Thirty Thousand Streets

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Car Alarms

"There's gonna be a lot of slow singin' and flower bringin', if my burglar alarm starts ringin'"

Oomphed the Notorious Big in 1994 on Warning off Ready to Die. I kind of know how he felt.

After working until late the other night, I arrived home, and after performing my usual nightime rituals fell into my usual restless sleep at around half two, to be awoken at around five by the most insanely irritating car alarm I think I've ever heard, reverberating from the depths of the estate behind my flat. As winter in Enland begins to feel ever more like Spring, I still sleep with my window very slightly open, which might have had something to do with it rousing me, but it was still both extremely loud and unsettling.

There are various sorts or car alarms I commonly hear at night from my digs in South London. Some meep plaintively in the middle distance like folorn metal dinosaurs (and are almost charming for about twenty seconds), while some seem to cycle Jive-Bunny style through a whole collection of sonic effects, like a kind of Stars on 45 mastermix of alarm tones. These last ones at least manage to inject some brief novelty to the programme with their cacophonous battery of electronic beeps and whistles, and listening to them you could at least perhaps pretend you were on the final approach to an orbital rave just off the M25. Not so this one, which was low, deliriously insistent, and oscillated almost imperceptibly. It was menacing for being utterly unremarkable yet extremely loud; and seemed to penetrate my walls as effortlessly as gamma rays.

It also went on for fucking ages, and having made the above comparison with radiation, I began to wonder how long it would take for the sound of the alarm alone to kill me if we were the only things in the universe, and I was otherwise immortal and impervious to the effects of denourishment and old age. Quite a while, I thought, or even worse: never.

Eventually, after what seemed like around fifty years it stopped, though whether this was because the proud owners came out and switched off the wretched thing, or the thieves returned to steal that as well I will never know.

But one thing I do know is that these devices are useless. Some alarms people take heed of—fire alarms in offices for instance—as even though it's most probably a test, it is unanimously observed and in any event gets you away from Microsoft Outlook for twenty minutes. Burglar alarms too make people sit up, especially if it's in your own house, and if I were on a spaceship and the klaxons started blaring (along with the ubiquitous female voice intoning "warning, warning") then I'd really get worried. Or in a lift. Could be a lift.

But car alarms? Who gives a crap. Everyone's instinctive response to a car alarm is to simply think "I really hope someone switches that car alarm off soon" rather than feeling obliged to go and investigate whether a crime is in progress. Firstly because you rather think that anyone with such a ghastly device attached to their car sort of deserves to have it stolen, but mostly secondly, because there is no felony ocurring, and the banshee-like shriek reverberating and clanging off the houses around it is simply broadcasting to the surrounding neighbourhood that a cat just jumped onto a bonnet.

Car alarms evoke a similar philosophical paradox to the old "tree falling with no-one to hear it" paradigm, only this urban koan might be expressed thus:

"If a car alarm goes off and everyone can hear it, but no-one can even be bothered even going to the window to look, is it worth buying the fucking thing in the first place?"

Which it might not be. Getting an alarm strikes me as being a bit (but not a great deal) like getting an extended warranty for the new widescreen TV you're so proud of: probably not much use, but it makes you feel more secure about the entire thing. No, probably the best way to deter car thieves is simply not to leave your gleaming Powerbook on one of the seats, unless of course you're planning an elaborate 'MacIntyre Investigates' type sting, and what's he been up to recently, I ask you (probably exactly this).

Of course some cars do have gleaming security systems that would give the Death Star a run for it's money, with immobilisers and whatnot should you be worried about them actually being driven off by your as-yet unmet foes, though in this case the thieves will probably just cut out the middleman and try getting the keys instead, by hook or by crook – and a Shepherd's crook might just do for fishing them off the hall table.

And I've no doubt that in the annals of history there are a multitude of instances in which the not-so-humble car alarm has proven it's worth ("my car alarm saved me from a fishing accident in Val D'isere etc.") but their dreary lowing in the wee hours is a high price to pay. The geese that saved Rome probably had quite a few false alarms but at least they laid eggs, and proabably regretted it come Christmas.

Ultimately, I think no-one is as thankful for a car alarm as when they finally stop after a an extended session—though be aware, some do have a propensity to return like hiccups you thought you'd beaten—and the sense of relief that immediately descends on a neighbourhood in the aftermath is all but palpable, as a host of bodies wearily roll over and grunt in satisfaction (that might just be post coital though). This is the zenith of the peace of mind that a car alarm affords: the silence sculpted by their own absence, and for that they should be rightfully consigned to some rogues gallery of slightly crap artifacts people use habitually aren't much good (see Washing Up Bowls).

All this said I don't own a car, and were I became a card carrying car owner and buy into all this jive, I might swiftly revise my opinion. If in 10 years time you bump into me on the mean streets of Dulwich with a stroller and a chocolate labrador in tow, I'll maybe also have the Chealsea tractor parked back at the ranch fortified with a sonic defense system capable of melting ears. This is conditional on both London still being above water by then and me ever earning some money however, so I wouldn't count on it.


Peter Gasston said...

Couldn't find it online, but there was an episode of Michael Moore's TV Nation where he set up 50 cars outside the home of the leading manufacturer of car alarms in America, and set them all off at 6am.

Zeno Cosini said...

My car is protected by a jewel-encrusted, steam-driven bronze Aztec crocodile.

gridrunner said...

Nice use of M—Dashes there. If only the quotation marks around your Biggie quote had also been curly...

“Man I’m such a geek. Oh, did I say that out loud?”

And yes, I’m glad you mentioned it: The worst thing about car alarms for me is definitely when they stop for 60 seconds and then start up again. You’re just basking in the relief. You’ve taken the pillow off your head. An expression of calm relaxation has spread across your face. You’re finally going to nod off...


The Eyechild said...

@PG: I assumed you tried Youtube? Might have a scan for that later..

Zeno: Well my car is a jewel-encrusted, steam-driven bronze Aztec crocodile. So there.

Gridrunner: What I was actually attempting to do is pay homage to the naive typograhy of 'golden age' Hip Hop album art. I'm surprised you missed that.

Also, a little known fact is that while rolling with Puff Daddy and Bad Boy, the Notorious was big on M-dashes, and scorned the use of curly quotes, as championed by The Gangstarr Foundation during the period when Jeru was dissing Foxy Brown on record. In fact on the little known white label B-side "Kern to learn" (allegedly a response to the earlier "Cram to Understand" by MC Lyte) Big lets us know exactly where he stands on the whole asci/curly quotes issue:

"Talking 'bout leadin'? Put lead up in ya/Nothin' but emz for me and my click, if ya aint talkin asci then I think ya all dicks"

So there you go. It was all contextual y'see?