Echo Chambers

In the early 1980’s, I lived near the corner of 22nd and Guerrero in one of the many Mission district railroad flats that made it a low rent mecca in San Francisco.

Stacked three or four floors high with adjoining exterior walls and a common interior window well, these survivors of the ‘06 earthquake usually contained more tenants than there was space to accommodate. Households were amorphous; roommates were ambiguous; relationships were anonymous. AIDS hadn’t quite happened yet. Public sex in broad daylight was commonplace. It was a city in the midst of unrelenting orgasm.

In a packed urban setting, the sound of someone having sex was to be expected. Few probably noticed when it began in early Spring as windows were opened to the air. But soon it took on a predictable frequency, theatrical volume, and unendurable duration that bonded all within earshot as a tense cluster of ensnared voyeurs.

Low moans generated at the ground floor, amplified up the inner shaft, and cascaded in a wailing resolution at the roof. Similar to the soundtrack in a cheap porn movie, this was repeated as an endless loop and was void of conversation .

For those inclined to speculate, plausible scenarios were many. It could have been a solo performance art piece intended to provocate. The apartment could actually have been a makeshift porn production studio. The tenant might have been a fetish specialist with a demure and compulsive clientele. Whatever the reason, the performances took place on the same schedule every week making it at least possible to know when to be gone.

On a hot day in September, the unendurable duration grew to a point that made it hard to believe anyone could produce such deep heaving sighs and not die of an embolism. One tortured soul among us had had enough. From the third floor, in a pleading but audible voice, he said, “Please cum!” Then louder. “Please cum!!” We joined him and became a chorus of supplicant Archangels defeating the din of unquenchable lust. “Please cum!!”, “Please CUM!!”, “PLEASE CUM!!!” The silence that followed was golden.

Soon after our victory, a swarm of muscle men moved the exhibitionist to the top floor of a Victorian across the street. The apartment had a huge bay window facing 22nd. Performances switched from sound to sight. Usually just a dark haired young women standing naked in the window, like a scene in Red Light Amsterdam. Sometimes she had an androgynous partner with his/her back to the window. But a crowd never gathered to gawk from the street. Tiresome sights can be easy to ignore. Sounds, though, are penetrating. Even to the deaf.