All day, all night, the noise is the same: a booming, guttural roar, as thunderous as the pounding surf.
Eddie Leon lives with the racket year after year, like some laboratory mouse caught in a cruel sensory-bombardment test. But this is no test, no heinous experiment running past his tidy tract home in Downey.
This is the Santa Ana Freeway.
"I'm really (bleeped) off," Leon, 72, nearly shouted in his yard as late-morning traffic hurtled past scarcely 30 yards away. The banging, rumbling trucks, the oily black dust and the terrifying collisions that come crashing into the freeway's chain-link fence have exacted a toll on Leon's embattled nervous system.
"Right now, I can barely hear," he said, gesturing to his ears, lamenting the you-can-have-it attitude of anyone who might consider purchasing the home he has owned for 21 years. He stepped to his front windows, pointing indignantly. "Look at the putty falling out--that's from the vibration!"
Leon is not alone in a city whose vast, forbidding latticework of freeways has redefined the landscape and stamped its own gritty texture on urban life. In only half a century, Los Angeles has spawned a freeway labyrinth of 510 miles, the busiest in the world.
But as the freeways--and the city itself--have expanded, a hidden and mostly troubled subculture has emerged at the edge of the fast lane. Like villagers forced to share the jungle with King Kong, the people in the shadows of the freeway, where sound walls are years away, endure a nerve-racking place of noise, danger and inconvenience.
Imprisoned by the economic realities of jobs and a costly real estate market, they subsist by the thousands, people given to wagering on the size of wrecks, who surround themselves with double-pane windows and block walls, who follow their dreams with one hand on the aspirin bottle while the other reaches for the earplugs.
"You're listening to the TV . . . full volume, and it's still low," said Alicia Noble, whose Highland Park home rests only a few feet from southbound lanes of the Pasadena Freeway.
Not only are her dogs going deaf, Noble said, but her windows keep getting broken from rocks propelled by car tires. "The window in the kitchen is shattered and I haven't even replaced it," she said with exasperation. "It will happen again. Somebody will hit a little rock and break the window again."
Janet Agius, who bought a starter home near a freeway nearly three years ago, has insulated her rooms but still awakens to the roar. The din is so loud that she is embarrassed to invite guests to a back-yard barbecue. She longs for the day when she and her family can move.
"When diesels go by, if they're on the right (CB radio) frequency, you can hear the conversation on the television," she said. "It's crazy. We'll be watching TV, it'll get all staticky, and we'll hear the truck driver talking.
"We just laugh. What else can we do at this point?"
For even the sharpest real estate agent, selling a freeway-close home requires special aplomb. Santa Monica-based agent Carol Clarke likes to say that the drone of the road can almost mimic the sound of "waves crashing on the beach." In more candid moments, though, she says you have to find someone willing to have noise and dust as roommates in exchange for a cut-rate price.
Psychologically, those exposed to the cacophony of nonstop traffic can suffer irritability, depression, even personality changes, according to Dr. Michael Singer, a Long Beach psychiatrist with expertise in excessive-noise cases. In some instances, marriages collapse. Men and women have trouble sleeping. They end up venting their rage on each other and their children.
"Anger and resentment . . . come bubbling out all over," Singer said. "People will go to great lengths to sue their neighbors because of barking dogs. (But) that's minor compared to constant freeway noise."
In extreme situations, Singer said, prolonged exposure has even been know to trigger latent mental illness.
Ed Cullens is not such an individual. "I'm too (bleeping) old for it to have any impact on my mind," the 72-year-old El Monte resident snorted, closing his door to the din of the San Bernardino Freeway. "Nothing has an impact on my mind any more."
Nonetheless, Cullens talks in hardened cadences about the racket he has endured in a home his family bought in 1939, years before the freeway was built. Rush-hour is his daily reveille. It starts at 4 a.m., as rousing as any bugle.
"From then on," Cullens said, "it's a bastard."
About an hour before dawn, one truck driver in particular comes through, jamming on the "jake brakes," a set of anti-jackknifing devices that create a ratcheting noise of ear-splitting proportion. "It can raise you right out of the bed," Cullens said.