SYDNEY, Australia — At night, the crickets make my street sound like the wilderness. In the morning, I hear the birds chirping at top volume from sun up until deep into what used to be rush hour.
But in late afternoon, the sounds of nature in a city where eight million people are working from home, or not working at all, give way to something else: a burst of welcome human noise.
In neighborhoods once defined by cars and busy schedules, kids rush out of front doors and garages, roaming free on bikes, scooters and skateboards, screaming down empty streets. Literally screaming, as if they just escaped from prison.
“Three, two, one, go!” I heard a young neighbor yell the other day, goading a sibling to speed over a tree limb they’d dragged into the street, leading to a crunch of bike tires on branches followed by shouts of “Whoooaaaa!”
Five weeks into Australia’s coronavirus isolation, children are the opening beat for an afternoon soundtrack that also includes barking dogs, shouting parents and buff 20-somethings jogging while talking about lust and love at volumes that belong onstage.
The time may shift — sometimes the noise rises at 3 p.m., sometimes later — but the swell of sound signals the start of Magic Hour, that ad hoc interlude when our very human need to move and chatter, even at a distance, breaks through the routine of quiet isolation.
And let’s be clear: It is heavenly. Actual voices! Kids! Couples! Arguments! What I hear outside my home office window, or passing by when I run, is the elevator music I never used to notice, and now eagerly anticipate for connection and to mark the passage of time.
“The more formal arrangements, from sports to events, are off the table, and even the informal interactions in shops and bars — that’s gone too,” said David Rowe, a sociologist at Western Sydney University. “People are finding that they need to interact with someone even if it’s just someone walking around a green space with you. You just want some kind of shared purpose.”
In Sydney, the search for a “shared purpose” seems to be especially pronounced. Stay-at-home orders have coincided with a warm autumn that followed a wildfire-ruined summer, upping the stir-crazy quotient to a point where nothing may be more contentious in Australia’s coronavirus era than the use of the outdoors.
In late March, as counts of infection started to double every few days, the crowds pouring onto Bondi Beach became a tipping point that led to a tougher lockdown of all but the most essential services.
Government officials put up fences around the most popular beaches and asked everyone to bunker in, but as the days rolled into each other like an ambient playlist on repeat, the urge to abscond from home detention for a bit of sun and air intensified.
Since exercise was one of the few activities still allowed, the parks and coastal walks around Sydney started to fill up as never before.
Mr. Rowe, the sociologist, said that around his home, walking paths that used to have only a few people before the pandemic have practically been overrun. He admits he is one of the Magic Hour’s new participants. Since the pandemic hit, he has been sharing those paths with his neighbors almost every afternoon.
“There is certainly a bit of ‘contagion effect’ there,” he said. “That’s probably not the right language to use here, but some people, especially the rule followers, need to be licensed to go out, and seeing others gives them that permission.”
Although armed with the power to issue heavy fines, the police have frequently been flummoxed about how to respond to the Magic Hour.
Many Sydneysiders, as those in Australia’s largest city are known, were outraged when officers moved people along for drinking coffee or breastfeeding outside. And for some, the restrictions have been too much.
At 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 19, the police arrested Dimitri Moskovich, 54, a musclebound regular at Bondi Beach, after he walked out onto the rocks near Bondi’s northern end. He argued he wasn’t violating the beach closure because he wasn’t on the sand; his trip to the police station suggested the authorities disagreed.
For the most part, though, the city’s denizens have been well behaved. Physical distancing in my neighborhood has led to Friday afternoon drinks shared across an open road. In other areas, D.J.s have set up outside and played Sunday afternoon sets loud enough for people to dance at home.
Parents, while gnashing their teeth trying to balance work and home schooling, have also remarked at the small joys that come with no commuting and a chance to knock off early.
It’s a simpler life for those still working or benefiting from Australia’s generous wage protection program — a life more like the 1970s, when there was less international travel, fewer fancy restaurant dinners, shorter work days and less structure to childhood activities.
The less regimented approach to family life is especially visible wherever large expanses of pavement can be found.
In Clovelly and Maroubra, two coastal neighborhoods where beaches are off limits for all but early morning exercise, large parking lots that used to be filled with cars have become playgrounds filled with dozens of children on wheels of their own.
Brendan Cook, an animator who lives near the Clovelly lot, said seeing the space “transformed into a junior bike track has been a rare upside.”
“Some afternoons the place is filled with kids all charting their own paths of carefree randomness,” he added.
The question of what does come next is one the city may be facing more quickly than expected. After a rapid government response, Australia has suppressed the virus. Testing is widespread, community transmission is low, and new cases emerge by the handful not the hundred.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that starting this month, children in Sydney will be returning to school one day a week, rotating groups of students to minimize the risk of spreading the disease.
For now, though, our cooped-up lives continue to produce an afternoon collage of sound that is a reminder of what we’re missing and used to ignore. Outside my window, I hear puppies, I hear toddlers, I hear laughter, and I hear friends.
“Gotta get out in the day,” one woman said last week after running into a neighbor at a sunny 4:17 p.m. “We can’t touch but we can talk.”