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May 2, 2022

Ear Plugs: They’re Not Just for Heavy Metal Concerts and Sirens

A look at how urban sounds can soothe rather than terrify

By Ed Goldman

Unlike some people who are older than I am, the same age or even decades my junior, I’ve never worn earplugs to a heavy-metal or hip-hop concert. The fact that I’ve never attended a heavy-metal or hip-hop concert doesn’t invalidate what follows. 

But first: I also never wear earplugs when I swim, operate power tools or take up space for hours in a coffee shop. 

Edgy Cartoon

The Goldman State: Unplugged

Here, I need to issue a second disclaimer: I rarely swim or operate power tools and only linger in coffee shops when I’m there with a friend, interviewee or my OSSO (oh-so-significant-other, if you’re joining this column late). In the latter cases, in which conversation is pretty much required, stuffing a pair of plugs into my ears would probably send the wrong signal.

I’ve noticed that a number of people (most of whom had yet to be born the year I began tossing AARP entreaties into the recycling bin) wear ear “buds” as they work at their computers, monopolizing primo workspace for the price of a latte.

As an aside—but without the benefit of parentheses, which have doubled in price due to inflation and supply-chain issues—I wrote here in 2020 about how much more money Starbucks could make if it charged its customers the going rate for office rentals.

The way I calculated it was like this:

“As of a few months ago, there were 15,149 Starbucks locations just in the United States alone. If you figure that the average office space in our country costs between $8-$23 per square foot, and that each worker needs an average of 150-175 square feet of space, that means each parasitic Starbucks customer could be charged a minimum of $1,200 per month ($8 x $150).

“Multiply that by the average of how many people you can safely jam into the average Starbucks (say, 25), and that comes to about $30,000 per month.

“Now, multiply that by 15,149 shops in the country and you come up with $454.5 million per month.”

Okay, we’re back. Let’s talk ear plugs.

I wore Mack’s silicon ear plugs to bed every night for more than 25 years. They rarely blocked the sounds I needed to hear—such as my spouse, child, dog or cat crying out from nightmares or illness—but they did muffle into submission the 3 a.m. sounds of car alarms going off, yapping little neighbor dogs commenting on leaves falling, low-riders gunning their engines to simulate idling SSTs, or Southern Pacific freight trains reminding us of their important contributions to noise pollution.

If you haven’t used them, Mack’s plugs are wholly different from those rubbery ones they give you if, and I hope not, you ever need to undergo an MRI or CT-Scan. Those come with a built-in irony: If they successfully block the thunderous CLONK of the machines taking pictures of your fixtures, so to speak, then you might not hear the prerecorded baritone ordering you to BREATHE or HOLD YOUR BREATH. And if you don’t inhale and exhale on cue, you may be forced into a do-over because you’ll have messed up each photo of your toto, so to speak again.

Using the medical ones to block out noise when you’re staying in a hotel is an equally futile endeavor. Oh, they may slightly reduce the clamor from the elevator or ice machine five feet from your door, but don’t expect them to silence the maids who start knocking on said door at seven a.m. or yell down the hall at a similar time to ask each other if they’re out of toilet tissue.

But something miraculous happened to me about 17 months ago when I fell in love with my aforementioned, still somewhat anonymous OSSO. I awoke from a 15-year haze of wanting to shut the world out to wanting to invite it back in, yappy dogs and all.

The proof: The condo I own in Cramps ‘R’ Common—sorry: Campus Commons—is about 20 yards from one of the noisiest intersections in the city and county (in fact, one of the two roads is a border between the two government entities). 

During the day, as I work in my office here, there’s a reassuring hum of cars, buses and motorcycles, though interrupted at least monthly by the startling screech and bam of an accident as well as the subsequent wail of ambulance, fire and police sirens. Nighttime noise isn’t much different and may actually be louder because of the atmospheric ceiling that tends to amplify the cacophony. Even so, when I crawl into bed, usually between one and two p.m., the sounds mix into some sort of urban symphony and I fall asleep quickly. 

There was an exception to this recently when moments after I conked out I heard a deafening rasp, as though burglars were trying to saw their way into my loft from the roof. I jumped out of bed, picked up my flashlight and cellphone (in case I needed to call for backup) and inspected every inch of my place, including the closets and attic. I even looked in the cupboards, hoping like hell I wouldn’t surprise a very large rice-field rat armed with a Black & Decker drill and in quest of my box of instant pilaf.

The search exhausted me and when I got back into bed, I reluctantly reached for my little box of Mack’s ear plugs and stuffed them in. Then I was reawakened by that deafening rasp and realized it was my own heavy breathing. So I removed the plugs, let the world back in and fell asleep.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).