City Paper is not for tourists
The beeps came in intervals of about 64 seconds. They had the particularly annoying acoustic property of being tonally rich yet exceedingly shrill.
W. Carter Byrnes had been hearing them since August 2004.
Byrnes, a commercial-real-estate broker, was never sure where they originated. They seemed, in fact, to be everywhere at once in his five-story Falls Church town house: When he was eating breakfast on the second floor, they were downstairs in the TV room, and when he was downstairs watching TV, they were on the second floor, in the dining room.
“You couldn’t tell where it was coming from,” said the 28-year-old Byrnes. “You’d go to one place and say, ‘It’s coming from across the room.’ Then you’d go over there and the sound would come from where you were just standing.”
When the beeps first began, Byrnes stood under every smoke detector in the house to listen for the telltale screech of a dying battery. He also gathered a group of friends and positioned them in various strategic spots, hoping to triangulate the beeping. But everybody pointed in a different direction. His experimental side exhausted, Byrnes finally decided to try to ignore the new soundtrack to his life.
“It’s really a testament to my apathy,” he says.
When the power went off on his block in February and the neighborhood sat in silence, Byrnes was at home, blanketed with beeping.
Byrnes’ beep-enriched existence might have continued ad infinitum if not for his impending wedding to Lindsay Moss. His betrothed was not a fan of the beeping. Moss issued a directive: Fix the beep by June 17, her prospective move-in date. “I told him I wasn’t going to move in if it was still beeping, but the reality is that I would have anyway,” she says. “I was going to be on his ass every day until he figured it out.”
On May 9, Byrnes, like many in desperation’s hard grip, took his problem to the Internet. Specifically, to the local TiVo Community Forum. (Byrnes owns a TiVo box.) “Something is beeping in my house and I cant find it for the life of me,” he wrote. “I figured I would let whatever battery it is running on to just run out….well it has been beeping for about a year now…who do I call to help me with this?” He concluded his cry for help with a blue frowny-face icon.
Members of the TiVo forum know their Web site by the proud acronym SOAK, or “Source of All Knowledge.” The notion of a mysteriously beeping house set off a frenzy among the self-confessed geeks.
The board racked up nearly 2,000 responses over 20 days from people who thought they had the answer. Some blamed everyday household conveniences: rechargeable phones, misbehaving HVAC systems, backup generators for sump pumps. Those prone to heavier beard-stroking posited an unfed Tamagotchi, a neighbor with a walkie-talkie cell phone, and a fireman’s jacket—don’t those beep after a period of stasis? “Maybe,” suggested one prognosticator from Davis, Calif., “[Byrnes] himself is the thing that’s beeping.”
On May 20, the forum thread was the first on a Google search for “beeping house.” Around that time, a would-be beep hunter who went by “dslunceford” asked Byrnes for the opportunity to visit his house. Byrnes consented.
On May 24, Byrnes and the Web dick spent 45 minutes pacing around the town house, eliminating things that weren’t beeping. But the search was a bust. In his subsequent online report, dslunceford complained that Byrnes had done a poor job of reporting potential suspects. “[T]here are so many possible culprits besides what we’ve been told about. There’s a Roomba [automatic vacuum], wireless for rear surrounds, wifi, powerbook, guitar amp, etc.” His money, he wrote, was on multiple beep-emitting devices nesting all over the house, which would explain the sound’s seeming ubiquity.
Byrnes had his own comment: “So the beep remains and I’m not a moron,” he wrote. “I think at this point I’d rather have it the other way around.”
The TiVo crowd began to spin conspiracy theories. Sleuths posited that Byrnes had a hidden room with a fading smoke alarm, and urged him to consult his house’s blueprints. A forum poster charged Byrnes with involvement in some elaborate Punk’d-style prank. To which Byrnes, at his keyboard, responded: “[I]f Ashton pops out of my closet, I am punching him in his *beep*-ing face.”
“Stop the Beep” ribbons were sold online for $6.99.
The beep was all-consuming. “I needed to know where this beep was coming from,” says Matt Green, explaining his fixation, via e-mail. Green, a 37-year-old software developer from Somerville, Mass., checked the thread at least once an hour and kept his wife updated on developments.
“I really wanted to understand this guy,” Green says. “He likes to think he is technically savvy and quite intelligent (he said as much in the thread), but it became more and more obvious as things progressed that he had no idea how to approach the problem….It was all I could do to resist directly calling him an idiot, but that’s what I thought of him.”
Byrnes was not unaware of the criticism of his beep-detecting skills. He consulted an electrician and his security-system company, to no avail. With the June 17 deadline looming, he hastily organized another hunt, scheduled for May 28. “[W]ithhold judgment until [then],” he pleaded online. “Then see how hard it is to find it. Everyone seems to think it’s an easy fix. Well come on out and prove it.”
“It’s definitely weird,” says Byrnes of his decision to open his house to a coterie of unfamiliar faces. “I had no where else to turn. I figured it was worth a shot.”
This time, more than a half-dozen intrepid dorks R.S.V.P.’d, despite the Memorial Day weekend. One beep buster who lived six hours away in northeast Ohio even went to RadioShack to buy a decibel meter. “I just spent $50 on a sound level meter to FIND A BEEP IN A STRANGE GUY’S HOUSE,” bubbled the man, whose forum alias, “Inundated,” apparently didn’t refer to his day planner. “I’m getting psyched…[I]t’s almost like the pre-pre-game for the Super Bowl.”
When dawn broke on May 28, eyes from around the world fixated on computer screens, ticking down the seconds until the hunt’s kickoff. The commentary started early. At 11:55 a.m., failed beep seeker dslunceford posted, “OK, back at [the] beach today (with a frosty brew just cracked and a line in the water) and yet I keep thinking of the beep. A small part of me hopes the larger group can’t find [it] so’s I don’t look like a maroon.”
Around 12:30 p.m., the hunters knocked on the door of Byrnes’ town house. “‘The Internet is here,”’ Byrnes remembers saying. “‘Let’s go to the door and let the Internet in.’”
At 12:54 p.m., somebody uploaded a picture of a wristwatch inside a computer case. It was quickly determined to be a prank.
At 1:04 p.m., Inundated posted, “Here we are, at Beep Central. We’ve put up blankets to deaden sound. We have two ladders. It sounds like it could be coming from behind the TV. Or from upstairs. More later…beep.”
At 1:10 p.m., another detective, “whoknows55,” showed up. “Ok I’m here now,” he wrote. “I’m really worried about the ability of these beep finders. They’re drinking allready.”
At 1:17 p.m. Inundated posted, “THE BEEP IS DEAD!!!”
The beep, as “JustAllie” from Arlington discovered, was coming from inside a metallic end table in the living room. Lurking in a drawer under a bunch of CDs and a DVD of Swingers was a triangular carbon-monoxide detector, slowly draining three AA Duracell batteries.
The detector had belonged to one of Byrnes’ old roommates.
Byrnes gave the offending appliance to his chocolate lab, Ty, as a chew toy, “to get my revenge on that beep. He disposed of the beep personally.”
The beep groupies did not react as enthusiastically. Responses in the TiVo forum ranged from “no way” to “OMG….this sucks” to “This is even more lame than when Geraldo opened Al Capone’s vault.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Tom Deja.