Jim wrenched at the wires… The headlights went out but the horn continued to blow…

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, October 19, 1935.

“The sap,” hissed Jimmie Frise.

Behind us, as we drove, came a car with its horn snorting at us.

“Does he expect me,” snarled Jimmie, “to pull in behind one of these parked cars and stop and let him past?”

Arp, arp went the horn, right at our tail. Parked cars were scattered along Bloor St., so that to accommodate our noisy friend either we had to get in behind one of them and stop or else keep on going.

Finally, letting the horn loose in a long, steady blast, the car passed us. The driver and his friend, both young men, leaned and glared at us. And vanished down the street haughtily.

That sort of thing,” said Jim, “gets my nanny. I couldn’t pull aside, except in a small space between parked cars. If I went faster he would have wanted to go faster still. So what the heck? Why all the tumult?”

“The city fathers are right,” I declared. “There is far too much noise, far too much horn tooting, banging, slamming.”

“That campaign for a civic quiet is old stuff,” said Jim. “In the past fifteen years somebody has brought it up every season. I don’t expect much results.”

Bloor St. was loud with sound, bright with lights. Street cars rumbled and rattled. Cars hooted and clattered. Boys yelled. Horses clip-clopped. Parkers slammed car doors. Motormen heeled bells. Dogs barked. Peanut whistles blew. A radio squawked from out a store door. A street orator bellowed from a side street. Street cars ground to sudden stops. Motor car wheels squealed. A truck loaded with boxes battered lazily along.

“Such a din,” I said.

“When you come to listen to it,” agreed Jim, “it is kind of staggering, isn’t it?”

“And most of it idle,” I added. “Just listen to this street car ahead. Listen to him dinging that bell. There is nothing ahead of him. He’s just got the habit.”

“Horn blowing is a habit, too,” said Jim. “Just listen.”

And as we drove we listened. It was a medley of horns. Short and long, high and low, the car horns, near and far, filled the world with small, nervous, impatient sound. Sound to which we have become accustomed and never notice. But once we do notice it, it gets on our nerves, haunts us, as when we suddenly become acutely aware of a cricket chirping, a cricket that has been chirping forever and we hadn’t been aware. of it.

“Yet,” said Jim, briefly thumbing his car horn and making a brief toot, “there is a case in point. That guy was just pulling away from the curb. If I hadn’t tooted, he would have kept on coming out and I would have bumped him. Or if I had stopped suddenly, the guys behind me would have bumped me. See? There I go again. That’s twice in one block I’ve had to toot.”

Man a Noisy Animal

“And why?” I asked. “Because we drivers have become too lazy to twist our necks and look out behind when we start away from the curb. We expect the horn. We start out and if no horn toots that means all is clear. It’s laziness at the bottom of all this horn tooting.”

“Mankind,” stated Jim, “is a noisy animal. Market places are noisy places. These business streets are noisy the way an Oriental bazaar or the Canadian National Exhibition is noisy. Selling is a matter of attracting attention. You can’t sell in silence.”

“Privately, Jim,” I offered, “I wouldn’t like too much silence. We will be silent so long presently. Somehow I love all this towny racket. It makes me imagine that I am part of something alive, vigorous, joyous. Joy is loud. Sorrow is silent.”

“Me, too,” said Jim, tooting his car horn sharply at a bicycle ahead that was most carefully hugging the proper side of the road. “I always toot at bicycles. I have a feeling I am going to hit every bicycle I ever pass. Never get over it. Yes, sir, I love the noise of cities. For five years1 I have missed, with a frequent sense of yearning, the tumult of a rivetting machine building tall buildings. Do you realize we haven’t heard that sound in all these years?”

“I like a steam shovel,” I said. “I think 99 out of the 100 men who stand staring at steam shovels aren’t looking at all. They are listening.”

“Which is lovelier,” asked Jim, “the sight of the fire-reels tearing along the city street or the sound of them? The scream of the siren. The roar of the engine and thunder of wheels.”

