly obtained an injunction from Harris County Court keeping the geese in loco parentis. The couple received a new permit and proudly displayed it within a golden picture frame.
News of their victory spread through town. Rural folk stopped by and congratulated them for standing up to the yuppies. So, egged on by their attorney, they kept fighting. They filed a lawsuit demanding money from the city for violations of their civil rights, pursuing the case all the way to federal court, where they met early on with Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. in his Houston conference room. As Emanuel Gonzales recalls it, the judge said, I dont do geese. I do murders.
Still, he allowed the geese case to flap forward. The couples attorney, Carla Nelson, organized expensive lunches; commissioned decibel measurements and noise diffusion maps; and studied other case law, such as an earlier incident in Katy involving Louise Tester, whose slumber had been afflicted by an obstreperous sheep.
Sitting in their living room recently, the couple looks a bit embarrassed. Two doves chortle in a nearby cage. I have to admit, I was getting carried away, Carole Gonzales says. So were her legal fees; by the end of last year, they came to more than $30,000.
She grabs a head of lettuce, ambles down a dirt path and throws it at the geese. Over the winter, one of them froze. The remaining eight live in a pen with a rooster, where they play in a kiddie pool and accost an upended plastic swan. When they hiss and honk in a discordant chorus, an Extech Digital Sound Level Meter tops out at 88.4 decibels.
Even so, the geese may not be the noisiest creatures to inhabit the Gonzales plot. In a nearby tree lived a family of wood ducks, commonly known as Mexican squealers. Still louder, most likely, was the din of the couple arguing with their law firm. They agreed in mediation to pay the firm $12,000 and were forced to sell part of their land to raise the money. Still, the firm claims they owe another $6,075, which the Gonzaleses say they cant afford to pay.
They were, like, taking me to the river, which they did, Emanuel Gonzales says.
But I kept my geese. Im going to add a little burrito here, too.
For a bargain-basement $30, Lehrman could have stepped in for the geese attorneys and settled the dispute himself. The Noise Busters system is specially designed to resolve inexpensively a variety of audio conflicts an advantage Lehrman considers a major selling point.
Kneeling in his living room on an ancient shag carpet that smells strongly of cat, Lehrman explains how the system works. With his fee in hand, he will make contact with the rabble-rouser via a polite cease-and-desist letter. He keeps copies of these inside a retro briefcase, which sits atop two jars of mustard on his cluttered couch.
If the first letter fails, he will send a follow-up note, such as a tract titled Special Letter to Boomhead Audio Abusers.
It uses some psychological techniques and some sarcasm to get them to change their behavior, Lehrman says.
We already know YOU dont think your music is THAT loud for anyone to complain about, the letter states. THINK AGAIN!Heavy bass can do LUNG DAMAGE to those who insist on feeling the booming bass vibrations up close; we have a whole article on this!
If the more potent missive still doesnt quell the racket, Lehrman will follow up with phone calls and track down parents and landlords.
Fortunately, Lehrman is not entirely new to such tasks; Noise Busters is a convenient amalgamation of his many former careers. He worked as a debt collector for ten years before quitting. I didnt much care for the actual collecting, he says, but the job was good badgering practice. After that, he marketed his own snarky bumper stickers. One of them says, Hey, Boom-Boxer: Ever Hear of Noise Pollution? You are it! (Sales didnt meet projections.)
But with the Noise Busters gig, Lehrman may be on to something. If only he can prove that he can really tame Houstons urban din.
In service of his cause, he climbs into a car recently and sets out to jawbone boomers in person. He points the way to a nearby 99-cent store, where a faded 80s Lincoln Town Car with dark tint and spiked rims slowly thuds and shudders through the lot.
Bmmp. Bmmp. Bmmp! Lehrman does a farting mock of the beats. It sounds like shit, he snipes. That isnt even music. Its just noise.
But he momentarily falls silent when the car disgorges a towering, ripped man with tattoos emblazoned across his arms. Wearing a backwards baseball cap and a wife-beater, the man struts into the store.
