If you find eavesdropping a delicious pastime, become an audio engineer.
The best gigs make you feel like an intrepid anthropologist. With a serious grimace, you can jot down field notes from the comfort of your headphones in the corner. Take up jobs that make the body contract from the experience of that sweet spot between intimately appalling and distantly strange. Like an evangelical Christian conference. If the Holy Spirit moves those around you a little too close for comfort, the speakers will hum around you just enough to make you tingle like ASMR. Let the cringe fade into oblivion.
When you walk in for your first shift, a bearded man of sunburnt peach will push you off the deep end. Crisis with the sound check; couldn’t hear the guitar this morning. You will hardly have any time to peruse the stained glass bearded redhead cradling a lamb. It's fine. The better stories are between the pews. Shelve your teenage traumas from that Youth for Christ group. Money is money.
You search desperately for some fabric or soft material along the building’s hardy foundations. Absolutely none—you’re working with concrete, wood, and glass. Fiddle with the mixer dials, and make believe that you can master this church's echoing walls. Shift between Fader A and C to pretend you're Avicii. Levels move up and down beneath your fingertips; they crest and trough like Lake Ontario waves in the Anthropocene.
The musicians climb the stage. A pixie-haired woman sits at the piano, curls her fingers, and nearly French kisses the microphone. You manage to capture an ephemeral god fucking damn it in your headphones before she straightens her back, realizing that you heard her. She glances up at your perch at the back of the church, mouth half-ajar. Mic check, one two. Increase gain.
Someone approaches you, scans up and down, and begins—perhaps!—her proselytizing: The...SOUND is...too...HIGH on the...PIANO. Slow and steady, to graciously accommodate for your abundant caramel skin. You momentarily press your tongue flat against the roof of your mouth. Relax. Respond in your best phone voice.
Every attendee conducts their own sound checks of each other, so your work is dead easy. Just watch chattering white people cluster like soap suds around yellow, black, and brown: “That’s a lovely accent you have. I once traveled to Asia. Over there, my Midwestern accent was about as foreign as possible to them. See? We’re not different at all!”
A switch of patch cables and the guitar comes to life. The pixie-haired pianist calls everyone to stand for worship. You hear the creative inversions of E major open chords. A major seventh on the eighth fret thrown in for a little crunch. You instinctively feel your left hand predict each shape that the guitarist makes. Your right hand slaps it away.
A white hipster with the beard of Friedrich Engels steps to the podium. You stand rigid, afraid that the echo will make people relent. By default, the podium mic connects to the hanging speakers high above the church pews. Without drapes or other softening material, audiences could only hear the speaker after their voice had bounced around the church’s robust pillars and stained glass. Sure enough, an organizer approaches you, asking to adjust the sharp echo as best as you can. Turn the High Pass Filter dial clockwise.
Later that evening, a Nigerian speaker seizes the microphone and stretches the other arm to the crowd. Abioye, born into royalty. You wonder how much he plays this up for the conference participants, still exhausted from their after-dinner sojourn to the church, packed across the pews like a chalet post-avalanche. Certainly, the bright lavender dashiki helps.
“Our sovereign God wants all creatures to hear His Word!” proclaims Abioye, born into royalty. “Our commission is to make all people fall for Him, brothers and sisters. But don’t just take my word for it; I’m just a crazy African preacher!” A rumbling wave of snickers.
A man rushes upstairs and shuffles over inches from your left shoulder. Not an organizer, perhaps an attendee.
“His voice is too bold,” the man declares. You suggest the echoing walls might be a cause. “No one can understand what the speaker is saying,” he refutes, in the middle of uproarious laughter over another one of Abioye’s self-deprecating jokes. He lurks along the balcony and stares at you. Out of apparent goodwill, to make sure the conference runs smoothly, he demands your number.
Day two’s series of small talks presents a new set of challenges. The Punjabi testimony is “too shrill,” a woman will say to you. The Korean speaker? “Too cold. Make her voice warmer.” Pretend to adjust the mixer until they are satisfied with your clever placebo.
That second night, the feature speaker will be a Filipina woman who finds you a kindred spirit. Tita Melinda, you call her, at her behest. She wants to roam among Christ’s flock when she speaks. Code speak for “hook me up with a lapel microphone.” You sigh with relief; lav mics use the same speakers as the musicians do.
When Tita Melinda takes to the stage, tune into her story of spiritual servitude.
“When I was young,” she begins, “my family adopted an orphan girl who showed up at our door. She served us without end and we always treated her with compassion. When our neighbors needed help, we loaned her to them, and she served them like she served us.
“The servitude that that girl gave my family is what God wants of us.”
Your head begins to haze with the Tagalog word alipin: family slave. Faces of your extended family members, who worked for compassion without pay, cross your mind’s eye. You remember the cloudy outrage at that Atlantic piece. If you listen closely, you might hear the late Alex Tizon’s ghost murmuring in the background. A sharp pain in your hands. You find tender red crescents on your palms, inflicted by your fingernails. Grasp at your pen and scribble it down before it’s too late.
“We are mere servants,” Tita Melinda concludes, using her alipin as an example. A white woman with scene kid hair, standing at the pews to your left, will raise her right hand to agree. The arm begins at ninety degrees, tilting dangerously close to forty-five.
On the third day, once you've mastered the Nigerian pastor's mic levels for the listening pleasure of the Canadian avalanche below, you might catch a break and compile your thoughts for that Joyland short story you always wanted to write. You break open your field notes, finding a compilation of sounds and scraps you caught over the past few days. Some dialogue here, a smidge of character development there, and perhaps a splash of research, too. Perched atop the back of this church for a weekend, you begin to feel proud of the material you have gathered.
Open your phone's writing app, and let your thumbs bee-dance a story upon the blank screen. As the sermon drones on downstairs, the Notes app begins to coalesce into your tiny masterpiece.
Your body jolts alert. That peach-skinned man from the first day taps you on the shoulder, and you turn to face him. You're not sure if he's talking about the pastor's microphone, or peering over at your budding story.