Home | Archive | Itineraries | Events | FAQ | Columns/Links
Advertise | Newsletter | About/Subscribe | Submissions | Art Walk | Books | THE2NDHAND Writers Fund

**PRINT: FRIENDS FROM CINCINNATI: Installment 24 features this part coming-of-age short by Chicago's Patrick Somerville, author of the Trouble collection of shorts out in 2006. | PAST BROADSHEETS |

The Revolution of Everyday Life

Back to Archive Index

Ben Tanzer

Fern liked motorcycle boots, black and scuffed, and she liked to wear them with long flowing skirts. She liked her brown hair short, with a slight part to the side, a few spare tendrils sneaking out behind her ears. She rarely wore makeup, but liked to pluck her eyebrows, the better for raising them Belushi-style when feigning surprise, awe, or self-mockery. She liked Hello Kitty. And the band Cake. She liked the movie Mermaids so much she saw it seven times. She never drank or smoked, but she liked nothing more then shooting pool in dark, musty bars. She hated George W. Bush, people who neglected to screw the top back on tubes of toothpaste, and the fact that she failed to put her sunglasses in the same place every time she removed them. She favored tank tops and long leather jackets, but always wore a formal gown when watching the Oscars. She abhorred violence and injustice of all kinds, but especially when it was directed against women. She was a leader in the student protests against admitting men to Mills College and traveled across Nicaragua on a rusty bike. She liked folktales and storytelling and had once created a video installation of three couples tickling each other, the sounds of their breath, skin on skin contact, and laughter reverberating across the abandoned warehouse where the work was first shown. Mostly, though, Fern liked sound, all kinds of sound, and her inability to block out the sounds that surrounded her, a trait she was sure was a gift bestowed on her from some higher power.

As a child, Fern would spend all afternoon sitting in front of the washing machines at the neighborhood laundromat listening to the shwap, shwap, shwap of the water sloshing about, the blades spinning, and the socks and underwear crashing into one another. She would lie in the endless fields behind the neighborhood church and listen to the landscaping crew mowing the grass for hours, the tinny whine of the motor and the occasional ping of a rock getting caught under the lawnmower bringing her great pleasure and solace. The plucky chirps of birds were forever entertaining to her, as were dogs barking, the beeps and whistles of trucks backing into driveways, the rain slapping a staccato beat against the windows of her classrooms at school, the sound of the baseball cards the boys next door attached to the wheels of their bikes.

In comparison home was no place to be. It was noiseless and unbearable. No one spoke at meals. And no one asked about another's day, much less about how one might be feeling. Worse, there was no place in her home to hide or go that was far enough away to escape the crushing quiet, the fears that accompanied it, or long nights spent staring at the tiles on her bedroom ceiling -- 10 rows across, 15 down, 150 total, 75 white, 75 black, 25 cracked.

But the sounds that engulfed her outside of her home she could hide in, revel in, creating a world that was hers alone. Sound made sense, it provided her with both and anchor and a lifeline. Sound could be classified, explained, and organized, whereas regular life could not. It was too messy and unpredictable. People came and went, emotions changed from one moment to the next, relationships were unmanageable, and Fern wanted nothing to do with this. With sound came purpose, and with purpose the world.

She never collected in a systematic way, but when she moved to the city there were all sorts of new sounds to discover -- the rattling of the 7 train as it emerged into the light of Long Island City, the whoosh the steam produced as it rose mysteriously from the sidewalk grates, the reverberations the escalators made as you descended into Penn Station on the Madison Square Garden side of the building. It was a whole new world and Fern embraced it lovingly and ferociously.

Fern decided to start recording the sounds. She bought little tape recorders that she attached to her feet so she could capture the resulting crunch as she walked through the day-old snow in Central Park, then slipped them into her pockets while on the 3 train so she could record random snippets of conversation as she came home from her administrative assistant job with a realtor off Broadway and West 35th.

"So, you slept with her?"


"Are you going to tell your wife?"

"No, I don't want to hurt her."

"That's very generous of you."

"I think so."

I met Fern at the Dive Bar up on Amsterdam. I was looking to shoot some darts, drink some beer, and not much else, really. She was sitting in the back by the dartboards by herself, nursing some seltzer, a little smile on her face. I wouldn't normally approach someone like that, someone so clearly happy to be by themselves, but that smile, it was different, enigmatic, I had to know what was behind it.

"Anyone sitting here?" I asked.

"No," she said, "one minute."

She reached under the table and produced a tape recorder that she promptly turned off. She jotted some commentary into a little notebook and then turned her attention to me. "What are you doing?" I said.

"Capturing bar sounds," she said, "you know, bottles crashing into one another, pool balls ricocheting from one to the next, small talk, people washing dirty glasses."

"Why?" I said, now smiling myself.

"Because it makes me happy," she said.

We got pizza at Famous Famiglia down the street at 96th, bought some beers at the bodega around the corner, and went back to her place, a little studio apartment in a building down by the West Side Highway. The room was dominated by a futon bed and shelf after shelf of tapes divided into sections: dogs, both big and small; bus announcements; the clip-clop of horse drawn handsome cabs; and on and on. Fern invited me to listen to her collection and I stayed the night.

After that I joined her in her work. I was expected to come up with ideas, note locations where I heard especially anomalous sounds, and help with her equipment and set-up when she was ready to record. Sometimes she produced detailed schedules and maps about our plans for the day, others we just wandered, knowing we would eventually stumble into something we were both captivated by. We captured the roar of the fans at Yankee Stadium, the din of the big machines at construction sites from the Bronx to Staten Island, the whir of the mammogram she took after she found a lump one morning in the shower.

"Can you feel it?" Fern said again and again. "We're doing something great here, something wild, and crazy, and wonderful, we're creating something bigger then ourselves, something that will outlive us."

"Outlive us," I would say, "why would you even care about that, you're 25 years old."

"It's never too soon to think about your legacy. Don't you want to leave some kind of mark that you were here?"

One day Fern decided she would ride her bike to work, her tape recorders capturing the sounds of the trip, the people rushing to the office, the car horns and vendors, the dogs barking, the police blowing their whistles, and the flapping of her long skirt as the wind washed across her legs. I called her at work later that morning, hoping to find out what she had recorded, wondering when I might be able to hear the results. But she wasn't there, had never come in, never even called. Nor was she at home. I went to her apartment at the end of the day and saw Fern's landlord by the door.

"Did you know her?" the landlord asked me. He was a bald guy in a wife-beater T-shirt and blue Dickie's.

"Yes," I said. "Did?"

"She was run over by a bus on her way to work today," he said, "got her skirt caught in the chain of her bike. It's a shame, she was a funny, unusual kid."

"She was brilliant," I said, "and beautiful."

"Sure buddy," he said, "of course she was."

There was a memorial service for Fern and then her family took her home to be buried. I think of her all the time, when the rain hits the window, when some car slams on its breaks, when everyone is talking at once. I also think about her when nothing is happening at all, no movement, no sound, just silence, profound and sublime silence. She wouldn't have understood it, she had no time for silence, but she would have appreciated, I think, finding something in nothing, something wonderful to immerse yourself in when pain is the only other option. She knew just how important that kind of thing could be.