(How) To Kill a Mockingbird
There is a mockingbird who comes to perch on top of a pole outside my window. He
sits there like a little weathervane and does his thing. His thing is not what I
would call singing, or music, unless flipping rapidly down the radio dial can be
considered music. I suppose there are some postmodernists who would argue that it can, but
I am not among them.
The mockingbird sits on his pole at midnight, at four in the evening, at five in the
morning, and right now, at a quarter to one in the afternoon, as I write this. He
sits there and he does his thing. He clears his throat and runs through his repertoire, and then he does it again in a different order, and then he does it again.
The immediate analogy, even more immediate than the radio, is a car alarm. The ones,
you know, where if someone or something brushes the car, a cycle of unrelated irritating
noises starts up to alert the owner (and anyone else within earshot). REE-oop REE-oop REE-oop REE-oop. Dooooooooouuuiiip. Dooooooooouuuiiip. WRANK WRANK WRANK
WRANK. Oooo eeee
The better alarms shut off after a few cycles, but there are some that keep going
until the owner of the car stops them.
When I was in college, there was a guy who went on a road trip with his friends for
a few days and left his spiffy new car in the parking lot between two dorms. While
he was gone, early one morning, something touched his car; a squirrel, maybe, or
a falling twig. The car alarm started up. It didn't stop. Students in both the dorms
were wrenched from sleep and came to their windows bleary-eyed. It didn't stop.
Round and round and round the alarm cycle went, round and round and round and round,
and when the owner of the car came back a day or two later, the windshield of his car was
smashed in and a brick was lying on the driver's seat. Posters went up all over
campus, offering a substantial reward for any information leading to the apprehension
of the person responsible for the vandalism. Remarkably, no one came forth and no information
was ever given, even though whoever threw the brick would had to have been standing
in the middle of a parking lot, in good light, in full view of two seven-storey dorms.
I think of this when the mockingbird sits on his pole outside my window and does his
thing, which he does quite often. It's a good analogy, but there are some fundamental
differences. First of all, if the car alarm was anything like car alarms I've heard, it had a cycle of eight different sounds. The mockingbird has upwards of twenty,
with infinite variations on each theme. Not only that, but his sounds don't follow
a pattern. Whereas the rhythmic electronic predictability of a car alarm might be
successfully incorporated into techno house music, the mockingbird's thing is organic,
chaotic, and impossible to dance to. In that respect it is like jazz, but even the
most avant-garde jazz is based upon some understanding of tempo and melody. The
bird's thing is random and without form. It is an arbitrary collection of sound bites.
It is noise.
The most important difference between the car alarm and the mockingbird, however,
from my point of view at least, is that a car is an easy target. A car sits there
and waits while you throw a brick at it, because it's just a machine that doesn't
know any better. This bird, on the other hand, possesses a survival instinct and is capable
I am not a violent man. I try to be tolerant of life's many imperfections; I try
to handle my frustrations in the most constructive manner possible. So I consider
There is a window I leave open to admit fresh air into my room. I close it. The
glass blocks out maybe five percent of the sound.
I have earplugs. I put them in my ears. They block out maybe thirty percent of the
sound, but there is a particularly piercing note the mockingbird favors which sails
through the material of my earplugs like a fork through meringue.
My tapedeck, my music collection. I select an album of Celtic harp. It is too quiet
to supersede the mockingbird's greatest hits, so I increase the volume, a little
at a time, each time pausing to listen; each time I can still hear the epileptic
chatter of the bird, like a jackhammer drilling through "Greensleeves." At last I find
a volume level that drowns out the bird, but now "Greensleeves" is the jackhammer,
and whatever it was I was trying to do that required serenity (was it sleep? is it
five in the morning?) is now entirely impossible. I open the window and shout at the bird:
"Hey! Knock it off!" I clap my hands. "Yo!" It's like shouting at the television.
The mockingbird is tuned to his own program, and there is no other station, no power
button. I think of Laurie Anderson's observation that the most serious defect of
the human body is that you can't close your ears, and I begin to feel like little
Alex in A Clockwork Orange
, trapped in this room with my ears that I can't close, listening to this one bird
that I can't shut up. "You go to Hell! You go to Hell and you die!" I scream at
the bird, but even while I'm screaming he's doing his thing. There is no change
in his emphasis. For weeks and weeks he has been performing at the same level of energy. He
never tires. Whatever else he could possibly be doing has been put on hold, indefinitely,
for his extended off-off-Broadway run. This is it
, baby, the meaning of life, the culmination of mockingbird experience. This is all
it's ever been about for him. He has thrown himself into his work with the misguided
passion of a Yahoo Serious.
I have not been sleeping well. I have not been eating well, or writing well, or doing
anything well that involves my presence in this room. I go to work early and stay
late, but I am exhausted and I snap at people. The dark crescents under my eyes
are tinged with green. Two nights ago the bird woke me from a fitful sleep at three
a.m. and I sat up in bed with the light on for five hours, staring blankly at the
wall, his endless scat solo ringing in my wide-open ears.
If I ever saw him eating anything, I could attempt to poison it, but as far as I know
he picks gnats from the air and swallows them mid-warble. I would lure him within
reach of a baseball bat, but there is nothing to lure him with; he has no discernable interests beyond his own singing. I have seriously considered buying a gun, even
though it would be politically and aesthetically unpleasant, but even if I knew how
to use one it is probably illegal to shoot wildlife in a residential area.
I am at an impasse. My hatred and my thirst for vengeance are matched by his utter