Lehrman leans against a pole, assesses the problem and readies himself for a confrontation. Hes armed with only chutzpah and a copy of Houstons noise ordinance. He practices reading aloud, authoritatively and to no one in particular, from Section 30-4, which says excessive noise from a vehicle is hereby prohibited and declared to be un-lawful as a sound nuisance.
These are beautiful points, he says, with a bit of an anxious quaver. That says it all.
In contrast to Lehrman, Richard Fernandez is a self-described urban kind of guy who doesnt really mind the automotive soundscape. He climbs into his red Acura RSX-S and zooms down Will Clayton Parkway at a high-revving 80 miles per hour. But that doesnt stop him from stressing the racket. Passing a honking truck, he says, You see, thats noise.
Fernandez is zipping toward a point of debate. Thanks to an influx of new subdivisions, the forested periphery of once-placid Humble is noisy even without the spiking airborne traffic. This development was not here before, says the communications director for the Houston Airport System. A lot of times, they just build.
And then they complain.
One of George Bush Intercontinental Airports new, disquiet neighbors is Mark Gobble, who lives two miles away and works as a pilot for a major airline. When he flies in, Fernandez says, he calls in a [noise] complaint on his own flight.
Gobble sees no paradox in this. Hes standing on the cul-de-sac in front of his two-story house, holding his own noise meter and watching a winged beast rumble overhead. The Extech meter measures 82.5 decibels. Thats a triple seven, he says with professional snap. British Airways. Direct from Heathrow.
Inside the living room, Gobbles wife logs the flight onto a legal pad the 90th such entry shes made that day. The Gobbles have been doing this for more than a year. Given their tenacity and technical expertise, theyre perhaps the airports most formidable adversaries: NIMBY Benedict Arnolds.
Naturally, its Mark Gobble who says the airport betrayed him. It built a new runway two years ago and directed an endless stream of planes over his house. And now it plans to construct up to three more runways. Hes fighting the expansions as a member of the Coalition of Homeowner Alliances Requiring Government Equity, or CHARGE. We moved in the general vicinity of the airport, he says, and the noise has moved to us.
But Gobble wouldnt be squawking if he had simply taken a look at the airports master plan, which has included an expansion agenda since 1983, says Fernandez, the airport spokesman. And given that the airport needs to grow to compete, Gobble ultimately may be grounding his own job.
Still, the pilot and his neighbors have obvious financial incentives to complain. When residents of a nearby, slightly more afflicted neighborhood griped about altered flight patterns, the airport spent $25 million relocating them.
A few enterprising homeowners subsequently have honed the process of whining into an illicit science. Rick Barrett, the airports noise compliance officer, maintains an Internet site where people can report flight racket. Theyve found a way to go into my computer program and access it its in Internet form and they go in there and they do something to it where they can file six, ten or 13 [complaints] a minute, he says. You cant fly that many airplanes over a house in a minute. Its impossible.
Yet no matter: More buyouts arent in the airports plans. We cant just do it to make everybody happy, Fernandez says. Where is it going to end?
Houston is a free-market utopia. Here, almost any problem can be solved with a wad of cash. Tired of living in a $90,000 tract home beneath yowling wake turbulence? Dont complain. Just work a bit of overtime, forgo eating out for the bulk food bin at the grocery store, and trade the place for an estate in River Oaks, where life is a breeze.
Of course, that breeze may be coming from high-powered blowers operated by low-wage men. When youve got five acres of forested gardens as a sound buffer from the moguls next door, youve also got a lot of leaves more than the typical gardener can rake.
This dilemma vexes some people more than others. Jane Dale Owen recently surveyed 1,200 fellow River Oaks residents about their thoughts on leaf blowers and posted the responses on her Web site. The assault on the constitution of many of Houstons richest residents, it would seem, is dire:
Theyre everywhere, everywhere, churning out noise and up pollution. A nuisance for my family and me and a serious health problem for my wifes asthma.
It is impossible [for] the sick [to] recover in River Oaks, I have often wished to be in a hotel!