“It’s the sound,” I agreed.

“Yes, there’s something very dear about the sounds, the noise, of a city,” decreed Jimmie. “If you come downtown Sunday morning and see this city barren and deserted it has a sort of eerie and frightening effect. You are glad to get out of it. It feels strangely like a cemetery.”

“In the night,” I added, “when I am lying in bed I love the sound of footsteps tapping past my house.”

“I will be glad,” stated Jim, “when the noise of this city and all the great cities of the world gets real bad again; when high in the sky the rivetting hammers roar and down in the hopelessly crowded streets the traffic fights and snarls; truck drivers thundering through laden with merchandise to refuel the frantic stores; excited salesmen scrambling raucously for parking space; and the public so eager, so hurrying, so greedy and gay they can’t even hear the gigantic din of good times all around.”

“Aye,” I said. “It’s when we have nothing much to do but complain that we bother about civic noises.”

Thus we left Bloor St. and turned up Bathurst and sped up Bathurst to St. Clair and turned east into that distinguished region of mansions which was our destination. We were going up to put the finishing touches on a little duck shooting trip and our rich friend, as usual, couldn’t find his gun, so we were going up to help him find it. Last year I found it in his nursery.

Shattering the Silence

Off St. Clair into one of those noble streets we turned. Spacious lawns, quite respectably aged trees, large slumbering houses of stone or fancy brick stood aloof from the plain narrow asphalt.

“How peaceful,” Jim said. “No noise here. Silence begets silence.”

“If anybody got in the way here,” I seconded, “you wouldn’t dream of tooting at him. You’d just pleasantly slow down, as one rich man to another, and smile agreeably as you passed.”

“I bet,” said Jim, “there hasn’t been a car horn tooted in here for fifteen years.”

And we had scarcely these words out of our mouths when Jimmie’s horn began to blow.

Now Jim’s horn is not one of those melodious two-tone blasters of the later models. It is just a loud and raucous yawper of a horn. You just toot it once and a whole fleet of construction trucks will move aside.

“Jim,” I expostulated.

“Holly smoke,” gasped Jim. “I didn’t do anything. It just started itself.” We had to shout to be heard.

Waaawwwww, went the horn as we hastened up the brooding dim avenue.

“Stop,” I cried. “Maybe it will quit if the engine does.”

“I can tear the wires,” gasped Jim.

He hastily pulled up, turned off the engine, but the awful, sinewy, ear-piercing din kept up. As we scuttled out of the car, I saw lights come on in stately windows round about, doors opened, and heads appeared around corners.

“Quick,” I begged. “Jerk the wires.”

Two or three people came down front walks. A voice shouted something from an upstairs window.

“I don’t know which wires,” said Jim excitedly.

“Any wires,” I urged him.

Jim gave a wrench. The car headlights went out. But the din continued. The horn vibrated so that it felt like a massage you were having.

“Wrong wires,” said Jim. “Now I can’t see.”

“Let’s get the heck out of here,” I cried. “Drive for Eglinton as fast as we can. We can’t keep up this disturbance here.”

We vaulted into the car. Jim stepped on it and away we lurched. Without headlights.

“As long as we get out of this quiet neighborhood,” Jim said, anxiously, leaning forward on the wheel.

But over a little rise in the pavement, we saw ahead the bright ruby lights and criss-cross barricades of some roadwork.

“Road closed,” shouted Jim.

With great presence of mind, he swerved into the side drive of a particularly handsome mansion, the horn boring a hole right through the air towards the big house. And instantly doors leaped open and young people came rushing out.

Jim backed. He swung the car south. Down the street, with no lights but plenty of music, we started. People were grouped along the sidewalk and in doorways and on lawns. They waved and signalled angrily at us as we sailed past.

“Oh, oh, oh,” said Jim.

“Is It a Wedding?”

“The battery will soon die,” I shouted.

“It’s a brand new battery,” wailed Jim. “I bet it can keep this up for hours.”

