I live on a dead end street in a southern suburb of San Diego. Every house in the neighborhood is painted the same color. There is a man-made duck pond a five-minute walk from our driveway. Sometimes teenagers park their cars and smoke weed at the mouth of the service road for the brush canyon that runs behind us. Those kids are the best and the worst feature of my neighborhood.
The other night when I opened the garage for an outing to Costco, there was a steady trickle of young women filing down the hill toward the cul-de-sac. It was not easy to estimate their ages.
I wrestled with two contradictory impulses: The first was to avert my eyes. The second was to ascertain the terminus of this unexpected parade. As my wife buckled our seven-month-old son into his car seat, I projected an aura of nonchalance primarily achieved by not grunting as I loaded the stroller in the cargo hold of our economical SUV.
When we got home from Costco, a train of parked cars occupied every inch of curb space on our street. A clump of human activity boiled in the driveway a few houses down from us. The most identifiable member of the cohort was wearing a bass guitar that dwarfed his physique. The accessory was justified by the half-circle of smiling young women in his proximity.
I have enough life experience to know that if someone is hanging out on your street wearing a bass guitar, the odds are high you will soon be hearing an approximation of music. In this case, the noise commenced just as the street lights were coming on. For the most part it was a low end throb that made our windows buzz a little. But any time the side door to our neighbor’s garage opened, the higher frequencies washed out over the roofs and poured down the canyon. Cheers of authentic appreciation punctuated the end of each song.
It had been a while since I’d heard live music. It’s more accurate to say it had been a while since I’d heard any compelling live music. But the music coming from my neighbor’s garage did compel me. It was sloppy. It was simple. It was people playing through mistakes in front of an enthusiastic and forgiving audience. I hoped no one was Snapchatting it.
My kitchen garbage was not full, but I took it out anyway to get closer to the energy of the show and the optimistic voices in the street. The wood and wheels of a skateboard ground out another breed of music as someone else attempted bold feats and failed at them. People were laughing, flirting, making plans for later. The conversations were identical to those I’d participated in 25 years ago.
I was not satisfied just hearing the gathering from behind the fence where we keep the garbage cans. I wanted to see what was going on out there, but feared disturbing its pristineness. I crept out my front door and edged along the hedge at my property line. However, the motion light over my garage has a long reach and betrayed me with literalness, revealing me as a man in his forties peering at teenagers from behind bushes. How to explain the context and nuance of my predicament if I were spotted? I melted back into the house.
Still, much more inspired than ashamed, I climbed the foyer stairs and disinterred my guitar from where it resides in the spare bedroom. To my surprise, it was almost in tune. I carried it into my son’s bedroom, where my wife was drying him after his bath.
“I’m going across the street to show them what rock looks like,” I said.
“No, you’re not.”
My son rolled his head back to eye me from his supine position on the changing table. He had a hand in his mouth. I strummed a power chord, which made him grin and kick his legs with impressive violence.
Encouraged by his response, I improvised an aggressive riff. I don’t remember how it went, but you have to take my word for it that it absolutely shredded.
My son redoubled his kicking and gurgled.
“Don’t get him excited. He needs to sleep,” my wife said.
I assumed a limber, athletic stance, pointed the headstock of my guitar at her back, and sped up the riff. My wife did not bother to turn around, so I retreated down the hall to make good use of the closet doors that double as full-length mirrors in our bedroom.
On a typical night, I feed my son his last bottle before he goes to sleep. While he eats, we listen to French surrealist composers or Gaelic folk music. I’m not trying to turn him into any kind of elitist, but that music is relaxing. It’s the sound of a baby falling asleep in your arms when you have a little whiskey on your breath. But the night the band played down the street, we just listened to those kids and all their mistakes. I told my son his daddy used to play in bands like that.
When I was nineteen, and my friends and I rattled our neighbors’ windows with our amplified errors, was there some guy listening to us as he fed his baby?
Maybe our shaky attempts made him feel a little more alone, but also a little more like himself. Maybe he kissed his son and promised him a guitar. Maybe he had been afraid a smothering, conventional life had finally ensnared him.
“Nope. Not yet.”
Maybe he said that.