The noise pollution is the worst as well as breathing difficulties.
This is a health concern area of the highest priority!
As I opened this letter, a very loud leaf blowerterrified [my] puppy and we both felt the results of noiseYes, ban them.
How about a solar powered electric rake?
A call is placed to Owens residence to see if she agrees with her fulminating respondents. She outlines a plan to ask the River Oaks Property Owners Restrictions Restatement Board to muzzle or totally ban the blowers. Living in River Oaks, in the ten-year period she begins starkly, but is interrupted by a yapping dog. Once it quiets down, she explains that she lived in Manhattans Upper East Side for 40 years.
Basically its a much quieter and cleaner city in New York, she says. And you can print that. Honking is not allowed. And although there are more people, the buildings are very well insulated. And if you have an apartment on a higher floor, you are isolated from the noise.
Not so in the ghetto of River Oaks, where, thanks to leaf blowers, You could be bothered at any time, she says. Its like a constant honking, or noise from a garbage truck.
For the foreseeable future, Owen will have to endure the onslaught. In a ruling published by the property owners board last week, the leaf-blower initiative failed.
Luddites, environmentalists and old codgers of every economic stratum might long for the hushed Houston of yore, where people rode bikes, sent telegrams and played acoustic banjos. But clearly, these reactionaries are deaf to the quiet revolution in their midst.
Thanks to modern technology, noise victims have the option of silencing loud gadgets with even more sophisticated quiet gadgets. For example, a British Web site called Global Gadget sells a handheld cell-phone jammer that looks just like, well, a cell phone. And a company in San Francisco sells a key-chain-size zapper that can be used discreetly to turn off chattering public TVs. Its called TV-B-Gone.
But though the revolution in noise abatement wont be televised, it also wont be for everyone at least not until someone invents an affordable Dog-B-Gone, Train-B-Gone and Goose-B-Gone. Sources say this will take some time.
Meanwhile, theres always the option of thumping the podium at City Hall. In response to vocal residents, Houston is installing improved railroad crossing protections at 12 intersections in Bellaire and West University part of a pilot program creating Quiet Zones, where trains need not announce themselves with whistles. That leaves merely 601 crossings that are still part of the loud zone, otherwise known as Houston.
But maybe howling into the wilderness of city government or into neighbors raging parties is too intimidating. Therein lies the profit potential of Lehrmans Noise Busters.
To hear Lehrman talk, he actually thrives on noisy confrontation as long as its in service of peace and quiet. He created a tape to be blared through a car PA system that begins with three loud beeps, followed by this announcement: Attention boomboxer, your license plate has been recorded and you will be reported to the police department. It goes on to lecture about the evils of loud noise, concluding with a request that other drivers honk if they agree.
Of course, he hasnt played the tape in public, but he has blown a shrill security whistle, like the ones that college women clutch on dark campuses. The whistle gets the attention of boomheads, and Lehrman yells at them.
He once stepped out of his Suburban, in the middle of traffic, and enjoined, Turn that goddamn shit down! The boomer complied. As soon as the light changed, he took off like a bat out of hell, Lehrman says.
I guess he thought I was going to come after him with my big old truck.
Without his truck, Lehrman must rely on his wits. Standing outside the 99-cent store, he finishes reading the noise ordinance to himself and looks up to see his quarry the tattooed boomer approaching the Lincoln. As the hulking man walks right in front of him, Lehr-man glances back down at his handful of printed-out regulations.
The boomer climbs into his car and starts the engine. Lehrman hesitantly glances at him. Well
I should have talked to him before he got in the car, he says.
The Lincoln backs out, pulls forward a few feet and stops. It begins emitting 81-decibel thuds. Lehrman takes a few tentative steps in its direction. And then it rumbles away.
Now hes gone, he says. Shit.
See, as long as nobody says anything, its like, Hey, its okay, so Im not going to worry about it.
The booms fade into the distance. And yet Lehrman is still talking. As they say in the hood, hell live to bust noise another day.
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