Experts say we’re quieter than ever. How quiet? What’s the danger? What’s being done about it?

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Manqué presents: excerpts from "Social Distanzine," 
a quarantine-inspired zine produced by Ali Mullins.
Digital and print copies are available for purchase here.
Photo: Ali Mullins

For months I’ve been seeking quiet… nosing around all over the place to find it. With a lunch-box-size sound-level meter, I’ve checked sleeping mice, forgotten corners of libraries, jackhammers that are completely out-of-commision. On the streets of Charlotte, I pointed my meter into the kaleidoscopic silences. Wrapped in my softest snuggie, I measured from underneath my bedsheets- the whispers of nothingness. Sardined into the shrubs in Midwood Park, I recorded Charlotte’s hushed whispers.

Suddenly, my search for quiet need not go further than my own doorstep. According to acoustics experts the United States is getting quieter every day, and those absent neighbors—there are more of them now and they’re quieter than ever. To top it off, new apartment buildings have far more soundproofing than they can use and nobody can even afford to fill their vacancies with noises.

Where to hide? There’s essentially nowhere to hide from the silence. Sedatives and tranquilizers are being gobbled like gum drops, and some experts put the blame largely on too much social distancing. There’s no way to escape the clamor of nothingness- no place to hide. The question for today may just be where not to hide?

How quiet is it? Acoustic engineers measure loudness in decibels. One db is about the smallest degree of loudness difference we can detect. The scale starts at zero — ordinarily the weakest sound that can be heard is about like a fly buzzing at the other end of the house.

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time alone in Harvard’s anechoic (echoless) chamber, a soundproof room so designed that not a smidgen of echo bounces back from the walls, floor or ceiling, you’ll know that it’s one of the most silent places this side of the grave.

Well, our city is quieter than that. Silence has struck us. We feel utterly alone. With our eyes closed, we can almost believe we are on the top of a tower high above a silent, windless plane. Or in deep space. We may be feeling dizzy and flinching to try to feel something. We may hear our shirts rustle and creak as we breathe. We can hear the blood flowing in our ears.

Is help coming? Help may have already arrived with the release of “Tiger King,” a Netflix documentary about a league of big-cat loving psychopaths. Many people are also trying to break the silence with Zoom calls, Netflix parties, incessant drinking and screaming old song favorites at the tops of their lungs. One authority says that our current levels of silence is costing the U.S. industry nearly 2.2 trillion dollars. Management is fighting to drain the silence by keeping workers talking and walking around in nearly-empty buildings (empty except for airborne, deadly viruses). The fight against silence continues.

Ali Mullins is an artist from Charlotte. An elementary school teacher by morning and avid cycler by night, she’s currently trapped inside her home just like everybody else.

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