I felt him kick the car under the dashboard, so I started giving various kicks at the old fool car, too. I tried pounding the steering column, the wheel, the floorboards.

To no avail. The horn, which had a frog in its throat when it started, now was thoroughly warmed up and its magnificent tenor cut through the night like a searchlight of sound.

As we went lower down the street, some people started running to keep abreast of us.

And just as we got within sight of the first cross street, a large limousine backed out of a side drive and parked itself fair across the narrow pavement.

“For heaven’s sake,” moaned Jim.

But we had to stop.

And out of the car that barred our path leaped a middle-aged gentleman with a haughty accent, and clad in a costly dressing gown.

“What the devil,” he shouted in the window, above the roar, “do you mean!”

“If you get out of the way,” shouted Jim fiercely, “we can get out of your sepulchral neighborhood.”

“You’ll wait for the police,” retorted the gent, violently. “I’ve sent for them.”

By this time, numbers of other important people were arriving, breathless.

“Is it a wedding?” squealed a girl excitedly.

“What frat?” demanded a handsome young man.

“Oh, how exciting,” cried an elderly lady, very flushed from running.

But standing right at the window, the gentleman in the dressing gown gritted his teeth, rolled his eyes in despair, and Jim’s horn, with never a quiver nor a shake, continued the incredible racket.

By now, the glare of several cars before and behind lighted the spectacle like a stage.

“It’s stuck,” Jim shouted to the crowd, but more for the benefit of the gentleman with the passion. “I can’t stop it.”

“What are you howling about without lights for?” roared the gent.

“Tried to pull the wires and got the wrong ones,” roared Jim back.

By now there were fifty people, all very respectable, including five maids in uniform. And they crowded right on top of us, as if the better they heard the horn the more they liked it. Dogs barked. Voices shouted explanations in the throng.

But no police came and the horns went on, and the gent at the window continued to grit his teeth, roll his eyes and pound his palm with his fist.

“Out the other door,” growled Jim. “Follow me.”

I slid out, and Jim after me. We pushed through the crowd.

“Now,” said Jim, in a low voice.

And we started to run.

We ran down to St. Clair, the horn fading as we ran. We ran west on St. Clair to Vaughan Rd., the faint horn still ringing. And there we sidled into a drug store where we sat down at the soda counter and had a drink.

“What do you intend to do?” I asked.

“Wait till we can’t hear it,” said Jim hollowly, “and then go back and get it.”

“But the police or somebody might go off with your car.”

“Do I care?” asked Jim darkly.

“Exciting, though, wasn’t it?” I encouraged.

“What I might have done,” said Jim, “was lift the hood and kick the horn loos from its moorings. I might have done that.

“Disconcerting, wasn’t it?” I assured him.

“After a while, we’ll go out and listen. And if we don’t hear it, we can go back,” decreed Jim.

So after another couple of sodas, we went out and stood listening. Above the honk and arp and hoo-hoo of the passing traffic we could hear no high, thin song.

Along St. Clair we sortied, reconnoitering with our ears.

No sound.

“Maybe the cops have got it,” I said, “and kicked it to bits.”

Up the quiet and stately street we crawled. As if nothing in all its history had ever disturbed its peace.

Far up, we saw Jim’s car. Just as we left it, slightly askew to the curb.

Without speech, we approached it. Examined it from a discreet distance and examined, too, all the windows and doors in the vicinity.

A small white card was stuck in the window of the car. Jim stepped over and examined it, under the street light.

“I kicked the horn loose,” it said, in pencil. “If you care to call, I shall discuss it with you.”

“Apparently,” said Jim, “the gent in dressing gown.”

So we just got in and quietly drove without lights, down to St. Clair and had everything fixed at a garage.

Being one hour and ten minutes late at our rich friend’s, and he had found the gun anyway. It was in the nursery.

Editor’s Notes:

  1. Jim is remarking on the lack of construction due to the Great Depression. ↩︎