Damnation by Decibel

From hear to eternity, Miami is hell on your aural health

The only real estate John Lewis lays claim to is a concrete median below an I-95 overpass, where Flagler Street meets the Miami River. Taking a break from his fourteen-hour daily round of can-scrounging — "enough for about two beers, so I can get through another day" — Lewis, age 62, reclined on a flattened cardboard box here on a Friday morning. After years of wandering the city's streets homeless, he isn't fazed by the screech of bus brakes and nearly constant traffic — which climbed above 80 decibels at times. "It's about as good as you're going to get. It's never quiet [in Miami]," he said, rubbing his dirt-caked University of Notre Dame cap with blackened fingertips.

Guillermina Hernandez, age 65, is used to the noise too. From the street-front counter of her Little Havana café, Hernandez pronounced the city's noise as more than tolerable. Usually, she said, pointing with her chin to a rain-slicked Calle Ocho, "It's tranquil like this." As two men sipped fruit juice and a little abuela waited for a cafecito, rain poured on the cars driving past. The sound meter ticked up to 70 decibels. "There aren't enough people for it to be a [noisy] city," Hernandez said. "New York, that's a city."

It may not be New York, but it's pretty damn loud from Al Matias's perspective. Matias, a City of Miami Police officer, spends his nights bombarded with sirens, often his own. Speeding toward an accident scene on a Friday night, Matias switched on the electric howl — about 85 decibels from inside the car with the windows down — and maneuvered through traffic. "You don't even hear your sirens. You're just focused on the car in front of you," he said. "Your adrenaline really starts to pump up. You basically get tunnel vision."

For the average Joe like me, simply driving home from work with the windows down is worth about 77 decibels, as loud as a noisy laundry machine. With the windows (and top) up in my little, old convertible, the noise meter still registered in the low seventies.

Although you probably can't meditate at Meditation Park in Kendall, a sliver of green lost in an ocean of traffic — 75 decibels on a Friday afternoon — you can find quiet in Miami.

Take the lobby of the Miami-Dade Courthouse for example. Around noon on a Friday, as lawyers whispered into cell phones and clerks pushed document carts across the smooth floor, my decibel meter rarely climbed above 65. Later in the afternoon, during the "rush hour" before closing, the volume goes up a few notches, said twenty-year-old courier Sadik Harper.

The fishing pier at the Charles Deering Estate on Biscayne Bay is a good place to "get a piece of mind," said Arthur Ross, age 61. Casting for barracuda with his uncles Nathaniel Perrine and William Russ on Thanksgiving morning, Ross kept conversation to a minimum. The chatter of distant canoeists and the breath of wind on the flat water barely registered 52 decibels.

Roberto Vidal, age 26, finds his peace of mind playing Frisbee golf at Kendall Indian Hammocks Park. As the sun set on a recent Friday, Vidal walked the park with a gym bag full of discs and sixteen-ounce Budweisers. The sound meter hovered around 54 decibels. Sometimes, he said, the city intrudes on his solitary revelries. Occasionally a frat boy type will drive by and yell "Frisbee faggot" out the car window. "I kind of whistle at them, give them a thumbs-up," Vidal joked.

There's little to intrude on the stillness of the Everglades, home to the lowest sound reading in my wanderings. Only feet from the visitor center parking lot at Shark Valley is a place that defines tranquility. The combined volume of squawking herons, splashing fish, and swaying saw grass added up to 55 decibels at its peak. When the wading birds piped down, my meter dipped below its 50-decibel threshold to a range somewhere between a hushed library and a gentle rainfall.

Peace and quiet, finally.

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