Streetside table. Bottle of wine. Just enough breeze to chase away the humidity. For an appetizer, a promenade of tourists, some in startling attire, provides delicious people-watching.
She smiles across the table and begins to say something inspired by the magic of outdoor dining on a summer evening. And…
Her words are devoured by a thunderous tumult. The wine ripples. Your cheeks flap to the tempo of a four-stroke engine. A biker amid the barely moving traffic has gone into a frenzy of sonic narcissism, revving and revving his engine, battering the streetscape with a strident cacophony.
Words are reduced to pebbles in an acoustical landslide. Conversation falls hostage to the abundant self-regard of a single biker astride his big hog, luxuriating in the fearsome din of illegal, aftermarket tailpipes.
South Florida Sun Sentinel columnist Fred Grimm. Rolando Otero, South Florida Sun Sentinel (Rolando Otero / Sun Sentinel)
Nothing to do but wait until the traffic flow takes him to the next block, where he’ll reprise his performance.
You wonder, is this guy intent upon punishing the world for a long-ago mistake in parenting? Weaned too soon? A terrible error during toilet training? A long-delayed scream for attention, amplified by a 1000cc engine?
On other nights, the romantic milieu of streetside dining is sabotaged by booming music erupting from passing cars with bass notes so heavy, it’s as if a brigade of timpani drummers has come marching down Las Olas Boulevard or Atlantic Avenue or Ocean Drive or Worth Avenue or Hollywood Boulevard.
Other nights, swarms of dirt bikes and ATVs burst through town, a rolling flash mob punishes innocent bystanders with a chorus of engines tuned an octave higher than the big hogs.
The Sun Sentinel reported that Delray Beach city officials have been inundated with complaints that the racket and recklessness of dirt bikers are killing the ambience along Atlantic Avenue.
Fifteen years ago, Delray Beach grappled with roaring Harleys disrupting the entertainment district. But when city commissioners considered enacting an outright ban on choppers, angry bikers staged on a rolling protest. Tattooed, intimidating, not-so-easy riders packed the next commission meeting. Suddenly, commissioners forgot all about a bike ban.
But nowadays, anti-noise crusaders are organizing against mufflerless motorcycles and supercharged car stereos and gasoline-powered leaf blowers and nightclubs that send music echoing through the condo canyons. Lately, nuisance complaints are supplemented by medical studies that link prolonged exposure to excessive noise to tinnitus, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, even adverse birth outcomes.
And to unbearable stress. Not for nothing did the US military position giant speakers blasting hard rock around the church sanctuary where dictator and opera lover Manuel Noriega was cowering in 1990. The FBI used a similar playlist in 1993, trying to extract Branch Davidians from their Waco compound. Guantanamo Bay detainees were tortured, days at a time, with unending loops of Eminem and Dr. Dr.
South Florida ought to be especially sensitive to the effects of loudness, given a local history of violence, including murder, by neighbors driven mad by next door’s soundtrack.
Fort Lauderdale has received so many noise complaints, that the city created a Noise Control Advisory Committee last fall to devise ways to lessen the tension between downtown residents and nearby entertainment venues.
A few Florida cities, including Palm Beach, Coral Gables and Key West, have passed ordinances limiting the use of gasoline-power leaf blowers, which combine sound pollution with gas fumes and whirlwinds of fungal spores, insect eggs, pollen and lawncare chemicals.
Amazingly, the Florida Legislature has refrained from its usual insistence on micromanaging local issues and allows city governments to regulate noise levels. (Albeit, to not much effect.)
State lawmakers did enact legislation this year intended to fix the constitutional problems of an old vehicular noise law voided by the Florida Supreme Court in 2012. The new version removed special exemptions that the old law granted vehicles blaring political or commercial messages.
Essentially, Florida’s new noise law no longer differentiates between the skull-jolting blasts from sound trucks promoting political candidates or 2-for-1 drink specials and the ear-bleeding 90 decibels of hip-hop coming from some kid’s low-rider.
Besides, in Florida, quiet is a guaranteed right. The state constitution requires “the abatement of air and water pollution and excessive and unnecessary noise.” (Three strikes against leaf blowers.)
State and federal laws already prohibit undoing factory-installed noise-suppressing mufflers on cars and motorcycles. With no apparent enforcement.
Unhappily, no one has yet devised an effective strategy for insulating al fresco diners from deafening motors and souped-up stereos of self-obsessed motorheads. Unless sidewalk cafes include ear plugs and Xanax with their nightly specials.
Fred Grimm, a longtime resident of Fort Lauderdale, has worked as a journalist in South Florida since 1976. Reach him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter: @grimm_fred.