The city sleeps alone tonight

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Originally posted on Hi

I sometimes tell people that I like going to work early in the morning, or working in the office when everybody else is on holiday (a sentiment shared by nobody in the retail sector). At either time, when there are barely any cars on the road or people on the street, I like to entertain the selfish notion that the entire city was built just for me.

Like today: with Christmas just 2 days away, I’m looking around the office and count only 4 people. Workplaces throughout the city have effectively shut down, and almost everyone I know has been encouraged to take the 2 weeks over Christmas and New Year’s off. Even the new girl who sits at the desk beside mine and started just weeks ago (and so has accumulated virtually no leave) is on holiday.

Yet here I am, having discarded all suggestions to go on holiday, surrounded by a near-silence, broken only by the clicking of keyboards and the movers as they shift equipment from desk-to-desk (which, for a noisy task, generates less noise than what is normal for us here), because I think the Christmas / New Year’s break is a wonderful time to get some work done.

There’s something about having less people around that makes things feel peaceful, almost serene. The closest I ever get to that feeling without really being alone is when I go skiing - standing atop the slope of a snow-covered mountain, looking down at the course or land below and feeling like a pioneer discovering new land.

I don’t dislike the company of others, but there’s a point where it feels like too much. I still don’t know what that point is, but I often find that when I can’t hear my own voice, then it’s passed that point already. It’s too easy to get lost in a crowd, and the more people there are at some party or event that are speaking-up, the less I feel the need to speak at all. I mean, if I can’t hear my own voice, what are the chances that anybody else can hear it?

Sometimes I think my own hearing is just crap, but then I see the one-way conversations taking place at such parties, where one person in a small circle of people says something, and it’s obvious that nobody has heard what they said; everyone who isn’t talking just smiles and nods to convey their approval, but not their understanding.

So, on the morning of the first release I was ever involved with at Xero, which required I wake-up at 4am on a Monday morning to make it in time to join everybody else, I thought that I’d get to experience more of that serene peace-and-quiet during the walk to work.

Instead, I learned that the city is far from quiet.

Without the usual city noises to compete against, every noise can be heard from several blocks away: freight trucks or courier vans coming off the motorway can be heard long before you can spot their lights, and sounds of street sweepers and garbage trucks pervade the morning air with their constant brushing and constant stopping. Even the park in this photo had a sprinkler system running that I didn’t even know it had - I heard the sprinklers long before I could see them.

Everywhere along my path there was the sound of some vehicle or machinery that I couldn’t see, and it was like my senses were giving me conflicting information that my brain failed to match.

The closest I could equate the feeling to is when it’s a quiet night, and you’re trying to go to sleep, but you’ve been trying to sleep for what feels like hours. You’re finally used to the silence, but that just gives your senses other things to focus on, so you start hearing the sound of your own heartbeat, or feeling your own pulse as it makes its way through your head, causing it to lift ever so slightly from the pillow and back down again - your own insides constantly working to keep you alive.

And that’s what I think I experienced on that early Monday morning as I walked through the city: without any of the usual noise to distract me, I got to listen to the city’s heartbeat - the freight trucks acting like red blood cells, taking resources to where they were needed; the street sweepers acting like an immune system, cleaning the concrete surfaces, keeping the city free from infection; the garbage trucks, taking the waste away to places they could be processed - even as it slept.