My first favorite song as a grade-school kid, “Surf City,” opened with the line, “Two girls for every boy!” After that heady declaration, the vocalists, Jan and Dean, crooned on about their cool ’34 wagon: “We call it a Woody … Surf City, here we come!” The surfer tune celebrated sun, fun, flirting and roaring engines powering along an ocean harbor, its piers and the beach.
But my next favorite song became the one that has remained number one for me throughout my life. In “The Sounds of Silence,” Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang, “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.”
On the roof of our Berwyn bungalow at night, above the halos of our alley lamps, I’d sit as a kid in this quietest of spaces, gazing at the grey, black or dark blue sky, watching clouds drift, observing the moonlight’s occasional penetration of them, sensing that in this silence there moved a voice that could only be heard up here.
During the cacophony of the day, my friends would have teased, boasted or argued about who was the toughest kid, or which car was the hottest. Dutiful nuns, priests and parents would have told me what to do, what not to do, and what to think. Frenzied commercials on the TV would have peddled stuff I was supposed to want.
But on the roof at night, it would be just me, the stars, and the quiet.
During a performance in 1966 in Harlem, just before they sang the acoustic version of “The Sounds of Silence,” Garfunkel spoke to the audience, boiling down the song’s meaning to “the inability of people to communicate with each other … so that what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”
For me, silence can cut different ways: There is the silence embedded within the noise of bustling life, in which the things people really feel and believe don’t get said or heard; and there is the silence on the roof, or in a walk at night, that allows truths in the self, or inspirational qualities of the setting, to be revealed without the clamor of the bustling day interfering.
Throughout my life, I’ve valued the latter kind of silence. Before moving back to Oak Park from the city in 2020, I’d walk at night from my South Loop apartment to the lakefront, on the way passing bridges, train yards, Soldier Field and Burnham Harbor. The silence mingled with the colors, the shadows and stunning architecture to reveal a beauty discernable only in the stillness.
But Paul Simon’s song is more about people talking at, rather than speaking with, one another. It’s about people “hearing without listening.” It refers to the silence that follows when someone writes a song that no one ever sings, or a poem that no one ever reads. It’s about not knowing who the other really is because one has not cared to listen. How can I love the other when I don’t know who he or she really is?
As I walk about in Oak Park, along Lake Street, up and down Oak Park Avenue, or back and forth across Roosevelt and the border with Berwyn, I see people waiting to cross, some coming out of shops, others ambling along in pairs, some talking, some not. I say “hi” to a few with whom there is eye contact, nod to others, and some I just walk past. I note the graffiti and public art along the el tracks, where “the words of the prophets are written,” as Paul Simon wrote.
These are scenes filled with sound: traffic moving, a plane flying overhead, possibly an emergency vehicle’s siren, a dog barking, and human voices. Often when I share a sidewalk with a passing stranger, I wonder who she or he really is. To whom is she really known? With our minds structured by the frames and categories that we use to understand others before we know them, to what extent are we able to love each other?
In the commotion of daily life, how do we find the time to listen?
Rich Kordesh grew up in Berwyn and now lives in Oak Park.