Chapter 1: A Little Too Quiet
It was move in day and my new condo was far from furnished, save for a coffee table and a floor full of boxes. Still I couldn’t wait to test the acoustics. I had tried to record a podcast in my previous basement apartment, but every passing car, barking mutt, and hooting frat boy had me pressing PAUSE. Recordings that should’ve taken minutes took days.
That’s why I persuaded my parents to invest in a top floor unit, high above the street corner brawlers, bus stop freestylers, and dissonant dive bars.
My new building was made for peace and quiet. It had glass fiber insulation, triple pane windows, and concrete walls. It had two security officers, cameras in every corridor, and a lease specifically stating: no parties whatsoever.
No longer would I wake up to a gaggle of giggling gals, flooding out of the stairwell in stiletto heels. No longer would I be a captive audience to a domestic dispute and no longer would I have to hear the makeup sex that came after.
I could sleep comfortably knowing the only thing waking me up in the middle of the night would be my own bladder.
The condo was like something out of a dream. When I stood in the center of the living room all I heard was the ringing of my own eardrums. I couldn’t believe this was mine, Daniel J. Cameron’s Casa de Heaven.
I shut off all of my electronics, except for the computer, turned down the furnace, and flicked off the lights. I dumped my journalism texts out and taped the box over the window. I even draped a blanket across the balcony doors just to be safe.
With the exterior of the space taken care of I pinned a roll of duct tape to a desk lamp, stretched a sock around it, and positioned it in front of my microphone. Voilà: I had a homemade pop filter to catch those stray P and B sounds before they could taint my audio with artifacts.
It was finally time to open the decibel meter on my phone. A whisper quiet library sits at 35 decibels. A bedroom at night rests at 30. I’d managed to get this place down to 25.
I sat cross-legged at the coffee table, loaded the script for my podcast, slid my headphones on, and clicked RECORD on the computer.
“According to the Washington Post, it’s estimated that 25,000 American prisoners are spending time in solitary confinement, many in cells not much larger than pool tables. Their every movement is watched. Their toilets and showers are controlled by remote. They rely on food trays to keep track of time.”
I scrolled down the page.
“Psychiatric professionals say solitary confinement does permanent psychological damage, increasing an inmate’s likelihood to reoffend, and for those with mental illness, it increases the odds that they will commit suicide upon release.”
There was a faint shrieking sound in my headphones.
I hit PAUSE, unplugged the microphone, and checked for knots in the wires. All the soundproofing in the world wasn’t going to help a damaged cord. When I was satisfied I’d smoothed the problem out I plugged the cord back in and hit RECORD.
“A special investigator for the United Nations classified any stay in solitaire in excess of 15 days as torture. We are social animals. We’re not made to endure such conditions. This problem with our prison system is a worthy topic, but the one I’ll be addressing is the effect of isolation on human beings, and why so many Japanese men have chosen a solitary confinement of their own making.”
The shrieking flared up again. It sounded more like chatter, like a dozen shrill voices trying to cut each other off.
I hit PAUSE and unplugged the microphone cable. It was possible that the cord wasn’t grounded and that it was picking up a radio signal. I coiled it up, set it on the coffee table, and hit RECORD again.
“They’re called the Hikikomori, or the withdrawn, reclusive young adults who find a quiet dignity in detachment. They get their social interactions vicariously through entertainment. Every culture has its escapism, but the Japanese have a term for people who dive so deep into fantasy they get lost: the otaku. Many Japanese high school students drop out to live vicariously through characters in manga, anime, and video games.”
There was another shriek, another surge of what had to be radio chatter. I took a deep breath and soldiered on.
“According to one epidemiological study a quarter of a million individuals are living as hikikomori right now. Many have been in self-imposed solitaire for twenty years or more. Japanese social services are so concerned with what happens when the parents of the hikikomori die they’ve dubbed the situation ‘The 2030 Problem.’ The real question is: what would compel so many members of a generation to wall themselves in?”
The shrieking came back. This time it didn’t dissipate. I dug my nails into the coffee table and scratched four furious lines into the finish. I hit PAUSE and strangled the microphone until I was certain the sound wasn’t interference but something it was picking up from the environment.
The cord dangled between my legs as I waved the microphone around the living room. The levels stayed flat as I passed over the refrigerator, the toilet, and the vents. The levels spiked when I got to the balcony doors. That’s when I peeled the blanket back and saw the source of my torment.
There were pigeons, a flock of twenty, bobbing their crooked little beaks, grunting and cooing. A pair of them teetered on their claws, circled one another, and rustled their feathers. They lunged forward, entwined their necks, and pecked at each other’s eyes. Their plumage was pocked and matted. Brawling was clearly part of their daily routine.
The other pigeons seemed oblivious to the fight. They dragged their fat bellies along the planks, walked in circles, and pecked at the cracks.
They didn’t see me until I threw the sliding doors open, but when I did all of those demon doves twisted their necks around.
I clapped. “Shoo, shoo, vamanos!”
The pigeons cocked their heads. They recognized the tone, but not the tongue. I shook a broom at them. It took several swipes before they got the good sense to heave their chubby little bodies over the railing and fly on.
Satisfied, I went back to the coffee table, tapped my phone, and checked the decibel level: 40, 35, 30, and 25. When the flapping of pigeon wings faded I put my headphones back on, brought the script back up, and hit RECORD.
“Depression will affect one in every four people on earth, but few regions will find so many resorting to total isolation as Japan. The hikikomori are a byproduct of a culture that values the prosperity of the group over the happiness of the individual.”
I paused, just in case there were any stragglers out there.
“Conformity is so ingrained in Japanese society that many students wear the same uniforms their parents did. They walk the same well-trodden paths, because they know that if they step out of line everyone will notice.”
A breeze flowed through the blanket. I turned toward the balcony, and listened. When I heard nothing I scrolled down and kept reading.
“In Japan, there’s so much pressure to go with the status quo that failure can prove traumatizing. Young men convert their bedrooms into fallout shelters. So many pressures reinforce their fear of the outside world: the pressure to prove themselves to their parents, the pressure to live up to the expectations of the opposite sex, and the pressure to mold themselves into model employees.”
I took a deep breath just as the cooing sounds returned.
That’s when I lost my shit and started strangling the microphone. “Other pressures include the pressure to pay back my student loans, to break into broadcasting, and to record a fucking podcast without being interrupted!” I’d gone off script.
The cooing seeped through the cracks in the sliding door, the blanket, and settled in my eardrums.
I hadn’t heard any birds while I was unpacking, but there with the microphone on, my headphones sounded like a pair of pigeon coops. I flung them off, tore the blanket down, and found the first flock had made some new friends. Now there were forty of those avian vermin, lining the railing, pecking the wood, and shitting on everything.
I reached for something on the mantel. This was one of my few prized possessions: a replica of the wand wielded by the infamous boy who lived himself.
I opened the door. The flock twisted their necks and fixed their orange eyes on me.
I waved the wand. “Relinquo.”
The pigeons merely pecked at the space where I’d pointed. When they realized I hadn’t thrown any breadcrumbs, they resumed their discordant song.
I waved the wand again. “Repulso.”
A few pigeons cocked their heads, but the charm was lost on them.
I slid the door open further, stepped out onto the deck, and poked the wand right into the flock.
I rarely uttered the explosive curse, even in jest. Nevertheless, it didn’t work. The pigeons hopped out of the way, but they were oblivious to the magic of the stick.
“Fine. I’m going to go put a kettle on and when I come back I’ll make it rain.”
I’m guessing that some retiree, with too much time and too much bread, had conditioned these birds not to fear the hand of man.
I’d have to reeducate them.